By CHASE SZAKMARY September, 2020
Howardena Pindell is soft spoken, and for the unacquainted, her subtle tone deceives; she is a radical woman. For 32 years, Pindell has called her apartment in upper Manhattan, both studio and home. It is situated along the river by the Cloisters, and outside her window, traffic flows between New Jersey and Manhattan over the George Washington Bridge. Below, is a little red lighthouse; like a flashing metronome, it keeps time with the beating city.
For 50 years Pindell has been a New Yorker. She has seen the city change, and with it she has changed. She used to live downtown: in Chelsea lofts, in the West Village, Westbath, Soho. Her favorite was a loft on 28th and 7th right across from FIT. “It was like 2300 sq. feet, 13-foot ceilings. It was ideal,” says Pindell with an air of reverence and appreciation for a New York only so many of us will ever know. “That studio was really good. Now I’m in a five and a half room apartment and my ceilings are 10 feet which is sufficient.”
Today, Howardena, as she is affectionally referred to by her students and colleagues, is in her home office, which doubles as an archive. She is arranging papers on her desk, papers destined for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. An air conditioner hums in the background on a hot day; while she organizes the papers, she laments the death of a fifteen-year-old tube television. “I’m heartbroken,” she says. “I love that TV.”
I can’t help but think that the TV she mourns, like most things in her studio/apartment, had a utilitarian purpose, both functional and artistic. In her series of “Video Drawings,” Pindell’s curiosity for artificial light led to drawings on acetate, subsequently placed over TV monitors and then photographed. I wondered to myself just how many artworks this old television produced.
Pindell is universally regarded as an iconoclast of contemporary American Art, and with that, there are many requests for interviews. In the summer of 1980, she suffered a hip injury and concussion from a major car accident in Stony Brook, NY. “The hip straightened out,” she says, “but with a brain injury it gives you all kinds of problems: personality issues, memory issues.” She explains that her memory isn’t what it used to be, so she spends much of her time trying to recollect information for interviews, but at no point during our conversation is there a lapse in memory. Her level of detailed recall is remarkable.
CS: I read that at eight years old you realized you wanted to be an artist?
HP: Yes, through Mrs. Oser, my third-grade teacher. She called my parents in for a meeting and said, “This child is very talented. You need to take her to museums, meet artists, go to galleries.”
They followed her instructions. From that point on, I was sent to Saturday classes for children, in Philadelphia. They sent me to Fleisher Art Memorial; it was free. I was the youngest child in the class, which meant that I dealt with drawing very, very young. And then there were other programs that I went to while I was in public school. There was one which was called The School Art League, and then Tyler University School of Art had Saturday programs for children.
CS: Growing up in Philadelphia. were there any Philadelphian artists that influenced you?
HP: No, it was really the Philadelphia Museum of Art that influenced me because that's where I was introduced to Duchamp. It was weird that an eight-year-old or whatever would be attracted to his work, but I was. They had a very good Duchamp collection.
CS: One of your first jobs out of university was with the Museum of Modern Art. What was that experience like?
HP: Well, I would say it made me aware of the underbelly of the art world. I know that sounds weird. After I graduated. I couldn't find a job anywhere. They were only hiring white men —basically, no women, no people of color, male or female. But because I could get a recommendation from Professor Jules Prown, he was a Copley specialist at Yale, they ultimately hired me. One day, I went to the museum to use the bathroom and I walked by the business entrance, and thought, “Why don’t I go in and check with personnel?” Which I did.
The head of personnel was Asian, and she sent me upstairs to the Department of National and International Circulating Exhibitions. The person who interviewed me first was a man named Victor Smyth. He was an African Panamanian, and he said that a young woman had just quit a job and I might be interested. So, he sent me up to meet the woman, Inez Garson who oversaw that particular area. She said, “If you can wait for a month, I'll let you know because they had to make it a public announcement,” and in a month, she called me and said, “You have the job.” It was there that I met Lucy Lippard. Her show was the first show I worked on. She introduced me to the women's movement. It was like an avalanche of all these things that came as a result of my working there.
CS: It sounds like you were able to find some diversity there?
HP: Well, when I arrived, yes. There was a Native American curator of Architecture and Design. The head of personnel was Asian, and Latino people mainly behind the scenes, like in the kitchen. The head of framing was black. One installer, I remember, Robby, was black. And then later Kynaston McShine joined the museum staff in Painting and Sculpture. He was from the Caribbean. The director of the museum, Rene d'Harnoncourt, he was very liberal and had very good educational programs. They even had hands-on programs for students and children in terms of painting and drawing. He got hit by a car and he died. And they replaced him with a man named Bates Lowry and he wanted to corporatize the museum, so he put a Barbie doll in personnel to run it.
It reminds me a little bit of Trump, you know, put a fake sort of a Barbie doll there. And, they closed the department I was in. The Panamanian person left and became a curator at the Schomburg collection in Harlem. We were sort of either absorbed in the museum or left, and I was absorbed into the department of Drawing Prints and Illustrated Books. I stayed there until I resigned in 1979. I was an associate curator so I kind of climbed in the ranks, and I was also acting director when the department head was gone.
CS: In the 1970’s, you began developing your “Punch Pieces.” You’ve been working with the circle sphere ever since; in what ways does this motif resonate with you?
HP: Well, there's a painting called Scapegoat; in this painting there is a little girl, which is me holding a ball, a sphere. And I find its kind of a prophecy for the future. During segregation, any kind of glassware, silverware plates, whatever — would be marked with a red circle. Maybe some other places used a different color, a different way of doing it, but in the United States, that meant that only people of color would use that particular utensil. My father and I and my mother, went to visit my grandmother in southern Ohio. My mother stayed with my grandmother and her sisters, while my father and I drove into northern Kentucky and went to a rootbeer stand. We got the same size glass, the same chilled glass but at the bottom was this big round red circle. I remember asking my father, “What is this?” and he explained to me that because of segregation, they separate their dishes, cups and stuff. And I was just kind of puzzled and probably afraid.
CS: So, during Jim Crow, in Kentucky, blacks were made to use crockery labeled by a colored circle.
HP: That was the South. Because in Philadelphia, they would let you know, in no uncertain terms, you do not belong here. They just look at you with stares of absolute hate. I picketed a Woolworths in New York on behalf of people who were picketing and sitting in at Woolworths in the South. But it was not de jure segregation, which is by law, but de facto. It was a matter of fact, it was segregated. You knew when you went into a store right away; you knew they didn’t want you there.
CS: One of your seminal pieces, the video, Free, White, and 21, debuted in 1980 as part of the exhibition “Dialectics of Isolation.” What was the reaction then and how is it perceived now?
HP: In ‘79, Free, White and 21, was entered into a competition, and it was rejected because they said the tape was too divisive. I guess they felt threatened by it. I was telling my experiences; I was just telling my experiences. Shortly after I was invited to exhibit at an alternative space in Tribeca called Franklin Furnace. They asked me to show it one evening. It generated a lot of interest. They were even charging people to get in. I said, “Don't charge them, you know. Don't give me my honorarium. Let them in for free.” And it's amazing. Now it has such legs, I can't believe it. It's everywhere.
CS: You have a new show that was slated to open at The Shed this autumn called “Rope/Fire/Water”?
HP: Yes, it was moved from October 2020 to 2021 but now it’s been moved back to the original date, October 16th, 2020. Unfortunately, my doctor said I can’t be there at the opening, but I can be there remotely. I’m so careful. I’ve been outside maybe four or five times over the past five months, just for bloodwork or to the bank.
CS: I’m sorry to hear that. How are you feeling about it?
HP: At 77, I'm worried enough about the virus and I'm disappointed not to be there. I'm also very worried about Zoom because of this lack of privacy. There must be some way they can have me there and people can talk to me if they want.
CS: You shared with me earlier that this is some of the most graphic imagery you’ve worked with. Can you speak to that?
HP: Yes, it is. It all came about from an experience I had as a child in the early 1950s. I went to visit a friend. Her name was Denise Thompson, and her mother was cooking meat for dinner. And they had subscribed to Life magazine. Life magazine would feature different photographs. In it was an image of a black man, who had been lynched, and he was on his back on some sort of wood, almost like a tree, and he was burning from the inside out, and when I saw that and I smelled the meat, I couldn't eat meat for a year. It was just so horrible. The video has that image included, but it starts off with a list of names of the people who were lynched, whose images are in the video, and the images are horrific. After that I show a boat but in shadow. Apparently, the slave ship captains would hang either someone who they had kidnaped or a member of their own crew to scare the crew away from mutiny, and to scare the enslaved from also trying to escape. They would hang an enslaved person, head side down to the water, and the sharks would eat them from the head up. Pretty gross. Now, I'm speaking through this whole video. You know I narrate it.
And then after that there is a man, and we give his name, and he has his back to us, and there are all these welts from being beaten with the whip. And you know, he actually joined the union army to fight against the Confederacy. Later, images are from the Children's March in ‘63, I believe it was Birmingham, Alabama. The police went after the children with fire hoses, and you see the fire department in fire department regalia. It's not just, you know, someone with a hose, but this heavy high-powered water cannon set on the children. In some cases, the force of the water was so strong that it would remove the children's skin. There's one picture that's very strong where there's a little boy who might be five or six years old who walks up to a white policeman, and the white policeman has his hand raised to hit him with a baton, but a woman interrupts, a white woman, and helps to walk the student away from the policeman. So, it’s grim. And then at the very end, we include a Harvard poll that lists the people who have died from the police. In 2015 it was something like 105, and in 2019, under Trump, it’s 1098 black people killed by the police. We then credit Black Lives Matter and we include the acknowledgement text, and honor Congressman John Lewis who just passed away.
CS: In 1980, your practice grew from processed-based abstraction to include more social and political work.
HP: That's after the car accident I had in early Fall 1979—when I first started teaching at Stony Brook. I was on a panel concerning diversity issues, filmed and rerun on Long Island television. I do not remember what channel it was. Afterwards, someone came to my office at Stony Brook and threw black paint at my office door and on the floor in front of my office. They also poured acid under the door of a Jewish faculty member and damaged an Italian students’ identification information taped to their locker. Although it’s complicated because when I was at the Modern, I became an activist about how un-diverse the museum world was and how undiverse their exhibition programs were. While I was at the museum, there were various things that would happen that made me really alarmed. Like it was a very glamorous job. I remember I was sent to the Virgin Islands for the NEA to judge a competition for sculpture, and I brought along some images from the black sculptor Mel Edwards, and I brought a white artist. I can't even remember that artist’s name, but that artist got the commission.
When I brought up the black artist, the guy who was head of the committee, said, “Oh, no, we'll have none of that.” In other words, we do not want to consider works from African-American artists. And that was out there, that was outrageous. Then when I was showing at AIR, I don’t know whether it was ‘72 or ‘73. There was a collector that had heard about my show. That’s when I had started using numbers and little punched circles, and people were kind of talking about the show. The collector was calling me and wanted to come see the work and wanted to bring some friends. This was when I had the loft on 7TH Avenue and 28th Street, it was about a three flight walk up. So, you could see me coming down the stairs, and I could see his face fall when he saw I was not white and he was very, very stern. We got up to my studio. The studio was impeccable. Lots of empty space, stuff on the walls. He walked around the walls and asked for a glass of water and said, “We've made a terrible mistake,” and left. You know, so I would run into these racist things. When any African American artist showed stereotyped images of black people, the art world would embrace them. And then there was that whole Kara Walker controversy where she did these very, very ugly images of black people during slavery or whatever, and they were like a combination of pornography, minstrelsy. They were horrible.
CS: You’re referring to the “Sugar Baby” show or the silhouettes?
HP: It's “Sugar Baby” and the silhouettes. You know, it’s just, I was just pissed. To get in she mocked the Civil Rights movement. So, I helped to edit a book of twenty-seven writers and myself discussing this issue. And then I had a separate pamphlet because my original essay was about 140 pages, and my publisher would only publish half of it. But there was like a real division in the art world. And the people that supported her, like Peter Norton. He was behind her. You don’t hear anything from them. It's interesting to see that she’s like under the radar now, under Trump.
CS: I’m interested to hear what you think about Robert Colescott’s paintings.
HP: Yeah, I had problems with his work, but he stereotypes men and women, white and black. He’s a very good painter. I had trouble with it during that period because I was just so sick of all the stereotypes getting in, but he is a very good painter. And what’s interesting is that person who would not look at my work who walked out, I ran into him at a Colescott opening and he said,
“Oh, isn’t this a wonderful show?” and I went, “Mm, interesting.”
CS: What has your experience with art dealers been like?
HP: I would say it’s been so-so. My dealer now Garth Greenan is incredible, and a lot of good things are happening now because of him. But some dealers are terrible. I'm in the process right now of suing one of my dealers from years and years ago. I had one dealer, and this happened to a number of black artists, if a white dealer wanted to represent you, they wouldn’t list you on the roster and they would hide your work in the closet and only if someone came in and said, “Do you have any black artists?” they’d pull you out.
CS: Thank you for your openness today, Howardena. My final question to you is, in a world is fraught with turmoil and challenges ahead, what do you think is our best way forward?
HP: Vote. WM
Chase Szakmary is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. He holds a Master of Arts degree with first-class distinction honors from Chelsea College of the Arts, University of the Arts, London, and a BA from Boston University. His artwork has been exhibited in London, New York, and Amsterdam and is in private collections in New York, London, and Bermuda. He has taught undergraduate courses at Stony Brook University and conducts his practice out of Long Island, New York.view all articles from this author