After 50 years of intense work, the Philadelphia-born artist Howardena Pindell has risen to artistic and academic acclaim—and rightfully so. The prolific painter and mixed-media artist creates masterworks that address issues like racism, physical trauma, memory, and the human experience.
“I should be thrilled, but I’m terrified,” Pindell confessed recently at Garth Greenan Gallery in Chelsea, where she had a solo show this past fall.Given her longevity, this comes as a surprise. But Pindell is humble—she doesn’t take her critical success for granted. Rather, the lauded African American artist states that she prefers to create for the sake of creating. Renown was never her objective, though she’s been in the spotlight quite a bit lately.
The awards have been piling in. In 2019, she received a College Art Association Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement, the George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award from the Art Libraries Society of North America, an honorary degree from The Maryland Institute College of Art, and the Artist Legacy Foundation’s 2019 Artist Award. She also won a 2019 Archives of American Art Medal from the Smithsonian Institution and became a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University, where she has taught since 1979.
“I’ve learned a lot from my students,” Pindell told me. She recalled that during a recent figurative painting class, a student took out her smartphone and photographed the copper urn she was observing. “The photographs of the paintings were incredible, because her eyes couldn’t see that detail, but her phone could,” Pindell said. After, she began instructing her students to turn things upside down, so to speak, by photographing what they intended to paint. This creates a new, challenging perspective, she explained, that encourages growth as an artist.
“The results are better,” she said; the exercise forces students to “just see shape, form, and line.”
Pindell knows all about piecing together intricate narratives beyond what might seem obvious. Over the course of her career—Pindell is now 76—she has created works that are rich in material and rooted in detailed narratives. Like the students she teaches, Pindell was trained in figurative painting, yet her most recognized pieces are mixed-media paintings on handmade paper featuring hole-punched dots, layered grids, and layered surfaces that introduce light and shadow.
Though she also incorporates performance, photography, and other media in her artistry, Pindell has made a lasting impression on the international art community through her paintings. She has said that these works illustrate the “metaphorical processes of deconstruction and reconstruction.”
You could say reconstruction is crucial to Pindell’s experience. In 1979—the same year she started teaching at Stony Brook—the artist was involved in a serious car accident. “We were in a VW Bug,” she recalled. “And one of the wives of the head of the Staller Center, which is where the Stony Brook art department is, was driving a big car and was on back medication. She drove against her light, crossed the median strip, and hit oncoming traffic.”
Pindell suffered a concussion; fortunately, she explained, “a friend made a very thick wool hat, so I didn’t break my skull.” It’s still an issue, though, sometimes causing her headaches.
To come to terms with the accident, Pindell shifted her artistic focus. She started featuring more autobiographical elements in her work; she began tracing her body, creating cut-outs that she then added to her larger paintings. Her series “Memory Test and Autobiography” was designed not only to promote physical healing, but to encourage self-discovery. She would cut and mend her canvases, fill them with personal mementos, and play with the concepts of evolution and repair.
Pindell revisited this period of her life this past year. Her exhibition Autobiography, at Garth Greenan Gallery from October to December 2019, featured mixed-media works completed between 1980 and 1995. Each piece depicts the relationship between healing, trauma, spirituality, and other elements that have shaped the artist’s life.
“I decided to make my work more viscerally personal, reflecting the impact of my direct experience,” Pindell wrote in a booklet for the show.
The show was a great success, with glowing reviews from theNew York Timesand Brooklyn Rail, among other outlets. Pindell told me that she is very grateful to Greenan for representing her—and, most importantly, for encouraging her to share this part of her life. The gallery started representing Pindell in 2014.
She first met Greenan when he visited her studio. “He met me, we brought everything out of storage, and we agreed on him representing me,” Pindell said. “He’s very wily about what he shows.”
The paintings in Pindell’s “Autobiography” series are dazzling. In Autobiography: Fire (Suttee) (1986–87), Pindell showcases the outline of her body, stenciled amid strips of paint. She has cut and sewn pieces of fabric together, creating a political and personal structure.
In Autobiography: Oval Memory #1 (1980–81), Pindell sought to consolidate her memories post-concussion. For decades before the accident, she had collected postcards and photographs from her global travels; these, she said, only became useful to her after the crash. In the work, viewers are confronted with these relics, which the artist cut into strips before adding them to her canvas alongside acrylic paint. There’s a scintillating sense of fragmentation here that can only be experienced by taking a close look at the works from the series, both individually and holistically.
There’s an emphasis on depth in all of Pindell’s art, including the pieces she is working on today. She told me that this approach is experiential but also closely linked to the materials: foam encased in jade glue; treated canvas; textured paper; and fruit and vegetable papyrus.
“I want little spots to show things at a distance,” Pindell said of her work. “The jade glue has its own patina. It gives a sense of depth, and it takes me about six months per painting. We have to layer things.”
At the time of our conversation, the artist was working on two paintings that she’d spent a year on so far. She and her assistants were hard at work on 9-by-9-foot canvases featuring severed hands. The striking pieces are meant to make a statement about colonialism.
“Apparently, the robber barons from around the world had that tactic,” Pindell remarked, her voice adopting a somber tone. “If you didn’t do what they said, they’d cut off your hands.”
Pindell’s work serves as a voice for the underserved, past and present. Today, in addition to contributing to the art community, she’s heavily involved in a number of charities. In 1972, she co-founded the A.I.R. Gallery, a nonprofit arts organization for female and non-binary creators. Even now, she makes a point of supporting up-and-coming artists.
“I am kind of out of the loop in terms of being really, really up-to-date,” Pindell admitted, mentioning that some of her favorite artists are Derrick Adams, Kerry James Marshall, and Fred Wilson. “There is an indigenous artist I like very much,” she continued, referencing the Alaska-born Lakota artist Athena LaTocha. “She was one of my students, and we became buddies. She does these huge paintings,” Pindell said. “I remember she was doing a painting so big she had to cut it down to fit a 30-foot space. She’s going to do really well.”
Moving forward, Pindell will continue making art, showing her work, teaching, and supporting the greater community. She recently sent a donation for the residency program to the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as the gallery at Stony Brook University. The diversity she’s witnessed has been inspiring.
She noted that the Stony Brook gallery recently put on a show about Senegalese artists. “One of the things is that through philanthropy, by supporting these museums, they are willing to change,” Pindell said—change for the better.