Howardena Pindell, Astronomy: Saturn, Neptune, 2006, ink, acrylic, and gouache on paper, 9 1/2 x 11 3/4".

Howardena Pindell, Astronomy: Saturn, Neptune, 2006, ink, acrylic, and gouache on paper, 9 1/2 x 11 3/4".

Howardena Pindell

Howardena Pindell, Astronomy: Saturn, Neptune, 2006, ink, acrylic, and gouache on paper, 9 1/2 x 11 3/4".

Howardena Pindell is an iconic figure: Well known for her sui generis paintings as well as for her feminist classic, the twelve-minute video Free, White, and 21 (1980)—which catalogues systemic racial hatred through the lens of personal experience—she was also a trailblazer, an art-world activist in her role as the first black curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and as the only woman of color in the group of feminists who established Artists in Residence (A.I.R.) Gallery in New York in 1972. This long-overdue retrospective, organized by Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver, celebrated Pindell’s enduring commitment to abstraction and fascination with imaging the cosmos.

In the 1970s, Pindell began sewing together strips of unstretched canvas in her paintings, which incorporated layered graph paper with other material supports. Her structural sutures offer a compelling gridded materiality influenced by Eva Hesse and other sculptors of the ’60s, but translated into painting. Rejecting brushwork alone, Pindell uses the canvas as a space for an intense tactility that is driven by accumulations of piled and heaped substances that engage a craft aesthetic. This exhibition showcased her laborious, process-based paintings in which she built up surfaces using stencils, numbers, spray paint, paper dots, card stock, handmade paper, and collage. Many such works begin with a grid that eventually becomes a palimpsest upon which thin washes of watercolor and gouache are layered, under and over an accrual of punched paper dots gathered from handheld hole-punch machines.

The show opened with an early sequence of works including representations of infinite space, a subject that undergirds Pindell’s entire oeuvre. This sequence began with a series of drawings known as “Space Frame,” 1968–69. Several of these works superimpose flat white ovoids and circles upon colorful oil-stick grids, which accrue depth through layers of orthogonal and diagonal lines. It is not a coincidence that 1969 was the year of Neil Armstrong’s pioneering walk on the moon, which captured the imaginations of many artists, including Nam June Paik, Kiki Kogelnik, and Betye Saar. Yet the space race itself was also a loaded ideal that extended Cold War nationalism and underscored the lack of role models for people of color. Space exploration has historically been an arena of exclusion and remains the domain of white male astronomers, painters, and photographers, occasionally punctuated by a Vija Celmins or a Vera Lutter. (Recall that Saar’s Black Girl’s Window, 1969, also responds to the moon landing, but its subject is an indoor observer, rather than a participant.) Here, underscoring the metaphor of competition, Pindell incorporates her vectors as a diagrammatic overlay onto printed screenshots of competing athletes in a figurative series of video drawings dating from 1973 to 1976.

Throughout her later works, Pindell’s artistic exchange with her feminist peers becomes apparent: Shaped and folded paper collage works from her “Autobiography”series, 1986–89, demonstrate a kinship with Miriam Schapiro’s works, while bold collages on her signature dots that incorporate text and figuration about racism and apartheid recall Nancy Spero’s torture drawings. None of this was apparent in the wall labels, however. Instead, Pindell was treated as a stand-alone maker. The curators purposely chose to make few references to the artist’s activist and social circles. Pindell was afforded the same treatment as any of the usual suspects—the Brice Mardens and Jasper Johnses of the world, whose work would not be expected to represent, speak to, make sense of, or interpret the lived experience of alterity—though the removal of context risked isolating her practice from those of a decidedly feminist group of New York artists. Still, the curators’ decision was well executed; Pindell’s opalescent canvases were installed according to the same expert formalism that influenced their making: as grids, as layered surfaces, as haptic feasts for the eyes.

Jenni Sorkin