A Circle Has No End: Howardena Pindell in her first UK solo show

One evening in November, as she prepares for some of the world’s most prestigious art festivals and keeps pace with the incredible demand for her work, Howardena Pindell spends 40 minutes answering 11 in-depth questions about her practice, his career and life. At 78, she has devoted six decades to works for which she has gained international fame and attention, forging a new path as an African-American woman in artistic contexts dominated by white people.

Throughout her career, she has painted on war, apartheid, police violence, the AIDS crisis, slavery and the environment. Pindell’s diverse body of work stems from research (which she loves to do), daring experimentation, and the pursuit of beauty. Her hometown is New York and throughout the interview there are the sounds of the city as an accompaniment. “I apologize for the background noise,” she said. “I’m on the first floor, so a lot of people come by here on Saturday night on their motorcycles and pumped up cars.” It is late and she approaches each of the questions with a spirit of generosity and intellectual elegance.

Pindell’s production can at times be textual, with references to history and politics at large, while others emphasize material, form, color and texture. As a general introduction to the different registers on which his works operate, Pindell makes a distinction between thematic works and those which reflect and express concepts of beauty. “My work speaks to itself. Working with problems can be overwhelming and depressing. The textured and colorful work is a pleasure for the senses, to make and to see. I have two studio spaces – in the home studio I do the texture work as well as the problem work. I like to do research. In the outdoor studio, I do the non-figurative works, the large works. I also have assistants. At 78 or 79, I don’t have the strength of a thirty-something … [I’ve] revisited recently the point of early spraying works on a large scale. There is plenty of room in the [outside] studio. I find the textured works very calming to produce.

It is the stunning abstract paintings that are often the ones that may appear first when researching Pindell’s work. These are also notable in the way Pindell works with the canvas fabric, without attaching it to wooden frames. “I like working on unstretched canvases, I like floating material. It feels big and less bulky without stretchers. My first abstract pieces weren’t all stretched or in some cases they were stretched later. “

These are not only unusual works for what the paint was applied to (the canvas unstretched), but also how Pindell painted with specialized equipment. “I worked with an atomizer, which is hard to explain because it’s art material which I think isn’t sold now. You had a spray can and there was a little prop that you could put on maybe an eight ounce bottle of acrylic with a water voltage breaker and then slowly spray through the patterns I created by taking filing folders and cutting them into strips because in the 70s you couldn’t get a hole puncher that would go all the way if you had a strip that was too big. Then I would glue them together and put a plastic skirt around them so they didn’t create on board. “

Pindell’s conceptual works contrast with his large-scale abstract and textural works. Pindell tackles work Columbus (2020) as an instance of one of the works related to the question. These are mixed media on canvas, made up of text on a black background of traced hands that have been cut out and applied to the canvas with black acrylic paint. It relays the little-known stories of Columbus, whose status as a heroic explorer is just beginning to be questioned in ordinary education.

[TW: The rest of this paragraph and the next refer to deeply disturbing racialised violence.] In it, Pindell unequivocally details the atrocities committed by Columbus and under his command, including “LYNCHING OF FIRST NATIONS / PEOPLE, TAKING OF BODIES / PARTIES AS TROPHIES.” Columbus’ TRAINED DOGS TO EAT HUMAN FLESH / LIVE GRILLED INDIGENOUS PEOPLE. Dismembered infants, FEEDING THEM TO DOGS ‘. The text in Columbus is all capital letters, emblazoned, sometimes curving around the text as if to communicate the excess of violence that it describes, that the format itself must bend and bend to the enormity of what is being described.

Columbus also concerns two other works, the painting Four little girls and the cinema Rope / Fire / Water. In Four little girls, Pindell “memorizes schoolgirls Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson who were murdered in Birmingham [Alabama, USA] in September 1963 by the terrorist bombing of the Baptist Church on 16th Street. It was a gathering place for the 1963 Children’s Crusade, whose demonstrators sought to integrate schools in the United States. Pindell carefully takes this story back to recent times, listing the burning of black churches through 2015. Likewise, she is careful not to historicize the past in the film. Rope / Fire / Water, which chronicles horrific lynchings of blacks in the United States, and draws a line between these and current police brutality and murders.

Speaking with Pindell, a more ingrained sense of regression and progress emerges. She candidly remembers being kicked out by racist restaurant staff during her lunch breaks while she was curator at MoMA. Around the same time, she visited the Hamptons, where people like Jackson Pollock made their home. Here, a gallery owner let visitors eat in front of the building, but didn’t let Pindell, because she’s black – she did so consistently. “The Hamptons are so racist, it’s outrageous… It attracted white performers, who didn’t notice.

Years later, and relatively recently, Pindell returned to the Hamptons to sit on a three-artist panel, along with another African and American and a fairly famous white male artist. Tired of standing and using her cane, Pindell went to get a chair in the lobby where a middle-aged white woman from the staff – who was smiling at the white clientele when she arrived, without asking them to join – asked. if Pindell was a member, then loudly asked Pindell to leave. A senior staff member was nearby and intervened. “The woman tried to get me to sit in her chair and I refused. Elsewhere in the interview, Pindell says, “I would like to forget all these micro-attacks, but they still linger in my memory.”

After starting the interview by talking about the method of making abstract paintings, made up of countless circles, Pindell returns to where she started, with one last memory. “I am fascinated by the circle because of an experience I had as a child. My mom and dad, we went to visit my mom’s mom, my grandmother. My mom was hanging out with her sister and mom. She had moved to southern Ohio, which is racist in its own way. But Kentucky is really racist. My dad and I went to a root beer stand. We were served fresh cups like everyone else, but at the bottom there was a big red circle. And that night I asked my dad what that meant, and he said in isolation, kitchen utensils should be marked that black people use. You can’t share kitchen utensils with white people… I think I’ll end here with this story.

Just before sharing that last memory, Pindell hints at what she’s currently working on and what’s next. Describing how her work moves, she says it “speeds up, then breaks, then backs up, let’s see it again. Right now I’m working on some large spray paints. I don’t have any paint related to an issue in it yet. the hopper, but I have the literature that I need to read. At home, I work on a textured painting that is essentially about beauty. I am very interested in the color of the water, and the Caribbean against the Hudson which is brown, the color of the ocean. ”

She traces this new work back to her own time at sea, when she took a boat back from a trip to Europe as a student. She was returning from a trip when she was forced to sleep on a bed in the dining room of a Swedish hotel by racist staff there, but she had also seen Paris for the first time. “I thought Paris was the most beautiful city I have ever seen.” She got seasick and received an injection to make herself feel better. A storm erupted, and for three days the boat circled, side by side, in all directions. For Pindell, it was close to one of the most traumatic experiences of his life.

Speaking of the motivations for this work, she also evokes “the passage of the middle, people thrown overboard, people who have been enslaved. It would be for insurance. For the worst, see the movie [Fire/Water/Rope in the exhibition]. “Nonetheless, Pindell doesn’t stop there. In addition to the ocean being the site of the terrifying story of slavery, for Pindell there is also the possibility of marveling there.” C ‘ is horrible, “she says of the murders,” but I’m fascinated by the color blue and the color of the water. I particularly like glaciers, when they calve, that is, when they collapse. There is this extraordinary beautiful bright blue that is there. Plankton can be bright in the ocean at night, it lights up. I love this blue color. ”

Howardena Pindell: A new language, Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, until May 2, 2022; artist talk with Howardena Pindell, November 30, 6.30 p.m., online, book via fruitmarket.co.uk

Portrait photo of Howardena Pindell courtesy of Garth Greenan Gallery

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