Solo exhibitions that are also career retrospectives really call for a space sufficient to show {off) the artist’s complete body of work. Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language sprawls magnificently over seven rooms and two corridors at IMMA (the Irish Museum of Modern Art). The largest presentation of her work in Europe to date, it had its origins in Howardena Pindell: A New Language, organized by the Fruitmarket, Edinburgh in 2021. Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language includes some new work in which one sees echoes of the artist’s concerns from the 1970s and 1980s.

American artist Howardena Pindell was born in Philadelphia in 1943. With a BFA degree from Boston University and an MFA from Yale, she worked at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City from 1967 to 1979. (Beginning as an educator, she was MoMa’s first Black curator). By the 1970s, Pindell was experimenting with pointillism and mixed media. Room 1 in the IMMA show features her early abstract paintings that used the office supplies of her MoMA environment: stencils, hole punches, manilla folders and archive boxes. 

The moving screen was another source of inspiration. According to Bomb Magazine, the “deconstruction of structures of authority is specifically evident in her Video Drawings series’, begun in 1973, starting as acetate drawings over a television screen. Pindell’s Free, White and 21 (1980) was the first video acquired for iits collections by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. On display in Room 3 at IMMA, the video features Pindell talking about her own experiences of racism from her childhood onwards. She also creates a counterpoint character in whiteface, who tells the narrator that she must be paranoid and “we don’t believe in your symbols, they are not valid unless we validate them.” At the time when she made Free, White and 21 (perhaps her most famous work), Pindell was suffering from temporary amnesia after a car accident, and what she describes as “yet another run-in with racism in the art world and the white feminists. . . . I remember hearing that the feminists wished I had been “cooperative.” The white voice was the dominant voice. What the white male’s voice was to the white female’s voice, the white female’s voice was to the woman of color’s voice.”

Both Room 3 and Room 6, in which the video Rope/Fire/Water plays, are prefaced by warnings for content. Rope/Fire/Water (2020) was commissioned by The Shed in NYC. The Black Lives Matter movement spurred the artist to work that was contemplated but not completed as early as the 1970s. Pindell’s voiceover of personal anecdotes and historical data on lynchings and racist attacks in the United States is accompanied by statistics on screen and archival photos of lynchings. The paintings in Room 5, which precede this searing video, examine the connections between capitalism and its relationship to slavery, past and present. As the IMMA catalogue points out, Pindell’s “use of data sets harks back to surveys she conducted in the 1980s tracking racism in the art world, and as she says, ‘the numbers say everything’.” 

Paper works displayed in the light-filled West Corridor lead into the “cut and sewn” canvases in Room 7, where individual panels are cut and sewn together in an explosion of color. A beguiling conclusion to a career retrospective for an artist who has, according to The New York Times, “used her work to confront pain and embrace pleasure, spent decades committed to both figuration and abstraction, worked in institutions and criticized them.”

“Howardena Pindell: A Renewed Language” was conceived by Annie Fletcher, curated by Seán Kissane and organized by Sara Muthi. It runs at IMMA until October 30, 2023.