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Transcript: Podcast with artist Howardena Pindell

Guest Howardena Pindell. Photo credit: Colin Miller

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

Published
In Podcast Transcripts

“Instead of the history that we were taught, let’s look at the history that was hidden from us.” – Howardena Pindell

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your, host Charlotte Burns, and I’m joined today by the artist Howardena Pindell.

Now, onto the show.

Born in Philadelphia in 1943, Howardena was trained as a painter at Boston University and Yale University. After graduating, she accepted a position at The Museum of Modern Art where she worked for 12 years between 1967 and 1979, then began teaching at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where she is a full professor.

In 1979, Howardena was involved in a near fatal car accident that resulted in temporary amnesia. After this brush with death, Pindell started to do work that was more autobiographical, more personal and political.

In the late 1980s, Howardena began researching the demographics of artists represented in New York museums and commercial galleries. I came across this while researching for the data survey In Other Words has recently produced in collaboration with artnet News, looking at art by African Americans in US museums and the market, which is on our website now.

Let me say welcome very much to the show, Howardena. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

Howardena Pindell: Thank you.

Charlotte Burns: The first major survey of your work, “Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen”, opened earlier this year at the MCA Chicago and is now on show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. How did it feel to see your work on show in such a focused, large survey for the first time in this way?

Howardena Pindell: Well, it was kind of a shock. I always call myself a message in a bottle, not as in alcohol, but a bottle thrown out to sea and then washes up sometime later. It was really interesting to see all of it gathered under one roof.

Charlotte Burns: Did it make you see your own art differently?

Howardena Pindell: It didn’t make me see it differently, it’s just I didn’t realize how large my, you know, large the amount of work. But, it’s 50 years. Yeah, it’s 50 years.

Charlotte Burns: I read somewhere that a third grade teacher is responsible for your career.

Howardena Pindell: Well, I was in the third grade, eight years old and she called my parents and then said: “Your daughter has a gift. Take her to meet artists. Take her to the museum.” And, on top of that, someone had seen a Fayum encaustic portrait on a mummy. And apparently it looked like me, so my parents took me to the museum—

Charlotte Burns: How strange.

Howardena Pindell: And, yeah, it was pretty close.

Charlotte Burns: A mummy looked like you?

Howardena Pindell: A mummy, a Fayum, yeah.

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Howardena Pindell: Anyhow, so I found the collection that attracted the most was Duchamp collection. Why would a child be attracted? I don’t know, the playfulness of some of the work. My favorite piece was The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). And what was interesting, too, is when I did work for the Modern—actually, I started of as an exhibitionist assistant—one of the things I had to do then was to catalog, and I cataloged something. It was like miniatures of his ready-made.

Charlotte Burns: Oh really?

Howardena Pindell: Yeah. So, he followed me into the museum or I followed him. I feel it was something that inspired me. I’ve kind of moved on but I don’t know to where I’ve moved on to.

Charlotte Burns: You just mentioned working at MoMA, and in the demographic studies that you did in the 1980s, you wrote: “I have experienced the art world from the outside as an artist of color and from the inside working at a major New York museum where I was an associate curator. Some members of the curatorial staff virtually closed me out of important professional interactions, many of which took place at private yet professional business social gatherings from which I was often excluded.

“Some of my co-workers were generous and open, but as I rose in the ranks, it became more and more closed. In retrospect, the racism I encountered was very subtle, petty and underhanded. In the beginning I was basically fresh out of school and gung-ho. But over the years, the pressures of subtle and not so subtle unassuming casual racism, and my changing needs made me break away in 1979. I was no longer very polite about what I was encountering and I did not feel that relocating and changing jobs within the profession would make any difference.

“In retrospect, I also felt I was too intimidated by the sheer power behind the people who wished to enforce their beliefs and felt to isolated to pursue other options.” It’s very sad reading that.

Howardena Pindell: One of the issues was that I was part of the group that started a union, and so I was protected as an associate curator. I was also acting director of the department when my chairman would be traveling. But once I would be a full curator, I had no protection. So, that’s one of the reasons why I left.

Charlotte Burns: There was no career path?

Howardena Pindell: There was no career path. And also my chairman or the department head, was very difficult. I just got tired of it, you know, of having a fight on my hands every day.

Charlotte Burns: Did you discuss with your colleagues your feelings of being isolated because of your race?

Howardena Pindell: No, because there was no one else.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, you didn’t feel able to?

Howardena Pindell: I didn’t feel able to. Yeah, there was no one else. I mean, there was Kynaston McShine [who] came later, but he was kind of hostile. He could barely talk to me. So, I didn’t find any solace in his presence at all.

So, virtually the other only people of color that were working there were either in the frame shop, guards or in the kitchen, and me, and Kynaston.

Charlotte Burns: We’ve just done this big survey. What’s quite interesting is that we’re in a moment where there is a sense in the popular perception that the art world is becoming more diverse. It’s more aware of revising the errors and omissions of history—

Howardena Pindell: It’s getting better now.

Charlotte Burns: —and who was left out of the canon. But when you look at the actual data, it’s quite clear that, yes, there has been progress, but it’s very recent and it’s very limited.

Howardena Pindell: Yeah, it’s very slow. But one thing I noticed when I was at school yesterday, there was an Artforum cover which had Kerry James Marshall. Artforum wouldn’t have had that 20 years ago.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Howardena Pindell: Maybe even 10 years ago. And then, when I was sitting in the gallery, I noticed the September issue of Artforum and there was a huge article on Adrian Piper, who had a show at the Modern. And then there were a number of ads, full-page ads, for shows by artists of color.

Charlotte Burns: So, things are changing?

Howardena Pindell: So, I think things are changing, yeah.

Charlotte Burns: Let’s talk a little bit about your demographic research. In the late 1980s—and I want to ask you why you did this—you began researching the demographics of artists represented in New York museums and commercial galleries, and presented your findings in a 1987 paper called Statistics, Testimony and Supporting Documentation. And then you revisited it in a follow-up paper called Commentary and Updated Gallery and Museum Statistics, 1986 to 1997. What was the spur for you to start doing that? Was anybody else talking that way? What make you want to gather data?

Howardena Pindell: I think part of it had to do with the fact that I had a museum background, and I served on NEA committees and New York State Council committees, and I saw how money was distributed to institutions and that places like The Met or alternative spaces were given line item money. They were guaranteed. But if a space was of color, there were all these hoops that they had to jump through in order to apply for funding.                              

Then one of the things that spurred me on, and one the reasons why I actually left the Modern too, there was an exhibition by a white male artist called “Nigger Drawings” at Artists Space.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Howardena Pindell: A woman who did our research, who happened to be black, called them up and said: “Why are you calling the show by this name?” The receptionist said: “Well, the paintings…” they were abstract, not paintings, they were drawings, “are in black charcoal, and black is ‘nigger’.”

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Howardena Pindell: So, that was an “ouch”. So, a group of us got together. I remember David Hammons came to my studio, and we made a banner. It was a multicultural group, both white and black, and when we went to Artists Space, they locked us out. They called the police. Then the second time we went to Artists Space, they let us in, but–

Charlotte Burns: This is in the late 1970s?

Howardena Pindell: This would be ’79.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Howardena Pindell: A supporter of the space, a white woman, I assume artist, said to us: “Who do you think you are, coming down here and telling us what to do? This is a white neighborhood.”

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Howardena Pindell: So, it was like it couldn’t be more obvious. And then it turned out that they did receive expansion art money in order to involve the community, and they used it to bring an artist from Scotland.

Charlotte Burns: And you wrote about this, and you’ve talked about this, something that’s so central to these conversations, which is the idea that protest is censorship.

Howardena Pindell: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: And who has the right to the First Amendment.

Howardena Pindell: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: And who has the right to complain, and who has the right to protest, and the results of that.

Howardena Pindell: It’s interesting because white women at the time were locked out of the system, too.

Charlotte Burns: You co-founded—

Howardena Pindell: Yeah, A.I.R. Gallery.

Charlotte Burns: A.I.R. Gallery, the feminist gallery. You were its only member of color.

Howardena Pindell: I was the only member of color. It’s interesting, there’s one member who for years—I’m sure she still says it—if my name comes up, she always says: “Oh, she doesn’t know she’s black.”

Charlotte Burns: What does that mean?

Howardena Pindell: I guess that she thinks I think I’m white, or… I don’t know. But she’s constantly saying that, and it gets back to me. So, there were some tensions within the group. I think the tension that affected me the most was that I didn’t have a spouse who could pay so that I could paint all the time, and most of the women in the group were married, and so in terms of all the committee work and stuff you needed to do, I had a five-day week job.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Howardena Pindell: I also think that some of them were resentful that because I worked at the Modern, that I didn’t bring the Modern in with me to acquire them.

Charlotte Burns: Right, you didn’t leverage that.

Howardena Pindell: I didn’t leverage that, yeah. I had two resumes, one as an artist and one as a museum person.

Charlotte Burns: So, you had different hats on?

Howardena Pindell: I had different hats, yeah.

Charlotte Burns: Did you ever feel like an artist in the Modern? Did you mix your hats up?

Howardena Pindell: I was careful, in terms of conflict of interest. I was careful. I tried to keep it separate. I know some people within the African American community were angry that I didn’t open the floodgates. There was no way, I had a very difficult director, and in fact she had a problem with women. There was a coffee table book about printmaking, and she did not include one woman in the book. She did actually get called out on it. But I was in an environment where it was mainly white and male.

Charlotte Burns: And ultimately you felt—

Howardena Pindell: Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: Squished out?

Howardena Pindell: I felt uncomfortable after Artists Space because I didn’t see it as a censorship issue. i.e., if the artist is white and male and you said anything, that was censorship. Unlikely, but if the artists were a woman, it was a woman or a person of color, there would be no issue of censorship because you kind of don’t belong there anyway. I don’t know, that kind of spurred me on to teach, teaching studio art.

Charlotte Burns: I want to talk to you a little bit about the demographic research. You decided to start cataloging the demographics and looking at the numbers.

Howardena Pindell: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: Did you find them kind of surprising?

Howardena Pindell: Not really, not really. I used Art in America‘s August issue where the dealers are asked: “Who do you represent?” It wasn’t a question of my guessing.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Howardena Pindell: Or going in and talking to them, and they could say: “I’m showing this person,” but then they don’t list them, because I ran into that myself.

Rosa Esman Gallery was showing my early dot pieces, and she said: “I want an exclusive with you, but I won’t list you with the gallery.” But I left the gallery then.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Howardena Pindell: When she said she wouldn’t list me.

Charlotte Burns: Did she say why she wouldn’t list you?

Howardena Pindell: Well, that was sort of what some of the white dealers were doing. They might have a black artist in the closet, but they wouldn’t list them.

Charlotte Burns: You had some really powerful language in the opening part of the 1987 paper, you say: “I’m not a so-called minority, new, or emerging, or a new audience. These are all terms used to demean, limit, and make us appear to be powerless. We must evolve a new language which empowers us and does not cause us to participate in our own disenfranchisement.”

You also said—and I thought this was really interesting especially given all the interviews we’ve been doing ourselves on the subject of representation and equity—”The art world will state that all white exhibitions year after year, with few and far between occasional tokens, are not a reflection of racism. The lie or denial is cloaked in phrases such as ‘artistic choice’ or ‘artistic quality’ when the pattern reveals a different intent.”

Howardena Pindell: No, quality, I think, is one of the issues. It’s not really about quality, but it’s about who you know, the contacts you have, having an inside track. I really can’t explain it; it’s just the assumption that the white male is the one that you should pay attention to, and not the white female. And you’re not supposed to pay attention to a black male or a black female, or an Asian female or an Asian male, and then Native Americans are like way down at the bottom in terms of status and being shown.

I don’t know what to say. It’s like artists of color get cubby-holed, and I think across the spectrum of black, white, Asian, Native American, there’s some exciting work being done.

How can I explain it? Alexander Gray was showing Jack Whitten for a while. Alexander Gray was willing to take the chance, and Garth Greenan was willing to take the chance with me and with Al Loving. So, there are some people who, in spite of maybe an old trend to keep the status quo, have stepped out ahead to try to open up.

Charlotte Burns: I’m want to ask you… a sort of shift here. You had a car crash in 1979 that left you with short term amnesia, and in many ways your work underwent a radical shift after that.

Howardena Pindell: Yes. Donald Kuspit was driving. He was chairman of the department at the time. I was in the backseat, and I was sitting sideways, otherwise I would’ve broken my hips. And I hit the side of my head here and had a concussion, and so it gave me amnesia and I had trouble, I still do to some extent, with facial recognition problems.

Charlotte Burns: And how does that impact your art?

Howardena Pindell: Well, I think part of it, my art changed. I suddenly started to do autobiographical pieces, and Free, White and 21 occurred in the summer of ’80, and the accident I think was September or October of ’79.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, about eight months.

Howardena Pindell: Yeah. So, I started doing pieces about my feelings. Pieces about my point of view.

Charlotte Burns: Was that cathartic for you?

Howardena Pindell: At the time I think it was, at the time. I mean my work right now is a combination of abstract and also works about specific issues.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, you sort of married the two strands that had existed. There was a sort of pre ’79 and then a post ’79, and now you’re working in sort of both veins. Sort of parallel.

Howardena Pindell: Sort of, sort of. Yeah. There’s a space opening up. It’s called The Shed, in the 30s, and I’m doing some pieces for it.

Charlotte Burns: Oh, great. What are you doing?

Howardena Pindell: Well one piece is about how King Leopold from Belgium went into the Congo and plundered the rubber plantations, and if you did not work for him, they would cut off your hands. So, I have a piece, about nine by nine feet with hands in different thickness of paper, and then I’m going do some 3D prints of hands and I’m casting in silicone hands and I’ll have a bucket of blood, it’ll be stage blood.

And then I’m going to do one piece about lynching. Another piece about… a lot of people don’t know that during the Civil Rights Movement, when the children protested and they put fire hoses on them, the force of the water was so great it tore off their skin.

Charlotte Burns: Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that.

Howardena Pindell: Yeah, we don’t hear anything about it. And another piece, I really have to figure out how. It would have a scrim that’s sort of wavy, and I would have a projection of sharks on it, and apparently during the Middle Passage, some of the slave ship captains would hang overboard either someone enslaved or a member of the crew to warn them not to mutiny and the sharks would eat them from the head up.

Charlotte Burns: My goodness.

Howardena Pindell: I mean, this stuff is just awful. Anyways, so I’m going to have a number of pieces that are either actually physically paintings or media pieces that would be in a darkened room.

Charlotte Burns: And these are very visceral works. They’re very bodily, very dark, the grimmer moments of humanity. Do you want to confront viewers? Do you want to shock them? Do you want to jolt them?

Howardena Pindell: I want them to look at the hidden history. That’s mainly what I’m interested in. Instead of the history that we were taught, let’s look at the history that was hidden from us.

One thing I’m learning now, when I have time, I’m very interested in indigenous Native American, and I’m becoming more aware of the Trail of Tears and, oh my. There’s so much that’s happened that’s so horrendous, and I think that the Native American artists are the last on the list to be shown.

Charlotte Burns: We still have a long, long way to go.

Howardena Pindell: A long, long way to go. Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: And your work, your paintings have at times been figurative, conceptual, abstract, personal, private and you’ve worked across media from photography, film, performance, to chance based experiments such as photographing your drawings juxtaposed over a TV screen. There’s two things that strike me about your work. One is that you’re very fearless when it comes to media. You’ve just said you’re going to be doing 3D printing of hands and silicone molds of hands. You seem to be very bold about jumping across media which is, of course, something a lot of artists do now and we’re familiar with but you’ve been doing that for decades. That kind of interdisciplinary thinking.

But your work also strikes me as often anti-heroic. You cut and re-stitch canvases, you punch paper holes in a manner recalling pointillism, but with a bit more violence. Your paintings are often installed unstretched, you use a wide array of material, and somehow the work often seems to be in a permanent state of being unmade. And there’s something about that that struck me as anti-heroic in a sense.

Howardena Pindell: Hmmm. I don’t know. I’m not understanding what anti-heroic means.

Charlotte Burns: I think I mean, if you think the grand paintings or the grand figures of painting, sort of establishing painting as an absolute, as a sort of object on the wall that’s separate from and removed, distinct. Whereas your works seem to be more intimate, and the respect for the canvas is less obvious. You get involved in the medium. You mess it up; you remake it; you cut it; you stitch it; you involve yourself in it. And I think what I mean is that it’s brought to a more human level; somehow it’s messier and more like us.

Howardena Pindell: I don’t know how to answer you. I don’t know how to answer you, because I engage different media because, for example Free, White and 21, I wouldn’t have done any other way, and I’ve only done one other video. It’s called Doubling, and it’s about war atrocities. My distributors, The Kitchen, I mean they have it in their archive.

But, I don’t know. It’s almost like I see being an artist as almost like being free floating in terms of the trace of media. I don’t feel that I have to be a painter, or I have to do installations, or I have to put things on pictures. I don’t feel any of that at all.

Charlotte Burns: Perhaps that’s the irreverence of Duchamp from the earlier years.

Howardena Pindell: Could be! That’s true. That might be true.

Charlotte Burns: Coming in through the work.

Howardena Pindell: True. That might be true. Yeah. Because I didn’t really see or remember anything he did that was painting except seeing slides, But the actual work I saw at the museum, they were not painting. They were not sculpture in the traditional sense.

Charlotte Burns: Something different.

Howardena Pindell: Yeah, something different. Yeah.

Charlotte Burns: Well, Howardena, thank you so much for being our guest.

Howardena Pindell: You’re very welcome.

Charlotte Burns: I think we have to wrap up because it sounds like the construction behind us is kicking back in again here in Chelsea where there’s ever expanding expansion.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, please go to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and see “Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen”, the terrific survey now on.

Howardena, thanks so much for being my guest.

Howardena Pindell: You’re more than welcome. Thank you.

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