The Shed arts center on Manhattan’s west side just announced today that it reopens October 16 with a solo exhibition, nearly four years in the making, featuring new work by Howardena Pindell that examines the violent, historical trauma of racism in America and the therapeutic power of art. With enhanced health and safety protocols, The Shed will welcome back visitors Thursdays through Sundays, with free admission to the exhibition through October 31. Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water, organized by Adeze Wilford, Curatorial Assistant at The Shed, is on view through April 11, 2021 and includes Pindell’s first video work in 25 years, as well as new large-scale paintings and several abstract paintings from earlier in her career.
“Working on my commission for The Shed has been a very rewarding and healing experience,” said Howardena Pindell. “It allowed me to conceptualize an idea as a result of an experience I had as a child. I put it forth as a performance piece to a group of white women artists at the A.I.R. Gallery, where I was a founder in the early 1970s. They turned it down. (I was the only nonwhite member of the gallery.) The now-realized concept is the film Rope/Fire/Water, the centerpiece of the exhibition.”
“When we began speaking with Howardena in 2017, she told us that since the 1970s she has wanted to showcase a difficult memory in the form of a film but there had been resistance,” said Alex Poots, The Shed’s Artistic Director and CEO. “Now, at this momentous time in America amongst the resounding calls for justice and equality for Black lives, the work will premiere at The Shed where we encourage artists to respond to the urgent issues of our time. We are incredibly honored to have commissioned Howardena to create this work and hope it enables us all to continue necessary conversations during this time.”
“Bringing together Howardena Pindell’s painting and video practice has increasingly gained importance as our current circumstances have progressed,” said Adeze Wilford, Curatorial Assistant at The Shed. “Her intention to bring attention to historical events that have shaped this country through her video, paired with the beauty of her abstract paintings offered as care for the viewer, is vital for this moment. While we cannot turn away from the past, the artist has provided a means to bring us peace as we face the painful legacy of racism in this country.”
Over her nearly 60-year career, Pindell has created richly textured abstract paintings while engaging with politics and the social issues of her time. The powerful new video Rope/Fire/Water is a work that Pindell has wanted to create since the 1970s, inspired by a traumatic experience in her youth when she saw a shocking image of racial violence: “As a child, I was visiting a friend whose mother was cooking dinner consisting of cooking meat. On their living room table they had a recent issue of Life magazine. In it there was a picture of an African American man who was lying on his back on a log, who was burning from the inside out. White men surrounded the gruesome scene bubbling over with self-congratulatory smiles seeing what they had done. The smell of the meat cooking made it impossible for me to eat, and I could not eat meat for about a year,” said Pindell.
In the 19-minute video, Pindell recounts narratives and anthropological and historical data related to lynchings and racist attacks in the United States. Accompanying Pindell’s voiceover are brutal archival photos of lynchings and the Children’s Crusade of nonviolent protests by young people in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963. The sound of an unceasing, ticking metronome adds to the ominous atmosphere. A coda lists the names of Black people who died due to police brutality, and the work is dedicated to the late civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis.
Pindell will also debut a pair of large-scale black paintings, companion pieces to Rope/Fire/Water that are related to global atrocities of imperialism and white supremacy. Columbus (2020) features traced hands attached to the canvas with layers of black paint, with text about Columbus’s interactions with Indigenous people and King Leopold’s imperialistic reign over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The painting is accompanied by gruesomely lifelike silicone hands displayed on the ground. Four Little Girls (Birmingham, Alabama, 1963) (2019 – 20) explores the destruction of Black prosperity, with burned objects referencing the razing of the Black communities of Tulsa and Rosewood, as well as the 1963 Birmingham Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls. A related work on view, Slavery Memorial: Lash (1998 – 99), features three connected circles about the history of the transatlantic slave trade. A central image of tangled chains is flanked by circles with the names of West African tribal groups and images of masks. A list of African American inventors and their patents is shown on an adjacent screen.
Several abstract paintings also on view demonstrate a through line in Pindell’s practice: after working on traumatic historical projects, the artist decompresses by creating meticulously produced, large-scale abstract works on unstretched canvas. Dating from the mid-1970s to 2020, these works include three new abstract works that expand on the artist’s traditional use of paper hole punches through layers and shapes. Shown in tandem with earlier paintings, the assembled works highlight the evolution of Pindell’s practice from her early forays into large-scale abstraction to the present day.
“When Hans Ulrich Obrist and I were first discussing Pindell for our program at The Shed, we were drawn to the defining role she has played, not only as a visual artist, but as a curator, educator, and activist to expose racial injustices within the art world and beyond,” said Emma Enderby, Chief Curator at The Shed. “Adeze Wilford, the exhibition’s curator, adeptly brings together Pindell’s visual and critical practice and the artist’s uncompromising presentation of American history as an activist force.”
An online gallery of paintings in the exhibition, along with explanatory texts and a digital reading room of supplementary resources, will be available online at theshed.org. The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication with texts by Howardena Pindell; Adeze Wilford; Hans Ulrich Obrist, Senior Program Advisor at The Shed; and Ashley James, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum