The artist and social activist Howardena Pindell shares the never-before-seen pointillist experiments that would go on to mark her signature painting style—now the focus of a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

As a painting student in the late 1960s, Howardena Pindell worked in a figurative style. Following a move to New York in 1967 in her late 20s, she pursued an abstract, neo-pointillist style, evoking a rare artistic confidence that may appear, to some, as impassive. Upon closer inspection, the subtle color fields created by her closely packed paint marks coalesce to summon introspective moods, half-glimpsed kinetic scenes, and inchoate rebellion. Pindell’s decision to focus on abstraction in the 1970s brought her into conflict with the elite artistic institutions that refused to recognize the validity of any artworks produced by people of color who did not explicitly address issues of race, as well as with activists who believed nonfigurative work to be elitist.

In the five decades spanning her career, Pindell wrote extensively about these struggles of acceptance and identity, the coercion of essentialist arguments dictate the form and function of minority artists. Writing in her seminal essay, Art (World) & Racism, Pindell characterized her career as one “experienced from the ‘outside’ as an artist of color and from the ‘inside'” as an employee at the Museum of Modern Art, from 1967 to 1979. Her treatise on the structural racism of the art world was delivered at Hunter College’s Agendas for Survival Conference in 1987. The themes of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion from exclusive art spaces and specific art modes were ones that Pindell would go on to navigated throughout her life, and were frequently addressed in her art, her writing, and her activism.

Untitled (detail), 1972.

Institutional or commercial support for Pindell’s art was not easily won in the 70s and 80s. She became active in groups agitating for change with respect to the representation of women and nonwhite artists in public museums and galleries—a situation she was unable to affect from her position within MoMA. As a member of the feminist cooperative Artists in Residence, she fought to create alternative exhibition opportunities for artists. Through her involvement with PESTS—a short-lived organization founded in 1986—Pindell repeatedly called out racial and gender bias within art institutions. Though she would later turn to more explicitly political content in her art, present within the deceptively still surfaces of these abstract works is Pindell’s demand for equality and autonomy of political and artistic expression. 

The large-scale abstract paintings, presented in the above slideshow exclusively for Document, were abandoned by the artist because of constraints on her time and finances and have remained unseen for over 40 years.  Made by applying paint through holes made in paper templates, these paintings are a testament to the labor of the artist. It was this method that prompted Pindell’s increasingly experimental use of materials, later incorporating the punched holes in collage works, using sequins, tearing and stitching the canvas support, and even saturating her paintings with perfume. Pindell’s pointillist experimentation from this period would go on to be a recurring motif in her work. This spring, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago present the first retrospective look at the artist’s life in a show entitled, Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen, which runs until May 20. 

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