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Everything that’s beautiful about American art is in Howardena Pindell’s abstract canvases from the 1970s. And all that is 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 graphic content and the “self-care” it may necessitate. It is a short history of lynchings in America. There are some truly terrible images including early 20th-century postcards that celebrate the murders by burning alive, hanging and drowning of Black Americans by mobs of whites. Pindell reads from history books over the images. The slayings she mourns include that of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963 – also remembered in Bob Dylan’s song Only a Pawn in Their Game – and the recent rising death toll that has given birth to Black Lives Matter.

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

For Pindell such atrocities are the latest acts in a long tragedy. Her 2020 work Columbus is a world history of white violence, charting a graphic connection between colonialism and cruelty from the “discoverer’s” abuse of the Taíno people in 15th-century Hispaniola to the brutality of the Belgian Congo and beyond. On the floor under the word-painting lies a sculpted pile of amputated black hands.

So if I tell you this is an exhibition of sheer painterly bliss, that’s going to sound odd. But Pindell is an artist of aesthetic extremes. Her determination to tell the truth about lynchings, past and present, with a blazing horror sits unexpectedly alongside a capacity to lose herself in the colour and texture of abstract painting in a way only American artists can.

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 looks as if she creatively internalised the collection. Her big early untitled canvases are pixellated clouds of purple and blue, or pink and green dots, their intensity varying to create complicated, subtle symphonies of colour. This is a brilliant new step in the history of American abstract art enshrined at MoMA. Its heroes, from Jackson Pollock to Robert Ryman, were often white men. But in her 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 coloured dots that crowd against each other to create such an enigmatic mist. The fascination lies in deciding what is random and what is determined. You see the underlying pattern, but also see it fading and regrouping as if it were as varying as weather, or the shimmering surface of a pond. In fact, these paintings make you think of Monet’s Water Lilies in MoMA – that’s how far they appear to be from the pain and fury of her political work.

Can that really be so? The fact that this exhibition is showing in a university town provides food for thought. My question for students is: how do Pindell’s abstract paintings reflect the history of America?

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

From glowing pools of colour she moved on to monochrome canvases that put all their poetry into texture and shape. These canvases, from the 1970s, are not framed but torn in apparently random jagged strips and hung on the wall in this rough state, covered in white paint, their surfaces studded with circular button-like pieces of paper, the “chads” that are left over when you use a hole punch.

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

This art is a ghostly map of America, a country that can’t shake its brutal past. Back in the 1970s Pindell was painting these visions of an inescapable, cyclical pattern behind events. You could ally her abstract masterpieces with the “paranoid style” in American film and literature of the era. In her later art – bringing in words first as collaged fragments of text then as direct documentary statements – Pindell names the oppressive system.

America the beautiful is no more, the American future is no more, it’s sinking into its own stained history. This great American artist’s progress from poetry to polemic reflects a nation where the gloves are off. Yesterday the canvases textured like gossamer: today the struggle.

— Jonathan Jones

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