Ringgold, whose “Die” is a stark figuration of the bloody human effects of riot, has recalled that much art of the era “was beautiful - abstractions - but it was ignoring the hell that was raging for the African-American people.” Others compared abstraction to improvisatory jazz, a link implicit in William T Williams’ acrylic painting “Trane”, a dazzling tribute to John Coltrane. In “Homage to Malcolm” by Jack Whitten, who was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama in 2015, thick black paint on a triangular canvas (alluding to pyramids) is scored through with an Afro-comb.
Frank Bowling was pivotal in this debate, a Briton from Guyana who moved to London but built a transatlantic career, making huge acrylic map paintings in his Brooklyn studio. In brilliant reds and greens, “Middle Passage” places family photos and mementos over a stencilled imaged of the Americas. The New World is only faintly discernible in “Texas Louise”, a seeming landscape with a horizon in pinks and oranges that ventures deeper into abstraction imbued with history and memory.
As Bowling told me in 2007, the hostility he encountered to his abstract art “sent me to the psychiatrist’s couch”. Yet there is a palpable sense of freedom among artists who used it not as escape but to reimagine the world. In Joe Overstreet’s installation “We Came from There to Get Here”, a suspended tent might recall lynching but for the vibrant optimism of its pastel colours.
Only a couple of these immensely powerful works are in Tate’s own collection. Seminal works not seen for decades have been unearthed. Others - signalled in the exhibition - have been lost entirely in the intervening years. As co-curator Whitley, who is from Los Angeles, says, the show is “timely - but it’s been a long time coming”. To October 22, tate.org