It was about time.
Somehow, “Faith Ringgold: American People” at the de Young Museum is the first West Coast retrospective of the legendary 91-year-old artist and activist, whose works not only chronicle the civil rights movement but envision new ways of being outside the constraints of American racial ideology.
Exaggeration is not a risk when it comes to Ringgold, whose art and activism have consistently formed the vanguard of anti-racism and feminism, a fact clearly seen in this new exhibition, which runs until November 27th.
It “changed the history of American art forever, transforming the institutions, the museums, and the art system in the process,” said curator Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of the New Museum in New York City, where the show originated.
Born in Harlem in 1930, Ringgold grew up in a wealthy black artist community and learned sewing skills from her couturier mother, Willi Posey, which she later applied to her famous story quilts. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from City College in New York in the late 1950s, Ringgold continued to explore and sample from a variety of global traditions, including Buddhist thangka painting and Cubism, while representing the dominant one position of the Western tradition in question.
Faith Ringgold: American People encompasses the artist’s extensive and diverse oeuvre from 1962 to 2010, including early oil paintings on canvas, story quilts and soft sculptures. If you’re familiar with Ringgold’s work, you might notice some major omissions, such as her painting about American violence, Die (1967), or Dancing at the Louvre (1991), a quilt that cannot be certain at this time transported.
Archival footage documenting Ringgold’s activism as part of the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee, Women Students and Artists for Black Liberation, and Women Artists in Revolution accompanies the artworks, which in turn also make activist arguments. All Power to the People, written in 1970 to support the Black Panther read Free All Political Prisoners, is just the most straightforward example.
In 2022, while the United States is still struggling over the nation’s identity and what an alternative to the present might look like, Ringgold’s work can make us — in the words of New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari — “equally critical and hopeful ” – give advice.
“It’s always time to come back to her and her work,” Gioni said, “because—as a true classic—she trembles with a sense of timeless beauty coupled with a sense of eternal relevance and urgency.”
Ringgold’s work is at its most aesthetically pleasing in the Black Light Series. Inspired by the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt’s minimalist compositions, in which dark pigments are so close together that they are initially indistinguishable, Ringgold explored a palette in which white pigments are almost absent.
Free from the classic European paint palette, which relies heavily on white as a mixed color, Ringgold was able to render black skin vivid and nuanced. In Black Light Series #12 Party Time (1969), four open-mouthed characters dance in unabashed joy. With no white pigments, her warm brown skin tones are radiant.
Urgency comes to the fore in Ringgold’s American People Series, which visualizes the troubled race relations of the 1960s with blank faces on half-length figures staring at each other, staring at us. Drawing on Ringgold’s own experience of Martha’s Vineyard, Between Friends shows the failure of supposedly progressive white liberals to meet the gaze of a black woman.
Six white men lined up like a phalanx fear no confrontation in American People Series #2: For Members Only (1963). Their stone faces are from Ringgold’s recollection of a visit to Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers, NY, with her Sunday school group that ended with the men shaking sticks at the children and telling them to leave.
The power of the white men is palpable. They dominate the screen; They dominate the viewer. We share Ringgold’s childhood vision. Like Picasso’s cutting lines, Ringgold’s heavy contour lines that mark facial features simplify the faces until they stand for the reductionist ideas they represent.
Ringgold visualizes the uglier side of America that many have tried to hide. Flat compositions of American flags, more overtly political than Jasper Johns’ impasto versions, demand attention. The belly punch of a 1967 painting, The Flag is Bleeding, speaks to the ongoing American slaughter. Stripes of red cut across the screen and three frontal figures – a wounded black man clutching his chest and holding a knife, a white woman and a white man with their hands in their pockets and reaching for a gun – all of the flag hidden.
She made another version in 1969 entitled Black Light Series #10 Flag for the Moon: The N—, with the command and epithet readable in the stars and bars. As the government tracked the moon, millions of impoverished Americans starved. This painting, featured at Judson Memorial Church on the 1970 People’s Flag Show protesting racism and the Vietnam War, led to Ringgold’s arrest for flag desecration.
In response, Ringgold made another flag. This had “Judson 3” written across the strip in reference to the three arrested artists.
“You can’t necessarily change what’s going on, but I can say what I think about it,” Ringgold said in an interview earlier this year PBS.
As well as chronicling the world around her, Ringgold’s oeuvre also envisions what could be like in a more just America.
American People Series #19: US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power (1967) visualizes the state celebration of racial justice and black pride. A grid of 100 faces, 10 of which are black, representing the African American population in the 1960s, has letters reading “Black Power” running down the diagonal. “White Power” is harder to recognize, although the letters are larger. Their blocky white shapes blend into the shape of the grid itself.
“It speaks to the systemic nature of racism in this country and white supremacy, and that it’s something that’s so much a fabric of our society that sometimes we don’t really see it,” said Janna Keegan, curator of de Young .
In her quilts, Ringgold writes alternative stories most directly. Some imagine an invisible princess born in a cotton field under the protective arms of the Night Prince. Others imagine black life in 1920s Paris through the character of artist Willia Marie Simone.
Simone has a chance to meet Vincent van Gogh in The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles: The French Collection, Part I, #4, but surrounded by sunflowers she is busy quilting more sunflowers with eight other notable black women – Ida Wells, Sojourner Also included are Truth, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks – and van Gogh has to lend a hand with his small supply of sunflowers. European art history is present, but does not have to be centered.
“I gave myself the freedom to take another look at the possibilities of what life could be like,” Ringgold said in the PBS interview. “I didn’t just have to settle for what I was given, especially when it was so… unsettling.”
“Faith Ringgold: American People”: Painting, textiles and mixed media. 9:30am-5:15pm Tuesday-Sunday. Opens Saturday 16th July. On view until November 27th. Free – $15. Free for Bay Area residents on Saturdays. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, SF 415-750-3600. deyoung.famsf.org