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signed 'Howardena Pindell' (on a label affixed to the stretcher)
acrylic on canvas
67 x 87 in. (170.2 x 221 cm.)
Painted in 1971.
Garth Greenan Gallery, New York, acquired directly from the artist, 2015
Acquired from the above by the present owner
S. Cowan, Howardena Pindell: Reclaiming Abstraction, New Haven and London, Yale University, 2022, pp. 44 and 50, figs. 19 and 22 (illustrated).
Atlanta, Spelman College, Paintings and Drawings by Howardena Pindell and Vincent Smith, November 1971, no. 5 (titled Blue & Red).
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen, February-May 2018, p. 245 (illustrated).
Los Angeles, Matthew Marks Gallery, Rosebud, July-August 2019.

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Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Comprised of an infinite accumulation of tiny, circular dots that hover before the eyes, Howardena Pindell’s Untitled of 1971 belongs to the rarified group of hypnotic paintings that she made between 1970 and 1973. This body of work numbers only about eighteen extant examples, two of which are held in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The product of many hours of process and refinement, Untitled demonstrates the dazzling surface tension that is the hallmark of this important series. In a testimony to Untitled’s prominence within Pindell’s oeuvre, this painting was selected for her very first exhibit, at Spelman College in Atlanta, for which she showed five recent paintings and four drawings in November of 1971. It was also included in the 2018 retrospective of the artist's work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and appears twice in the recent monograph by Sarah Cowan, published by Yale University.

Working on an immense scale, Howardena Pindell has created an intriguing painting whose roiling surface ranges from vermillion to deep blue, violet and burgundy. Shape-shifting and mercurial, the painting invites the viewer in to examine its surface, wherein thousands of tiny dots have been applied in many successive layers. Coming closer, the focus shifts in and out with the changing vantage point, not unlike the sensation of viewing the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat. What may appear to be a hovering veil of red or purple ultimately dissolves into thousands of its constituent dots. The effect is almost magical, as the beguiling surface shifts and moves like waves across a body of water or dark storm clouds just before the rain.

The art historian Sarah Cowan recently singled out Untitled as an exemplar of Pindell’s spray paintings in her recent monograph. She also noted the change in texture, color and form that results from viewing the painting from a distance, and then moving closer in. She writes: “From afar the painting is atmospheric, its particles dissolved into an indivisible and allover tonal mass. Within a few feet of the work, the surface variation becomes more apparent and spots emerge from the field. [...] The enmeshed dots [form] a visual cloth or web. Closer still to the painting, layers of colored dots appear. [...] The canvas leaves the viewer adrift in color” (S. Cowan, Howardena Pindell: Reclaiming Abstraction, New Haven and London, 2022, pp. 51-2).

To create these spray paintings, Pindell used pieces of cardboard and sometimes metal as a stencil. She took a simple hole-punch to the sheet and made a series of small holes, preferring a random order rather than a structured grid. She then sprayed on layers of gesso and acrylic paint. In Untitled, she limited her palette to the primary colors of red and blue. This labor-intensive process was repeated over and over until Pindell was satisfied with the result. In Untitled, the result was a beautiful, wavering cloud that seems to shift colors before the eye, variously red, purple or blue, that – astonishingly – manages to be all of those colors at once but also none of them, as the painting disintegrates into its individual dots upon closer inspection.

The circle is arguably the single, most important motif in Pindell’s oeuvre, as it was both an abstract cypher but also a personal symbol encoded with her experience of racism as a child. She explained, “When I was a child, I was with my father in southern Ohio or northern Kentucky, and we went to a root beer stand and they gave us mugs with red circles on the bottom to designate that the glass was to be used by a person of color. I see that as the reason I have been obsessed with the circle, using it in a way that would be positive instead of negative” (H. Pindell, “Artist’s Statement” in K. Siegel, ed., High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975, New York, 2006, p. 105).
Pindell ultimately reclaimed that red circle for herself, and remade it into a powerful tool with which she could join the discourse around modernist abstraction in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Pindell had studied Josef Albers’s theories of color and composition during her graduate work at Yale, and she was the first Black woman to hold a job in the curatorial department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Although she was certainly as qualified as her male peers—and undoubtedly more so in many cases—Pindell was nevertheless excluded from any real chance at success. Her use of the circle is now seen as a powerfully-charged symbols through which she exerted her own agency in a predominantly segregated art world.

Even though the painting leaves no trace of the artist’s hand, it was nevertheless a personal, time-consuming and labor-intensive endeavor. Pindell worked close to the surface, moving the stencils into different positions and applying different colors, until she found the particular density of color and tone that was to her liking. She would repeat this process over and over again. The result is a painting that shares affinities with the Color Field paintings by Mark Rothko and the stain paintings of Helen Frankenthaler. Its process-oriented approach is also closely aligned with the post-minimalist strategies of the late 1960s and ‘70s, especially Conceptual Art and what became known as "antiform." Pindell has also stated that she “loved” Seurat, and her ability to conjure up multiple hues from a limited palette of red and blue, in Untitled, is nothing short of magical.

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