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At 77, Howardena Pindell Exorcises a Chilling Memory From Childhood

In more than half a century as an artist, Howardena Pindell has made many hundreds of paintings and drawings and just three videos, yet one of those videos is arguably her best-known work. “Free, White and 21” (1980) depicts the artist recounting a litany of racist experiences, from being tied to a cot by a kindergarten teacher to discrimination in applying for jobs. Interspersed among the personal stories, Ms. Pindell appears as a second character in whiteface and a blonde wig. The white woman tells the Black narrator that she must be paranoid. “You won’t exist until we validate you,” she chides.

“Free, White and 21” is as much a commentary on the pervasiveness of racism in America as it is on the whiteness of the second-wave feminist movement, which Ms. Pindell knew intimately because she’d been part of it. In 1972, she was the only person of color among 20 cofounding members of A.I.R., the first nonprofit, artist-run women’s gallery in the United States. In conversations with her colleagues, she brought up the injustices she faced as a Black woman, but they were uninterested, even hostile to her concerns.

One time, Ms. Pindell presented an idea for a new artwork that stemmed from a childhood memory. When she was around 10 or 12, she visited the home of a friend whose mother was cooking meat. In the living room the family had an issue of Life magazine. The young Ms. Pindell picked it up and found inside a photograph of an African-American man lying on a log. “He was burning from the inside out,” she said in a recent video call. He was being lynched as smiling white men stood around him. “That image and the smell made it so real that I couldn’t eat meat for about a year,” she recalled.

At A.I.R., Ms. Pindell proposed reproducing the photograph while cooking meat in the gallery: Image and scent would combine to re-create the chilling experience. “I was the only nonwhite,” she said by way of explanation. “They turned it down.” She left the group in 1975.

Her childhood memory is now the starting point for “Rope/Fire/Water,” her first video in 25 years, commissioned by the Shed, which reopened Oct. 16 with her exhibition of the same name; it also features five new paintings and 10 older ones, including a piece that’s never been displayed publicly. The presentation at the Shed is Ms. Pindell’s first institutional solo exhibition in New York City, her longtime home, since 1993. (Her work is also currently on view in the gallery at Art Omi, a sculpture and architecture park in Ghent, N.Y., about two hours north of Manhattan.) “This show is kind of a culmination of everything,” she reflected.

Although it grew out of a personal story, “Rope/Fire/Water” is an apt counterpart to “Free, White and 21,” using data to delve into lynching, and other brutal attacks on Black Americans. The artist narrates details while the screen stays largely black, punctuated by historical photographs and statistics in white text. A metronome ticks throughout, suggesting that when it comes to combating racism, we are working against the clock.

In the Shed’s gallery, “Rope/Fire/Water” plays in a semicircular space. To get there, visitors (limited to 25 percent of capacity) walk past Ms. Pindell’s paintings, which sample the breadth of her experimentation. Of a piece with the video, two new commissions are all black and covered with words that reference episodes of racist violence; both have objects, including burned toys, laid out before them as if they were altars. Nearby, a pair of shaped works combine text and figurative imagery into collagelike commentaries on slavery. Then there are the abstract pieces. The ones from the 1970s are muted, unstretched canvases dotted with circular chads produced by hole punchers. The recent examples are eruptions of chads, other foam shapes, color and glitter, with mazelike networks of sewn lines. They feel simultaneously detailed and expansive, like maps of discrete universes.

“This is an emotionally charged show, but I hope people are able to see the beauty of her practice, because it’s such an important part of what she does,” Adeze Wilford, an assistant curator at the Shed and the organizer of the exhibition, said. “She is this activist, but she also has this gorgeous, canvas-producing side that I felt needed to be shown in the same context.”

The career of Ms. Pindell, 77, is filled with such dualities. She has used her work to confront pain and embrace pleasure, spent decades committed to both figuration and abstraction, worked in institutions and criticized them.

“She’s always sat in her truth,” said Valerie Cassel Oliver, who co-curated the first major survey of Ms. Pindell’s work, in 2018. “She has been brave, even when it hasn’t been popular. It comes from a space of wanting to make a difference.”

Ms. Pindell was born in Philadelphia in 1943. Her parents encouraged an early interest in art by taking her to meet artists and visit museums and, when she grew older, supported her as she pursued a B.F.A. from Boston University (1961-65), where the training was strictly figurative, and an M.F.A. from Yale (1965-67), whose more avant-garde program helped spur her to transition into abstraction.

From the beginning, Ms. Pindell was drawn to the form of the circle, which she had “experienced as a scary thing,” she said. As a child, she and her father had gone to a root beer stand, where she noticed red dots affixed to the bottoms of their mugs. The symbol “designated that the glassware could be used by nonwhites,” she explained. “Whites would not use the same utensils.” She became fixated on the shape, and putting it in her art allowed her to reclaim it. “I get great pleasure out of punching holes,” she told me with a laugh.

In 1971, Ms. Pindell showed in a major museum for the first time, in a group exhibition at the Whitney. She was then working at the Museum of Modern Art, where she started as an assistant, and rose to associate curator — the first Black woman curator at the institution. She also joined the push to unionize MoMA.

“We went on strike twice,” she recalled, “but I ran into something quite annoying.” When white feminists came to protest gender inequality at the museum, they “called me up in my office and said, ‘You have to come down and picket with us.’

“I said: ‘No, this is my day job. I don’t have a husband paying my bills.’ And they kind of resented that. Yet when there was anything that involved Black women, they were nowhere to be found.”

Her sense of alienation increased in 1979, when controversy erupted over an exhibition at the downtown nonprofit Artists Space. A white artist named Donald Newman used the N-word in the title of his solo show there. Ms. Pindell was among a group of art workers who protested, holding a sit-in at the gallery. But many others defended Mr. Newman’s right to free speech. “The general attitude was: if you criticize a white male artist, that’s censorship,” Ms. Pindell said.

By this time, she was feeling stuck in what she calls “a lose-lose situation.” Some Black artists had criticized her for pursuing abstraction, rather than figurative work in the vein of the Black Arts Movement; they were also mad that she hadn’t “flung the doors open of the museum,” she said. Meanwhile, “the whites were angry that I was there,” working at such a prestigious institution as MoMA. “They thought I didn’t belong.”

She decided to quit to focus on making and teaching art. In 1979, she was hired as an associate professor at Stony Brook University, but soon after, she and a colleague were in a car accident that left her with injuries and short-term memory loss. It proved to be a watershed moment in her practice. “I remember thinking, if I could have died so quickly, I would never have expressed my opinion,” she said. “That started me looking at my life again and thinking about what I felt about the world.”

Ms. Pindell began using her work as a means of healing. She cut out parts of the canvas and sewed them back in — a symbolic suturing of the damage that had been done. She incorporated images of her body and pictures of places she’d visited into her abstract process, creating a hybrid style that mapped the associative nature of memory. She assembled fragmented, fish-eye forms by taking postcards, slicing them into strips, and painting in between. Many of these pieces belong to her “Autobiography” series, which began with “Free, White and 21.” And as that video prefigures, her art became more expressly political, with personal issues crossing over into societal ones.

Ms. Pindell spent a lot of time by herself in those years. “I kind of self-isolated,” she said. Yet she continued her activism, writing anonymous letters about racism to institutions and individuals and signing them “The Black Hornet.” She undertook two major demographic surveys of museum exhibitions and gallery rosters in New York City, finding that white artists dominated. “As a result of the closed nepotistic interlocking network, artists of color face an industrywide ‘restraint of trade,’” she wrote in a paper delivered at Hunter College in 1987.

She showed regularly across the United States and abroad but struggled to find dealers she could trust. White critics dismissed both her abstract and issue-driven work. She recalled one review in which the writer said he wanted to have sex under her paintings.

As happens with so many artists of color and women, however, the market and major institutions have increasingly embraced her as she’s gotten older. She joined Garth Greenan Gallery in 2012 and then had a solo show there, her first in New York City in almost a decade. Two years ago, her retrospective opened to critical acclaim. “You could get a very big head from the kind of recognition I’m getting,” she joked.

But Ms. Pindell, who is generous and easygoing, has not. When we had our call, she sat in an office overflowing with files and boxes: She was in the midst of organizing her papers, which are going to be acquired by the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. She uses a walker now and has problems with her memory, although for the most part, her stories came easily; she even remembered the names of old co-workers at MoMA.

“Every day I live, I seem to forget all that I’ve done, and I’m amazed when I think about it,” she said. “I don’t know how I did it. I really don’t. I mean, I don’t know how I survived.”

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