Review of Howardena Pindell – from pure pictorial bliss to depictions of appalling racial terror | Paint

Everything beautiful in American art is found in Howardena Pindell’s abstract paintings of the 1970s. And everything ugly in America is laid bare by her 2020 video Rope/Fire/Water.

Kettle’s Yard made me read the warning text before seeing Rope/Fire/Water, about its graphical content and the “personal care” it may require. This is a short history of lynchings in America. There are some truly terrible images, including early 20th century postcards that celebrate the killings by burning alive, hanging and drowning black Americans by mobs of whites. Pindell reads history books about pictures. Murders she mourns include that of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963 – also remembered in the Bob Dylan song Only a Pawn in Their Game – and the recent rising death toll that gave rise to Black Lives Matter.

Pindell is deliberately unambiguous in his political art. At 79, she throws her artistic authority into the struggle revived by the BLM movement, the one she saw coming: her 2000 painting Diallo is a cosmic dark blue field in which the names of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond float. , both shot dead by the police. . Diallo was an unarmed Guinean student who was hit with 19 bullets by four NYPD officers firing semi-automatic weapons. The police were acquitted of any wrongdoing.

Steadfast Story… Rope/Fire/Water by Howardena Pindell. Photography: Courtesy of the artist, commissioned by The Shed

For Pindell, such atrocities are the final acts of a long tragedy. His 2020 work Columbus is a global history of white violence, drawing a graphic link between colonialism and cruelty, from the abuses of the “discoverer” of the Taíno people in 15th century Hispaniola to the brutality of the Belgian Congo and beyond. of the. On the floor below the word-painting is a carved pile of amputated black hands.

So if I tell you this is an exhibition of pure pictorial bliss, it’s going to sound weird. But Pindell is an artist of aesthetic extremes. His determination to tell the truth about lynchings, past and present, with blazing horror, unexpectedly sits alongside an ability to lose himself in the color and texture of abstract painting in a way that only American artists can.

Pindel in 1973.
Pindel in 1973. Photography: Courtesy of the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro

Born in Philadelphia in 1943 and educated at Boston and Yale universities, Pindell worked in the 1970s at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it seems she creatively internalized the collection. His first large untitled canvases are pixelated clouds of purple and blue, or pink and green dots, varying in intensity to create intricate and subtle symphonies of color. This is a brilliant new milestone in the history of American abstract art dedicated to MoMA. Its heroes, from Jackson Pollock to Robert Ryman, were often white men. But in his paintings, Pindell works with rather than against the canon.

She replaces the free daubs of the Abstract Expressionists with a system of regular marks – the colored dots that press against each other to create such an enigmatic haze. The fascination lies in deciding what is random and what is determined. You see the underlying pattern, but you also see it fading and coming together as if it were as variable as the weather or the shimmering surface of a pond. In fact, these paintings are reminiscent of Monet’s Water Lilies at MoMA – that’s how far removed they seem from the pain and fury of his political work.

Is it really possible? The fact that this exhibition is presented in a university town gives food for thought. My question for the students is: how do Pindell’s abstract paintings reflect America’s history?

One answer is that his paintings, like Dylan’s song about the Evers murder, indicate the presence of a deep-rooted system of racism behind the country’s shifting surfaces. The themes of structure versus chaos, pattern within variety, that Pindell’s early paintings explore are not just aesthetic. It suggests the larger patterns of history and power, the structure of human relationships.

From puddles of dazzling colors, she moved on to monochrome canvases that put all their poetry into texture and form. These canvases, from the 1970s, are unframed but torn into seemingly random jagged strips and hung on the wall in this raw state, covered in white paint, their surfaces studded with circular pieces of button-shaped paper, the “chads” that are remains when you use a hole punch.

Patterns of power… a detail from one of Pindell's untitled paintings.
Patterns of power… a detail from one of Pindell’s untitled paintings. Photography: Courtesy of the artist, Garth Greenan Gallery and Victoria Miro

It sounds simple and spartan but the effects are wonderfully nuanced. You remember the torn wallpaper in decaying old houses, the matted layers of foliage – any surface that seems to hold time and memory in its compacted layers. As Pindell scatters his sheets of paper and embeds them in the paint, recurring and regular truths haunt the surface chaos.

This art is a ghostly map of America, a country that cannot shake off its brutal past. In the 1970s, Pindell painted these visions of an inevitable and cyclical pattern behind events. You could combine his abstract masterpieces with the “paranoid style” of American cinema and literature of the time. In his later art – involving words first as pasted text fragments, then as direct documentary utterances – Pindell names the oppressive system.

America the beautiful is no more, the American future is no more, it sinks into its own soiled history. This great American artist’s shift from poetry to polemic reflects a nation where the gloves are off. Yesterday the fabrics textured like gauze: today the struggle.

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