My so-called “plan” – nearly two months ago – was to write a post that spilled my guts about the feelings of awe and admiration I experienced from taking in the exhibition, Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen, curated by Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver. I got rather tangled-up and infatuated with the idea of composing some sort of opus to match the rich vitality of Pindell’s work on display in multiple galleries in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA).
At some point, my pages of notes, the open letter I attempted to write to Pindell, the photos I took in the galleries, the pages I flagged in the monograph….well, it got to be a bit much. I think I gave myself “writer’s block” just taking myself and my blogging so dang seriously!
The backstory. Around 2000 or so, I saw the Howardena Pindell piece called “Autobiography: Air (CS560),” 1988 on a wall at the Detroit Institute of Arts. What struck me then was the size, and asymmetrical shape of the unframed canvas. There was a lot of texture, and images, and words appearing randomly throughout. Words that said: “How dare you question,” “censorship,” “deportation,” “intrafetal deaths caused by,” “broken,” “slave market,” and “shot.” Up to that point I don’t recall having seen a work in a fine art museum by a black woman artist that felt so bald and confrontational. For me, it was a majestic and intrusive work which, however, did not surprise me – being a black woman from the “chocolate city” of Detroit, a city that, by the way, was once home to the largest population of African American collectors of African American art. But let me try and stay on subject.
Fast-forward 18 years. I am in Chicago and learn that the MCA is staging a major exhibition of Howardena Pindell’s work. An artist talk is scheduled for February 24, the weekend of the show’s opening. Since I am someone who likes to attend author and artist events so I can get my “get my geek on” and hear people talk about the creative process and trajectory of their work and life – I made plans to check out the MCA Talk: “Howardena Pindell in conversation with Naomi Beckwith and Valere Cassel Oliver.”
The auditorium was filling up quickly that particular afternoon and me and a woman I was chatting with were asked if we minded sitting closer together to make room for more guests. My new acquaintance – Apryl – and I didn’t mind, as we had already begun to “bond”: Apryl had already been through the exhibit (I had not) and was palpably impressed by what she’d seen. She encouraged me to see it soon, and then contact her so we could discuss. Right before the lights were dimmed, we whispered our acknowledgment that neither of us had ever viewed a large exhibition devoted to the work of a single black woman artist.
Let me be clear: I admire the work of many different artists, not just the black ones, not just the women….but major fine art museums have usually spent their curatorial talent and resources on the work of white men and that’s just fact. If you are a museum-goer and a regular citizen who doesn’t get to jump on airplanes and chase museum exhibitions that aren’t happening in your town, please share with me the large-scale shows of work by non-white artists that you’ve seen. I want to know what I’ve missed! Recently one of my neighbors – who is five years older than Howardena Pindell (b. 1943) – confessed to me that Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) was the only black woman artist whose work she was familiar with. It is occurring to her, now – in her 80th year as someone who considers herself to be “cultured” – that she wants to get caught up!
Okay, now where was I?
One of the first things to happen in the MCA auditorium is that upon being introduced, Howardena Pindell was greeted with a standing ovation. She was seated in a wheelchair between curators Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver, and, once we finally sat down and stopped clapping, I’m pretty sure I heard Ms. Pindell say “This is the best museum experience I’ve ever had.”
Her comment was still sinking in with me even as the curators began to talk about the collaborative honor and effort of putting together a survey exhibition and monograph of the work of someone who was both a mentor and inspiration for them. Their connection was historical, aspirational, professional, political, and, I would think emotional, because one of the things I learned is that Howardena Pindell was the first black woman to secure a curatorial position at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). This happened in 1967, after she graduated from Yale’s School of Art & Architecture. This means that Pindell was the path-cutter for black women curators (including Beckwith and Cassel Oliver) of the past 50 years who have informed and enriched “the art world” and museum collections with their knowledge, rigor, advocacy, and valuable critical and cultural perspectives.
Some points of interest for me in the conversation between Pindell, Beckwith, and Cassel Oliver included:
*the hard-line, masculine, pro-New York attitude of the art world in the 1960s;
*how difficult it was for women to get [university level] teaching jobs;
*how Pindell went from abstraction to numbers and grids and figuration; and her “obsession with” the circle;
*how racism [at MoMA?] informed Pindell’s art-making process because, she said, “I got left out of a lot of things;”
*learning that Eva Hesse was one of the artists whose work Pindell admired;
*working intuitively, and discovering only in retrospect how an earlier process of working, or an early inquiry can become a blueprint, a map, toward one’s future work and methods;
*how art departments of schools can be the most resistant to change;
*and how Pindell values the aspect of play in making visual work.
Once the floor was opened to questions from the audience, I particularly appreciated Howardena Pindell’s response to a question regarding the ability of art to impact social justice. In addition to acknowledging the importance of staying informed, reading, and talking, she said that we really need to dialogue with others, “don’t just speak concern through one’s art.” She said that “we need to work on many levels because of so much that needs mending;” and suggested the “reactivation of consciousness-raising groups.” Many of us were nodding our heads and murmuring in agreement.
Does any of this sound interesting to you?
Would you participate in a consciousness-raising group?
Please stay tuned for Part Two of this post in which I share some of the debatable things Howardena Pindell talked about; what intrigued me the most when I went through the exhibition; and what I learned from Naomi Beckwith’s Curator Tour.