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Numbering: Counting on my Fingers and Toes

Born in 1943 in April without Sesame Street meant there were no bells and whistles when I learned to count. My father’s first university degree was in mathematics. For years he kept meticulous records of the car’s odometer readings of our mileage, driving from Philadelphia to my maternal grandmother’s house in Ohio and my paternal grandmother’s house in Baltimore. My mother and I were his witnesses, watching him write tiny numbers in a small account-like book with delicate graph paper.

Math was one of my weakest subjects in school. I started to use counting and numbers in my work in the 1970s when an art dealer in Ohio, Carl Soloway, asked, “How many points or circles are in your work?” He was referring to my early 1970s work made by spraying synthetic polymer resin through templates. I constructed the templates using strips of punched paper. I had saved the dots of paper punched from oak tag, an off-white paper. Numbering each dot by using a radiograph, a needle, and tweezers, I created two- and three-dimensional works made of collaged, punched, and numbered dots. I also used material such as threads, spray adhesive, and powder on 100 percent ray board. This process led to my developing a video-drawing series made of photographs with numbers and vectors on the negative. The pieces were made by placing a sheet of acetate containing drawings against a television screen and photographing it. I photographed sports images as well as a variety of other images. The work looked like notations for dance called “labanotation” and lines of scrimmage for sports. The use of acetate led to my working with translucent punched and numbered circles that I embedded in handmade paper. Working in my loft studio darkroom, I used a special water filter to strain out iron impurities in the tap water so they wouldn’t appear in the paper.

My work moved away from numbering for 20 years, although in the 1980s and 1990s I used statistics to analyze the number of artists of color shown in museums and art galleries in New York City.*

In the late 1990s, I began the Astronomy Series—drawings on papyrus and exotic papers and prints of northern hemisphere sky charts with galaxy numbers. I also used vectors to imply motion, since the cosmos is in motion and constantly expanding. I am also working on a series of prints that are dimensional and use numbers. Tad Mike, a graduate of Cooper Union in New York, is my master printer. The series is printed on Vivian Brown’s etching press, which she left at her passing to Camille Billops, who let us borrow it.

In the last year of the millennium, I worked on Slavery: Millennium White Black, a painting which included an installation of clay numbers symbolizing families broken up during slavery. Dates are also painted on the canvas and appear in a chronological listing of the history of black and white slavery during the millennium.

A number of the numerical works are on view in my solo show, Works on Paper, 1968–2004, at Ellen Sragow Gallery in New York City, April 3–June 5, 2004.

* “Art (World) and Racism Testimony, Documentation and Statistics,” Third Text, double issue, London (Spring–Summer 1988); “Art World Racism: A Documentation,” New Art Examiner, vol. 16, no. 17 (March 1989); Heart of the Question: Writings by Howardena Pindell, New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1997.

Excerpted from International Review of African American Art 19, no. 3 (2004): 42–43.