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At the VMFA, Valerie Cassel Oliver makes her curatorial debut with a half-century of Howardena Pindell’s multifaceted art


A signature piece of 75-year-old artist Howardena Pindell's work is a short performance film titled "Free, White and 21."

In the 1980 video, Pindell, who is black, appears on screen first as herself in the prime of her life, speaking directly to the viewer in a clear voice, gaze unwavering. She reveals several personal incidents of racism, detailing each dehumanizing experience in a direct tone saturated with gravity. Spliced between these stories are short clips of Pindell in character as a white woman, responding to the stories dismissively, again and again.

"You won't exist until we validate you," the white character remarks at one point, eyes hidden behind dark shades, her hair a brassy blonde wig.

The video is a distinctive element of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' new exhibition of Pindell's work, "What Remains to Be Seen," which also marks the curatorial debut of the museum's new Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art, Valerie Cassel Oliver.

The film "underscored [Pindell's] experiences and even those that affected her mother as a child," Oliver says. "It was essential to highlight this moment in which Pindell not only 'finds her voice,' as [curator and writer] Brian Wallis notes … but [also] deftly uses that voice to speak plainly about those experiences."

Oliver believes the film is a visceral example of Pindell's work pushing "beyond the limits that her black body would impose in the art world."

Just a year into her role, Oliver's work mirrors the museum's mission to present to the public more inclusive collections featuring the work of artists who have been categorically excluded from modern and contemporary art criteria.

The show presents select pieces from Pindell's nearly five-decade career, including her drawings, paintings, photographs and videos. It will run through Nov. 25.

Being a black woman who hails from Houston, Oliver understands well exclusivity and inaccessibility in the art world — in a professional sense, surely, but also a personal one. 

  • Scott Elmquist

"I didn't grow up knowing what a curator was," Oliver says. "I was blessed to be able to go on field trips to museums, but I never saw myself reflected in museums, either in the works displayed or in the staff explaining them."

She notes that Pindell became one of the first black curators at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in 1967, and was also the first black woman to earn an master's degree in studio painting from Yale University.

Oliver counts herself as part of only the third generation of black curators working in mainstream institutions.

"So, we're in 2018?" she asks. "Those histories are fairly new."

Modern art is a nebulous, century-spanning term for artistic work created between the last half of the 19th century and the first seven decades of the 20th.

A time of artistic innovation, it includes works such as Edouard Manet's paintings of Parisian cafes, Edvard Munch's oil-on-canvas depictions of human despair and Pablo Picasso's famous cubism and collages. Its direct descendant is contemporary art, loosely defined as creative expressions of the present age and recent memory.

Yet the canon of significant contributions for each respective category has, historically, reflected primarily artists like the ones previously mentioned — all of them gifted, but most of them male, European and white.

Richmond's flagship art museum seeks to flip that script.

"The museum itself has a vested interest, and through the board of trustees an actual mandate, to look at its collection … and find ways to expand narratives about modern and contemporary art," Oliver points out.

Under her bespectacled purview, the museum's modern and contemporary art collections and exhibits will "not only allow women, but other narratives — other people from cultural backgrounds [besides] European, other than white — to exist in a very organic, very fruitful dialogue with one other."

Seated in her sunny office on an upper floor of the museum, Oliver explains her artistic vision, and how, since starting in July 2017, she has been cultivating it to enrich Richmond.

"My perspective is very contemporary. It is about asking the questions, not about formulating answers for individuals," she says.

Untitled #5B (Krakatoa)
  • Untitled #5B (Krakatoa)

Oliver's hope is that visitors will view the artwork she and her colleagues curate and interpret it through their own unique, personal lenses.

"[It's about] opening the conversations wide, so that not only can there be a number of participants from different perspectives added to the conversation, but to also create a space where people have multiple entry points," she explains. "Where the audience could come to contemporary art, could come to modern art and access the things that were being explored from where they were."

Oliver was raised as the youngest girl of eight siblings in a blended family with two sets of children. Her parents met in beauty school.

"Mom was a country girl from the hills of East Texas, training to be a beautician; dad, a barber." The family was decidedly working class and, like all black people in the South in the 1960s, felt the sting of racism.

"My older brothers and sisters grew up in segregated Houston," says Oliver, who witnessed racial disparities as a youngster in the 3rd Ward. Despite this, her parents impressed on all of their children the value of education. "It was an expectation that all of us would go to college, and we did," she says.

Only her education interests were markedly different than her siblings'. 

"I've always had a very active imagination. Everybody was more practical when it came to their studies. It was business, science, engineering," Oliver says. "I was the total opposite: I loved art, literature, music, theater."

In high school, she traveled to Romania, Poland and the Netherlands as a Reader's Digest young ambassador, sparking her curiosity about the wider world. "When in Gdansk, we witnessed the Solidarity movement in action," she recalls, referring to the 1980 trade union and workers rights campaign that gained the support of millions across Poland and paved the way for the country's first freely-elected president, ending 40 years of Communist rule. The historic moment has stayed with Oliver. "[We saw] the shipbuilders coming into St. Mary's Basilica."

But her parents saw studying arts as a luxury, not a career trajectory, she remembers. Oliver earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin in 1987. After obtaining a master's degree in art history from Howard University in 1992, she segued art into her career, working at the National Endowment for the Arts from 1988 to 1995. She was head of its Expansion arts program during her tenure.

Following a curatorial functions director role at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Oliver began working at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston in 2000. Starting as an associate curator, she spent 16 years with the institution and had been named senior curator immediately before joining the VMFA staff.

Oliver says Houston bears striking distinctions from, but also similarities to, her new home in the much smaller, Southern city of Richmond.

"Just scale alone, there's a massive difference," she says, noting that come the next census, Houston is poised to be the third-largest city in the United States. The Los Angeles Times in 2017 dubbed it the "most racially and ethnically diverse major metropolis in the country," outpacing even America's longtime melting pot epicenter, New York.

"It is the most diverse cosmopolitan sprawl of a community that one could ever expect," Oliver says, noting Houston's multigenerational populations of Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Iranian communities. In Richmond, the lens tends to be more black and white, Oliver thinks. Although she is admittedly still learning the city and its history, Oliver says, she's heartened by Richmond's evolving attitudes about identity, and its ability to talk openly.

"In terms of dialogue about race and representation, I think [Richmond] is ahead of the curve in its willingness, its frankness to have this conversation," she explains. "In larger cities, I think issues of race, racism and identity tend to be conflated with economics, or other issues, and there seems to be a reluctance to examine [identity] independently. "

The museum aids Richmond's efforts to become more inclusive of all its residents, Oliver says. "I think the VMFA [serves] as an intersectional space, part and parcel of [Richmonders'] everyday routines. They really see the museum as theirs."

Which makes her mission — continuing, heightening and diversifying the museum's expansion of artistic narratives — so critical.

"People will come out, and they don't really see themselves reflected," says Oliver, who notes that most museums have at some point functioned in a space of exclusivity. "They may see art of a particular time period, of a particular movement, but … how do they see themselves reflected?"

Representation is important beyond the art itself, evidenced by the "fairly nascent" presence of black professionals as museum professionals, she adds.

Howardena Pindell - KATHERINE MCMAHON
  • Katherine McMahon
  • Howardena Pindell

"I never married, and I never had children," says Pindell from her home in New York, where the Philadelphia-born septuagenarian has lived since 1967. She sighs quietly. "I had relationships, but they never lasted. Mainly, the complaint was my art. It took too much time."

Twice, Pindell was asked to marry. Twice she declined.

"The deal was I had to give up my work," she says. "I was not going to give up my work, period."

Having dedicated her life to this pursuit, Pindell feels "strange" reflecting on her career. Her multimedia exhibition, curated by Oliver and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator Naomi Beckwith, is the first feature survey of her vast portfolio. "I have a lot of distance from the work. I kind of do it, and that's it. I would say, in a way, these are the best years of my life," Pindell says.

Widely categorized as abstract, Pindell's art rather achieves a vastly diverse range, the likes of which most artists will never master. Her repertoire and the mediums through which she expresses her art — among them stenciled works on paper, figurative paintings, collages, photography, video, media and performance art — is almost dizzying.

Of her various techniques, a hallmark is her exploration of deconstruction and reconstruction, enacted through an often tedious, extremely detailed process.

"She cuts canvases in strips and sews them back together, building up surfaces in elaborate stages," Pindell's online biography reads. "She paints or draws on sheets of paper, punches out dots from the paper using a paper hole punch, drops the dots onto her canvas, and finally squeegees paint through the 'stencil' left in the paper from which she had punched the dots."

As Pindell launches into a description of a silhouette stencil machine, her musing leads to thoughts about a forthcoming project.

"I [want to do] a series of pieces on black towns that were burned down or destroyed. The black Wall Streets that were destroyed by angry, envious whites. Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Florida, those kind of towns," she explains. "I want to include black churches that were burned. I use text a lot and I will probably include it there."

Untitled #58
  • Untitled #58

Though not yet a reality, the project Pindell describes continues her deliberate inclusion of political and social themes in her pieces, which she's done for more than four decades. Pindell says it would be "impossible" for her work to shy away from topics like racism, misogyny and injustice, as these topics are inextricably entwined throughout American history.

"I was alive during the civil rights movement, during the murder of [Martin Luther] King, the two Kennedys. I remember seeing Jack Kennedy and his wife, because I was in Boston." She pauses, her memory enveloping her. "They had a convertible, so I would see them. Boston's very racist, by the way, it still is."

Coming of age during such volatile times left an indelible impression on Pindell, which shows up again and again in her work, such as her 2008 installation "Hunger."

"It's about how abolitionists used canals to bring runaway slaves either to live in their towns or in Canada," Pindell explains. "Children's shackles from slavery days — what they would put on the babies — are included in the piece."

Night Flight
  • Night Flight

In conjunction with Pindell's exhibition, the museum is offering in its gift shop a full-color, hardcover catalog, "Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen."

"The publication includes essays by art historians, a selection of texts by Pindell, the transcript of a roundtable discussion about Pindell's craft, and full-color reproductions of her work organized by series and introduced by Pindell herself," according to a news release about the exhibition. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago's Beckwith co-edited the catalog with Oliver.

Oliver says "What Remains to Be Seen" is recognition of Pindell's tremendous contributions to contemporary art that is long overdue.

"Howardena Pindell is iconic. Her work deserves this acknowledgement and celebration." S

Artist Howardena Pindell will appear at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Aug. 24 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. for a conversation with Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver about the artist's career and life. The event is free and beforehand, Pindell will sign copies of the exhibition catalog. The exhibit "What Remains to Be Seen" runs from Aug. 25 to Nov. 25. Free.