Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 17, 2023
Sarah Louise Cowan Howardena Pindell: Reclaiming Abstraction New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 280 pp.; 98 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300264296)

In Howardena Pindell: Reclaiming Abstraction, the first monograph devoted to the artist, activist, and MoMA curator, Sarah Louise Cowan focuses on Howardena Pindell’s paintings and collages made between the late 1960s and early 1980s, underscoring her forays into sculpture and video along the way. In doing so, Cowan traces the artist’s ambivalent exploration of modernist form. Teasing out Pindell’s alignment with and strategic revisions of all-over painting, the grid and surface treatments, Cowan ultimately unspools modernist grammar from the narrow, yet nevertheless dominant history of midcentury abstraction developed within mostly white male artistic enclaves. In turn, modernism as a historical genre of artistic practice takes on multiple roles within her book. It is, on one hand, used traditionally as a way of referencing artworks that address the conditions of their own making through various formal procedures. On the other, Cowan frames modernism as a rhetorical agent of racial hegemony that contributes to the marginalization of Black and otherwise othered artists. Lastly, modernism in Cowan’s text functions as an intergenerational dialogue, one that advances recursively through an ongoing process of critique. It is this third approach to modernist aesthetics that most significantly animates Cowan’s discussion. Indeed, the pursual of modernism and critiques of its closures are cognate terms in her analysis, extending the hermetically formal nature of abstract painting’s self-directed dialogue to include the exigencies of racial and gender politics. In contrast to more militantly figurative artists like Faith Ringgold, then, Cowan reveals how Pindell’s Black feminist practice offered a means of “mending abstraction” (14).

In organizing her outline of Pindell’s career, Cowan carefully avoids strict periodizations of the artist’s conceptual concerns, a tendency that often dogs the art historical monograph. As she notes, in studies of Pindell’s career it is too easily accepted that the artist’s political activity only became legible in her work with the 1980 video, Free, White, and 21. Cowan pushes beyond the hermeneutic convenience of biographic breaks, ruptures and sudden enlightenments by seeking out critical linkages across the artist’s career. 

The long durée of Pindell’s Black feminist practice begins, in Cowan’s book, with her abstract painting from the late 1960s: one series features constellations of circles and ellipses set against a gridded backdrop; for the other, done slightly later, Pindell used spray paint to create lush fields of color whose “oceanic undulations” she produced through reticular patterns of barely perceptible dots (44). With this first chapter, Cowan positions Pindell within the contested field of Black aesthetics in the early 1970s. In particular, she shows how the artist’s work relates to that of Joe Overstreet and Sam Gilliam in its spatialization of color resulting in phenomenological—i.e., inchoate—interactions with the viewer. In doing so, Cowan argues that Pindell bypasses modernism’s focus on opticality and expands the perceived contours of Black aesthetic practice. By contrast, she also discusses how Pindell diverges from the Black Arts Movement’s focus on figuration and immediately evident forms of political expression. Cowan specifically elaborates two aspects of Pindell’s visual lexicon at this early juncture in her career to anchor the artist’s abstract approach to Black feminist expression: circular motifs and the grid. The artist’s persistent return to the spatial logics of grids is brilliantly described by Cowan as a type of conceptual readymade, continually utilized as a way to “locate her practice in modernist conversations” while simultaneously signifying upon them through exuberant color choice and hand-drawn lines that disturb the grid’s evocation of rational, machinic production schemes. (77). This complex conflation of discursive and aesthetic space, however, is less precise in Cowan’s focus on Pindell’s habitual return to circular elements. In the author’s analysis, circles and ellipses primarily operate iconographically—as references to an early experience of racial segregation, to the cosmos, to the organic shapes found in nature and to the shape’s primacy within the 1960s ecological movement. As a result, circularity does not participate as clearly within Cowan’s astute spatial metaphor developed elsewhere in the chapter, one that considers the connective tissue between the construction of space on canvas and Pindell’s (dis)location as a Black female abstractionist within the artistic camps evolving around her.

The proliferation of abstract, gridded compositions, as well as Pindell’s recuperative deformations of their modernist imprimatur, continues into chapters two and three. Here, Cowan discusses the artist’s fashioning of “surface tension,” which, in contrast to seamless, mechanistic finishes that purposefully obviate the artist’s hand, defines the artist’s efforts to make herself present for the viewer through textural accumulations cataloging her laborious activity (119). While Pindell was making figurative collages in the late 1960s, Cowan’s turn toward the artist’s work with paper focuses on her abstract collages begun in 1973. Created from manila envelopes and other cardstock used in the offices at MoMA, these collages feature hundreds—or, in some cases, thousands—of paper chads, individually numbered by the artist and pasted onto standard sheets of graph paper. As Cowan shows, with these works Conceptual art’s so-called aesthetic of administration is no longer arrived at through a type of proletarian drag but the actual machinations of Pindell’s day-to-day life as a curator. Rather than intensify the lived realities of bureaucratic drudgery, then, Cowan convincingly argues that Pindell subjects administrative tools like the hole punch and file folder to her own conceptual system, one in which she formulates rather than wills away subjectivity through the pleasures of haptic engagement.

This assertion of subjectivity is argued further in the book’s third chapter, which focuses on Pindell’s cut and sewn paintings for which she is increasingly well-known. While larger in scale than her earlier collages and layered over with acrylic paint, these works similarly feature small circular rounds, including paper chads and glittering sequins. The animating effects of this “festive décor” is heightened by the addition, onto certain canvases, of make-up-like talcum-power and cheap perfume, subjectivizing the paintings through an exaggerated array of feminine-coded implements (173). If these surface treatments demonstrate a hyperbolic embrace of feminine, even girlish aesthetics, the painting’s composition out of interwoven strips of canvas are a direct outgrowth, for Cowan, of Pindell’s introduction to West African textiles. Cowan’s identification of the referential matrix composing these structural and superficial aspects of Pindell’s cut and sewn paintings spell out their “accrued social meaning” (142). This is an accrual in which African aesthetics are integrated into the grain of the support—an opacity or fugitivity the artist saw as another cultural inheritance—while gendered affectations are held up, or built out from the canvas, for debate and deconstruction.

Throughout the second and third chapters, it might have been an interesting exercise to consider the potential relevance of Pindell’s sustained use of a circular marker linked in the artist’s mind to racist systems of classification. Might the institutional procedures that Pindell references in her collage works relate to museums’ coterminous efforts to label, assign, and order Black abstract artists like Pindell? Given Cowan’s exciting metacritical treatment of the grid in Pindell’s early paintings, such a question seems relevant to her investment in the artist’s struggle to discursively place herself. Furthermore, because of the transformation of labor and administration starting in the early 1970s when Pindell began these works, one in which services, subjective expression, and other immaterial forms of activity emerged as important sites of capitalist extraction, it may have been worthwhile to consider how Pindell’s injection of “pleasure” and “‘visceral’ enjoyment” into institutional procedures relate to—and/or resist—neoliberalism’s new aesthetics of administration (107).

Pindell’s visual translations of the ideological conditions in which she created work return in Cowan’s fourth and final chapter, which considers the artist’s work with television and video, especially Free, White, and 21. Cowan frames the work within its original site of display: towards the back of the feminist gallery A.I.R. (which Pindell cofounded) in the 1980 group show Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States. The exhibition functioned as a response to the art world’s—and A.I.R.’s specifically—white feminist focus. Seen in this light, Free, White, and 21 takes on a new valence as a site-specific work of institutional critique, one attuned not only to racial exclusion at A.I.R. but also, as Cowan argues through a close examination of the video’s dialogue, the racial tokenism proliferating within purportedly progressive campaigns for multicultural diversity. Indeed, Cowan lucidly describes how the video parodically critiques the art world’s narrow evaluative metrics—articulated in the work by its titular character, a young white woman played by Pindell—and consequently shifts the “representational onus of multiculturalism” onto whiteness, defying the contemporary expectation that Black artists “make racial difference visible” (220–21). From Pindell’s haptic handling of “institutional modernisms” to Free, White, and 21’s indictment of institutional practice, then, Cowan’s book illuminates the artist’s decades-long strategy of modeling, evading and eroding those critical expectations that attempted to define her (7). The result is a deeply informative, inventive monograph that adroitly traces Pindell’s multi-media practice, the intermingling evolution of her aesthetic and political positions, and the critical context in which her work was received and evaluated.

Blake Oetting
PhD candidate, New York University