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Once Overlooked, Black Abstract Painters Are Finally Given Their Due

That the art market might be eager to satisfy a craving for forms of creative expression that empower or engage with our sense of injustice is understandable; so, too, is the falling down in the critical realm. Writers and scholars may feel more potential solace in speaking about art that’s clearly invested in racial uplift than they do in unpacking a kind of existential conundrum that demands a great deal more of its viewer and denies the relief of a comforting directive. Now that the spotlight is moving back to nonrepresentational art forms, with it has come a fuller picture not just of Black art but of art itself, and of the artificiality of art-world taxonomies, of oppositional labels and styles that are, in fact, a great deal more porous than they’re made out to be.

THIS INCREASINGLY REFLECTIVE mood has brought a welcome spotlight to past innovators, bringing the 87-year-old Gilliam, the 77-year-old Pindell, Whitten (who was 78 when he died in 2018) and others of their generation fresh acclaim. Beginning in 2017, museums in Baltimore, New Orleans and Chicago showcased an entire lineage with the Joyner/Giuffrida collection of African-American abstraction, which includes works by Whitten, Gilliam, Edwards and a number of younger artists. Gaines has a new installation opening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this spring, inspired by his research into the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Black people were not U.S. citizens and therefore could not sue in federal court. In October, Pindell showed (in addition to her first video work in 25 years), five new paintings — some collagelike pieces with text, others expanding on her body of work involving textured abstractions encrusted with paint and paper chads — at the Shed in New York City. The 74-year-old McArthur Binion signed with his first gallery and had his debut solo museum show only eight years ago, after a nearly half-century career; his hand-drawn grids have become increasingly intimate through the years, more recently appearing layered over personal documents or photographs in a kind of autobiographical abstraction.

Gilliam recently showed three different bodies of new work at New York’s Pace Gallery, including an enthralling set of beveled-edge canvases that appear from a distance as largely black or white, but up close contain entire galaxies of colored flecks, their layers of sawdust and paint creating an impression of great depth, as though one could fall into a painting and float away, suspended within its force field. (The paintings pay homage, in their titles, to some of his personal heroes, including Serena Williams and the late civil rights leader Representative John Lewis.) But for anyone who hasn’t been in the same room as a Gilliam painting, perhaps the best place to discover his work is at Dia Beacon in upstate New York, known for its collection of Minimalist and Pop Art, and where, in 2019, the artist installed “Double Merge,” two grandly scaled canvases he painted in 1968, retwisted and draped from the ceiling to span the entire room, creating a double rainbow, essentially, of melting colors with a double history, a now and then, attached: the tension between the past in which it was made and our own uneasy present. When Gilliam was liberating paintings from the wall, Jimi Hendrix was at his most psychedelic and social revolutions were taking hold around the globe. (Gilliam has spoken of music as a metaphor in his way of approaching “the acrobatics of art.”) While viewing these works, one might consider what has and hasn’t changed since the two canvases were painted, or the almost unbearably tender display of beauty and mystery in the face of a callously technological age — or (as I did) one might feel time disappear entirely, such is the exhilarating receptivity of the work in a contained space: a phenomenon that surpasses mere comprehension.

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