Artist to Know: Howardena Pindell

Liz Catalano
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Mixed Media Assemblage Available in Upcoming African American Art Sale

With a career spanning more than 50 years, Howardena Pindell reports that she could fill a 100-page résumé. Her work crisscrosses mediums and styles, from hole punch paintings to video performances. These explore racism, misogyny, violence, and— after a near-fatal car accident— the artist’s personal memories. Each work uses small pieces that together form a cohesive whole. Pindell has spent a career exploring the possibilities of tiny paper chads, small number drawings, bits of glitter, and almost everything in between. 

One of Howardena Pindell’s unstretched collages will come to auction with Swann Galleries in an upcoming African American Art sale. Bidding will start at 12:00 PM EDT on April 22nd, 2021. Get to know Pindell and her works before the auction begins.

Howardena Pindell in her studio. Image by Jon Henry for The New York Times.
Howardena Pindell in her studio. Image by Jon Henry for The New York Times.

Howardena Pindell grew up around the arts. Her parents often took her on museum visits around Philadelphia and Boston. Pindell cites these excursions as key steps in her artistic journey, which later took her to Boston University and Yale. After graduating from the latter with an MFA, Pindell found work as the first Black woman curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). 

In graduate school, abstraction fascinated Pindell. She connected shapes and symbols to memories from her childhood, as well as the collective experiences of Black Americans. Circles, for example, remind the artist of old glassware. In the 1950s, restaurants added small red dots to glasses and utensils to set them apart for people of color. Inspired by that symbol of segregation, Pindell made liberal use of a hole punch in her early, semi-sculptural paintings. 

Social justice initiatives were equally important in the development of Pindell’s artistic style. She helped launch A.I.R. Gallery, the first art space made exclusively by and for women artists, while curating at the MoMA. Pindell regularly engaged in the rising wave of 1970s feminism while educating her colleagues on her experiences as a Black woman.

Pindell felt increasingly isolated on all sides as her career advanced. Many in the Black artistic community favored figurative art above her abstraction, and she regularly encountered discrimination at the museum. Pindell used art as an outlet to express her frustration and to speak about social issues. “I developed a number of tools for inward looking… in order to understand how racism and sexism work within the art community as well as the community at large,” Pindell later stated for the Brooklyn Museum.

Howardena Pindell, Oval Memory Series: (Rhinoceros) Heaven, 1980-81. Image from Swann Galleries.
Howardena Pindell, Oval Memory Series: (Rhinoceros) Heaven, 1980-81. Image from Swann Galleries.

In 1979, Pindell quit her position at the MoMA and started teaching at Stony Brook University. Tragedy struck during her first semester. Pindell was involved in a serious car accident that gave her a concussion and lasting memory loss. The event was a turning point in Pindell’s life. “I remember thinking, if I could have died so quickly [in the accident], I would never have expressed my opinion,” Pindell told The New York Times. “That started me looking at my life again and thinking about what I felt about the world.”

After the accident, Pindell started a new mixed-media series to reclaim her memories and start speaking up about social issues. She started using her collection of pictures and postcards to build eye-shaped works of art. The upcoming Swann Galleries sale will feature one of these pieces from Pindell’s Oval Memory Series. Subtitled (Rhinoceros) Heaven, this work features postcards, punched paper, glitter, thread, nails, and several types of paint. It appears abstract when taken as a whole. Upon closer inspection, the viewer can see cityscapes and pathways among the blues and greens. (Rhinoceros) Heaven is the first piece from Oval Memory Series to come to auction. It has a presale estimate of USD 50,000 to $75,000.

Howardena Pindell, Untitled #1, 1980-81. Image from Swann Galleries.
Howardena Pindell, Untitled #1, 1980-81. Image from Swann Galleries.

Pindell’s works mainly belong to museums and private collections. At auction, her drawings and early works typically reach an estimate between $3,000 and $10,000. Pindell has seen increasing collector interest since 2019. In that year, her auction prices shot from $10,625 to $26,000 before settling around $42,000. Untitled #1 set Pindell’s current auction record after selling for $47,500 at Swann Galleries in April of 2019. 

Now in her late seventies, Pindell continues to make and display art. Her most recent exhibition confronts violence and racism through videos, paintings, and installations. A major retrospective of Pindell’s work opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 2018, prompting renewed appreciation across the art world. Pindell remains determined to keep her humility. “People say to me, ‘You know, you’re famous,’ but I do not feel like that at all,” she told ARTnews. “I always tell people I feel like a message in a bottle that washes up on shore. Maybe someone might find out something about me.”

Howardena Pindell’s Oval Memory Series: (Rhinoceros) Heaven will come to auction with Swann Galleries on April 22nd, 2021. Bidding starts at 12:00 PM EDT. Visit Swann Galleries for more information and to place a bid.

Looking for more artist profiles? Auction Daily recently explored the work of contemporary artist Dia Azzawi.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
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James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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