Howardena Pindell: Autobiography @Garth Greenan

JTF (just the facts): Eight mixed-media works on canvas and one framed mixed-media collage on paper hung on the gallery’s white walls. The works on canvas range in size from 70×78 inches to 60×118 inches; the collage measures 13x32x3 inches framed. All the works in the show were made between 1980 and 1987. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: Howardina Pindell has at last been getting her due, with a major survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago traveling to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (2018) and the Rose Art Museum (2019). Arriving on its heels, this focused exhibition of the artist’s 1980s “Autobiography” paintings illuminates a watershed moment in her career.

In 1979, when Pindell was in her mid-30s, a car accident left her with a concussion. At the time, the artist—one of a cohort of black abstract painters working in New York City, among them Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, and Al Loving—was making paintings featuring shimmering layers of spray-painted circles or agglomerations of hole-punched paper confetti glued to canvas. Struggling with memory loss, Pindell decided she would start making autobiographical art.

“[My] injuries fractured my mind and my memory. I felt I had to knit myself back together,” she writes in the brochure for this show. For her, utilizing photographic imagery offered both a way to pin down memories and to symbolically enact the process of healing. (It was not the first time she had incorporated photography into her work—since 1973, she had been making “video drawings” by shooting images, usually of sporting events, off a television screen, which she had first covered with drawings on clear acetate of random numbers and arrows.) In immediate aftermath of the crash, Pindell began to make pieces for which she cut postcards—from a trove collected on her travels—into strips, glued every other strip to paper, and then painted in the missing sections, in order to “unite the fractured images as I was trying to unite and heal my fractured brain.”

Though African American abstractionists were criticized at the time both by other black artists and by white curators for not making work about social and racial issues, Pindell was, like her painter peers, far from apolitical. A co-founder of the feminist art gallery A.I.R., she was also affiliated with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, organized in 1969 to protest black artists’ lack of representation in New York Museums. And following the accident, the separation between her art and her activism began to narrow.

That summer, Pindell produced the scathing video Free, White, and 21, an imagined conversation between her and a white woman—also played by Pindell—based on the artist’s, and her mother’s, own encounters with discrimination. (After she describes an episode when, despite her good grades in high school, she was refused a place in an accelerated class because her teacher felt a white student would go further, the white woman tells her, “You know you really must be paranoid. Those things never happened to me. I don’t know anyone who’s had those things happen to them. But then of course, they are free, white, and 21…”)

Shortly thereafter, Pindell embarked on “Autobiography,” a series of paintings that she worked on for the next fifteen years. The earliest of these works—including the nine on view here—incorporated photographs and postcards that the artist, as she had earlier, sliced up and painted in. Like Free, White, and 21, albeit in more coded form, these paintings are meditations on the wounds inflicted by those in power by those without it, and on Pindell’s own and others’ struggle for dignity and acceptance. But they also reflect the artist’s interest in her own psychological and spiritual growth.

Irregularly shaped, unstretched canvases that the artist has cut apart into big curving slices then sutured back together with tiny stitches, the paintings are covered with Jasper Johns-like hatch marks of paint or encrustations of paper circles. Emerging from these luxuriously textured fields of color, the embedded images—of Buddha statues and rivers, frogs and tall buildings—resemble occlusions in stone, or satellites surrounded by swirls of cosmic dust.

Many of the pieces describe travels: to Japan, where Pindell found solace in Buddhist gardens and shrines; to India, where she encountered a pond whose surface was covered with pink water lilies; and to Africa, where tribal ritual scarification reminded her of the stitched seams in her own canvases. Adrift in the fragmented, possibly multidimensional space of the pieced-together canvases (and of a related photocollage) the disconnected images within seem like mile markers in her rehabilitation.

In the final painting in the show (Suttee, 1988), a silhouette of Pindell’s body flickers within a field of fire-orange hatch marks, collaged images of hands surrounding her figure like uneasy spirits. The work, Pindell writes, is a response to the Indian tradition of having the living wife burned with her dead husband on the funeral pyre, but also to the death of her friend, Ana Mendieta, whom many believe was murdered by her husband, the artist Carl Andre.

From here on out, Pindell’s “Autobiography” paintings would incorporate figurative painting and lettering in addition to photographs, specifically addressing such societal ills as the Gulf Wars, the history of slavery, and the AIDs crisis. At the same time, her video drawings began to feature stills from newscasts, rather than swimming contests and baseball games. Exploring the artist’s place in the world, the works in this exhibition hold the seeds of the more explicitly political art to come.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $80000 to approximately $500000. Pindell’s work has little secondary market history in photography, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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