“If you look at the face of Congress, you don’t see the country. You see only one class of people,” Howardena Pindell told me recently. Fine art, she added, also “tended to be that way.” Major art institutions remain Congress-like assemblages of white, male elites, and Pindell, 78, has never given up her fight to change that.
She was born in 1943, the only child of two Black school teachers: a mathematician father and a historian mother. She demonstrated an early knack for drawing, first showing her work as an 8-year-old at Faith Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. It was a Black church, which she said “was not a storefront per se, but a small church nestled between two buildings.” The white church, she recalled, was a few blocks away and “they had beautiful stained-glass windows and flying arches.”
Her father, Howard, after whom she is named, set an example in his struggles for social justice. In the 1930s, he helped unionize teachers at the school where he worked in Maryland, and was later fired after signing onto a salary-discrepancy lawsuit spearheaded by Thurgood Marshall. “Black teachers were getting the same salary as white janitors in white high schools,” Pindell said. Later her father helped disabled individuals find employment, and he eventually became a court administrator. His sense of justice rubbed off on Pindell. She participated in her first protest as a high schooler, picketing segregated Woolworth’s stores in Philadelphia.
She studied figurative art at Boston University and then enrolled in Yale’s Graduate School of Art and Architecture. When she started at Yale in 1965, she was one of the program’s first students of color and the only Black person in her class. She remembers the academic program fondly, studying color theory with the artist Sewell Sillman and moving her painting practice toward the abstract. But the artistic community was less welcoming: White artists constantly criticized her. A peer once told her that her figurative art looked like it was “done in the Renaissance.”
Upon graduating, Pindell moved to New York, where she couch surfed while looking for employment that was at least tangential to the art and education worlds. After getting rejected from upwards of 50 jobs—despite her Ivy League credentials—she found work as an exhibition assistant in the department of drawings and prints at the Museum of Modern Art.
“I would say I lived two lives,” she told me. “I was an artist at night, and I was a museum worker during the day.” Being part of both worlds meant not only holding multiple perspectives, but also working against more than one racist and misogynistic system. She cared about artists and museum workers, and Black women weren’t taken seriously in either position.
In 1967, her first year at the MoMA, Pindell met the art critic Lucy Lippard, who introduced her to feminist circles, which were just starting to heat up at the time. By the ’70s, Pindell was joining efforts to unionize MoMA, which became a reality in 1971. She went on strike with the Professional and Administrative Staff of the Museum of Modern Art (PASTA)—now known as MoMA Local 2110—twice during her time at the museum. Underpay and the underrepresentation of women were at the top of her grievance list.
Around the time that Pindell joined PASTA, she joined the Byers Committee at MoMA, which arose to examine the underrepresentation of artists of color in the institution’s acquisitions, exhibitions, and community programs. “It was headed by a young, very wealthy white man who knew nothing,” Pindell said. Nonetheless, the group’s work resulted in two new exhibitions of work by the Black artists Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt—notably, both men.
In 1972, right after showing her work in her first major exhibition, Pindell somehow found the time to help found A.I.R. Gallery, the first nonprofit artist-run women’s gallery in the United States. It was conceived to be a supportive space for women artists at a time when there were very few, but she once again found herself in a place where she was the only woman of color. She proposed an exhibition of her own art, which centered on the themes of lynching and childhood memories, and the white artists rejected it outright. But the atmosphere was hostile in other ways, too. “One of the founders kept telling people that I didn’t know I was Black,” she told me. It became a long running joke, and Pindell left the gallery on account of the poor treatment
Meanwhile at MoMA, she was rising through the ranks. She accomplished this despite rarely being invited to work parties. She once called the museum to question staff about the affronts. The museum responded in frank legalese: “The museum is a private club, and they can invite anyone they want.”
The everyday racism was taxing. At that point, she had been at the museum for 12 years, and had become its first Black woman curator. But what finally pushed her out was her colleagues’ refusal to respond to a racist exhibition that went up at another institution.
In 1979, Artists Space, a publicly funded gallery known for their support of up-and-coming artists, held a show of charcoal sketches by the white artist Donald Newman called N*gger Drawings. Many artists and critics justified it on the grounds of artistic liberty and provocation. But Pindell, in addition to protesting Artists Space, contributed to an open letter addressed to the gallery: “The white artists and their supporters felt they had their First Amendment right to express their racism. (We did not, on the other hand, have the right to express our outrage),” she wrote anonymously at the time. Pindell put it this way to me: “If you complain about a white male artist’s show, that is considered censorship, but the fact that women and people of color were not in the system was not considered censorship.”
A few months after Newman’s show, Pindell left MoMA to become an art professor at Stony Brook University. There, she mentored a new generation of artists while continuing to hone her art practice, which by that point included video drawing, collage, and large-scale painting. And she was about to enter a new era.
In her first few months of teaching, she was in a near-fatal car accident that left her with memory loss. As a recovery tactic, she started making autobiographical work. One of the first of these pieces was a video, Free, White, and 21, which has become one of her most well-known. In it, Pindell plays herself in conversation with a white woman—whom she plays in whiteface, sunglasses, and a blonde wig. The video flips back and forth between the two characters. Pindell tells personal stories and complaints about racism to which the white woman responds with disdain, “You know, you really must be paranoid. Those things never happen to me.”
The messages in her art have always been as emphatic as her activism work. Her pieces have explored slavery, Black history, feminism, US foreign relations, the AIDS crisis, homelessness in New York City, police brutality, and climate change. As she matured as an artist, her projects became just one more way to fight.
“I am an artist. I am not part of a so-called ‘minority,’ ‘new,’ or ‘emerging,’ or ‘a new audience.’ These are all terms used to demean, limit, and make people of color appear to be powerless,” she said during a speech at the Agendas for Survival Conference at Hunter College in 1987. She finished the presentation by reading out the names of all the museums and cultural institutions in New York and what percentage of their artists were white. It was a project she had started years before, in which she took it upon herself to research and compile statistics and send them out to members of the art community. “There weren’t that many African American artists that were in any of the galleries,” she said. “I mean, I can think of two.” Shortly after her speech, a Guerrilla Girls spinoff of Black feminists formed and sent out its own informational pamphlets to art world institutions.
As Pindell has gotten older, she’s contended with the causes she cares about primarily through her artwork. Her most recent US exhibition in 2020 and 2021, Rope/Fire/Water at The Shed in New York City, focused heavily on Black history. It included several multimedia pieces, such as a canvas displaying photos of young girls killed in a 1963 hate crime above a row of charred toys; and a blue, serpentine-shaped canvas featuring facts about slavery in New York fixed beside a rusty shackle.
The show also included some of Pindell’s abstract expressionist pieces, which draped walls with organic shapes, textures, and monochrome tones. The curator Adeze Wilford told me that the multimedia pieces differed so much that some gallery-goers asked if they were made by a different artist. Assuming her abstract pieces aren’t related to race or politics would be a mistake, though. “At the end of the day, [Pindell] is a Black woman making work in spaces that were unwelcoming to her, and that has to have an impact on the things that she was thinking about and doing,” Wilford said.
Perhaps the best example of this is the artist’s frequent use of circles in her abstract pieces, which connect to one of her childhood memories. When Pindell was a child, her father took her on a road trip through Kentucky, during which they stopped for a root beer. While sipping her soda, she noticed a big red dot on the bottom of her glass, which she learned meant “colored people only.” “That blew my mind,” she recounted in 2019.
Pindell has turned mostly to this abstract, meditative work recently. She is still teaching art as a tenured professor at Stony Brook and painting in her studio, though she hopes to retire from her day job soon.
As with many Black and women artists who started their careers in the civil rights era, Pindell has seen a surge of interest in her work in the past couple of years. This can be at least partly be attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement, which pushed galleries and individuals to include artists they had previously neglected. “I get annoyed when I talk to my colleagues in the field about how expensive these artworks are now by these artists of color, and how they can’t really acquire them for their institutions,” a friend of and frequent curator for Pindell, Valerie Cassel Oliver, told me. “I’m like, ‘These artists have always been here; you could have had a Pindell.’” Today Pindell’s artwork is in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum. She is slated for a major exhibition in the UK next year hosted by Fruitmarket, Kettle’s Yard, and Spike Island. But we must not forget what Casell Oliver calls “her North Star.” Research from 2019 found that 85.4 percent of works in the collections of major US museums are by white artists, while 87.4 percent are by men. The art world has been slow to change, and the fight Pindell spurred still needs leaders. Artists, curators, and museum workers should look to her legacy to carry on her cause combating injustice within artistic institutions.