WALTHAM — It was a severe head injury, finally, that did it. By 1979, Howardena Pindell had carved out her own corner of the New York art world — no small feat, being a young black woman in a field all but owned by older white men, many by then basking in their own canonization. Then it happened: a car off the road, the injury, and, after a time languishing with short-term amnesia, a rough awakening. Pindell had treaded too lightly for too long, she decided, with her brilliant but restrained, finely made works. Her fractures were not just of her head, but of her soul, and the light now blazing through them told her what she had to do.
“What Remains to Be Seen,” Pindell’s 50-year career survey now at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, cleaves her career neatly in two: before and after, injury and not. The two halves stare at each other across an architectural divide: The Rose’s clean Modernist box of a gallery, built in 1961, is filled with Pindell’s earlier paintings and drawings, most of them abstract, nearly all of them brimming with a restrained joy and careful precision. Its new annex, built in 2001, contains a gush of Pindell’s boiling rage, intense swirls of image and text exploding with political complaint. Just eight months after the accident, her mind still swimming in the fog of memory loss, she made “Free, White and 21,” a video piece in which she stares down the camera, bluntly recounting her struggles with racism and sexism in the art world. Then, lacquered in white face, Pindell chides her various complaints as trivial or imagined (“You must be really paranoid,” her white alter ego says. “I’ve never had an experience like that, but of course I’m free, white and 21.”) Clearly, there would be no going back.
The show spans a half-decade, but with racial tensions at full boil and gender inequity wobbling established orders all over, it seems made for this moment. Pindell’s career is ply marked by both, and a show of her work in the here and now is a stark reminder of battles won, but a war long from over. It can feel like a show by two different artists, but the connective tissue is Pindell’s determination to claim her own ground in a world made expressly not for her.
On either side of the divide, she’s nothing less than heroic. Early works are demure subversion — playful, knowing, sensual, elegant. They fall in line with the thinking of the day: gestural painting, reduced, step by step, into minimal abstraction. Look closely, and you’ll see Pindell making her own mark.
A grid undergirds many of her paintings, though their final forms are a gleeful upending of its rigid form — a scattering of color like so many leaves across its unforgiving structure. Thousands of tiny dots pile up in pieces like “Untitled” (1971-72), evoking ideas of cosmic infinity and slavish pointillism all at once. Pindell has you looking for things that aren’t there — a playful bait and switch, as she claims old painting territory for her own.
Pindell, now 75, was keenly aware of significant art-world movements. She worked from 1967 to ’79 on the curatorial staff at the Museum of Modern Art, the first black woman ever to do so. But she was also determined not to be kept in line by their strictures. She would write anonymous letters to the museum’s director, decrying the lack of women and people of color on the museum’s walls. (She would sign them “The Black Hornet.”)
In her own work, she coopted dominant art-world strategies of the day and chipped away at their priorities. She coated the surfaces of her big abstract paintings with talcum and glitter. She borrowed conceptual-art ideas of ordering and counting, cataloguing and numbering, and inflected them with irreverence, wonder, glee. One “Untitled” piece is a scattering of small paper discs created with a hole punch, littering a surface like snow. Some are numbered, but with no possible purpose — a playful tease, as she willfully abandons order for chaos. A selection of small works are dense clusters of those same discs, bunched together in exuberantly entropic mounds, color-filled and sparkling.
Pindell’s quiet revolution, and her infatuation with the circle, might have been seeded early. She grew up in Philadelphia, and on a childhood trip with her father, a mathematician, she saw the ugly side of America firsthand. Finishing her drink at a roadside stand in the Deep South, Pindell saw a big red dot on the glass’s bottom. It was her first brush with segregation — glasses with dots were for blacks, those without for whites — and it would tinge her life with both frustration and purpose.
Subversion became her driving force, and her 1979 near-death experience shifted it from canny to overt. The plaintive tone of “Free, White and 21” lies past the threshold from old building to new, before to after, but it invades the serenity of the previous galleries nonetheless, Pindell’s edgy tone echoing through both. Past the screen you’ll find her big jagged canvases, cut coarse and angular along their edges; some are torn through the middle and sutured roughly back together. They carry violent ideas, subjected to violence themselves.
Many share the title “Autobiography,” signaling that Pindell is done with her critique from a safe conceptual remove. “Autobiography: Water (Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts),” from 1988, is a chaotic bricolage of text and image, an obscure figure with Pindell’s face laid prone in the middle. With a surface laid thick with swatches of blue paint — a roiling sea, which brought generations of slaves from Africa to America — the piece boils with unrest, though Pindell leaves nothing to chance. A patch of text swims in a field of brilliant blue: It’s an excerpt from the North Carolina slave codes — what an owner was permitted, by law, to do to a slave who had defied him.
It’s tempting to see Pindell’s accident as a clean break — a departure point, a split. But the show does well to draw a continuum — ruptured, surely, but still intact. Pindell was never quietly following in line; her early works are quietly radical, cheeky, cooptive, a rigorous and playful tease. She declared herself softly, and the works have the subtle beauty of oblique defiance.
The injury may have helped send Pindell into the most fractious debates of her time: Works here address the AIDS crisis of the ’80s, the hellbent gentrification of New York and the resulting homelessness epidemic, police brutality, and the Gulf War. But her priorities hardly wavered. For all its dizzying breadth, her work is consistent: She was always chipping away at the abuse of power, by however radically different means.
Coming to the end, then, feels like arriving full circle, if you’ll pardon the pun. Her latest works here are from 2016 — big, spiraling canvases cut and resewn in the form of a rough nautilus shell, shimmering with glitter and those hole-punched dots. The form suggests a continuum — a symbol of endurance, but also renewal and expansion, the creature at its core regenerating chamber after chamber in a widening gyre.
I think that’s what Pindell would like for us to take away from the show — not that the world is a dark and desperate place, but that things evolve and change, in whatever small increments. Coming through her political screeds and furtive cries to arrive here, at beauty again, feels like something more radical. It feels, dare I say it, like hope.
HOWARDENA PINDELL: WHAT REMAINS TO BE SEEN
At the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham, through May 19. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose/