Full Circle: VMFA Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver on Howardena Pindell

<em>Night Flight</em>, 2015–16, mixed media on canvas. Garth Greenan Gallery. Photo courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

Howardena Pindell has consistently broken new ground during her five-decades-long artistic career. In 1967, she was the first female African American to graduate from Yale University’s MFA program then began working as the first female black curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her diverse body of art—from abstract canvases to photography to performance art—is presented in Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen, the first major survey of her work, at VMFA Aug 25–Nov 25, 2018.

Valerie Cassel OliverValerie Cassel Oliver
Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and co-curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, VMFA Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Naomi Beckwith, Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, this comprehensive exhibition demonstrates how Pindell’s work has always been ahead of its time, and how her advocacy as an artist is more relevant than ever in today’s age.

We talked with Valerie Cassel Oliver about what Pindell means to her, and what visitors should expect to lean about the artist from this exhibition.

Q: What is the significance of you and Naomi Beckwith, two respected African American female contemporary art curators at major museums, curating this exhibition together?

A: Having two black female curators in large-scale mainstream institutions is now becoming more commonplace, but historically, it hasn’t been, and Howardena is a pioneer. She was the first female black curator that was hired by MoMA in New York, and that was back in the late 1960s, in a time and a place where you did not see black bodies authoring exhibitions, where you did not see them bringing works into collections that spoke of the African American experience or even bringing those experiences to the table. Here we are almost fifty years later, and we can still point at spaces where there are not enough black bodies in institutions making decisions. It has been a wonderful journey to do the project with Naomi and to do it celebrating Howardena.

Q: How has Howardena Pindell influenced you as a curator?

A: Just by existing. Oftentimes, we look at institutions and we don’t see ourselves reflected in those institutions . . . and just having someone exist in a field where you don’t see yourself reflected is radical enough. And in that sense, she is certainly a heroine of mine for working at MOMA for a decade.

Q: When did you and Naomi Beckwith first begin organizing this exhibition?

A: With concerted effort, in 2015 we began looking at and structuring how we would imagine this exhibition would look. Then came the hard work of determining what the checklist would be. One of the things that I feel has been difficult is not really understanding the full range of Howardena’s work. She has worked in these very disparate forms that people feel are so wildly different from one another, when in fact they are very comprehensive. It is very seamless how these particular factions and ways of working are really extensions of one another.

Q: You started working on her show in 2015, and since then, the political climate has changed dramatically. It seems like the issues addressed in some of Howardena Pindell’s work in this exhibition are more relevant than ever.

A: I think the thing I keep saying is true: Howardena’s work has not changed. The world has just caught up with her. . . . I think we are now in a time and a place where we are eager to hear what she has to say.

She’s a feminist. She is one of the co-founders of the AIR gallery which still exists in New York. It was a gallery for primarily women, created with the understanding that the art world can be a very exclusive place, and she was part of creating safe spaces where other artists can show their work. There is a tremendous amount of generosity in that.

There is an area in the exhibition that focuses on her work in activism, and it moves from inequities in the real estate market, which we are dealing with still, major cities especially. She’s dealing with issues of police brutality, which still exist; profiling, which still exists. It’s the unfortunate nature of things—the suppression of women and women’s voices still exists.

In our ever-advancing world, every time we come full circle we advance a bit. The advances are not that great, but they are still advances. . . . We are slowly moving a mountain one tablespoon at a time. You have to be committed to the long game. Howardena has played that long game for five decades. We are entering into this at a moment, but she has been consistent.

Q: What do you want people to take away from this exhibition?

A: Just what an innovator Howardena Pindell is. That she is groundbreaking and very forward thinking in her practices. Her ways of working have really served to break new ground. They are thoughtful, they are considered, they are timeless, and they are highly experiential.

Q: What can visitors expect to experience when they visit this exhibition?

A: I think when people are standing in front of a work they really do get a full sense of just how invested she becomes in a process, whether it’s affixing small circles of paper to the surfaces of paper or a canvas, or whether it’s drawing directional lines onto the surface of a piece of paper or acetate. You have to really be in front of the work to see that she’s strewn glitter on it, that the surfaces literally speak to you as a viewer looking at them. They are very seductive, and I think people often glaze over that when they just see a picture or a photograph. You really do need to stand in front of these works to feel the full impact of them.

Q: What three words would you use to describe Howardena Pindell?

A: Brilliant, innovative, and uncompromising.

Featured Image: Night Flight, 2015–16, mixed media on canvas. Garth Greenan Gallery. Photo courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York