One of the most striking aspects of the rehang at the new Museum of Modern Art is the juxtaposition of two works on the fifth floor, created more than a half century apart — Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), alongside Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die” (1967), the latter inspired by Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), which used to hang at MoMA before it was returned to Spain in 1981.
Both are colossal paintings, featuring overlapping figures of roughly life-size proportions. Ringgold’s “Die” depicts a violent interracial street riot, while Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles” employs radical Cubism to produce disjointed, fractured female figures, two with mask-like faces. Things are falling apart, and it isn’t pretty. When the museum reopened last fall, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter called the pairing “curatorial genius.”
Now Ringgold, who was born in Harlem 89 years ago, is in the spotlight again, this time for making art that speaks to the moment, 2020’s remarkable Black Lives Matter moment. In her decades-long career, she has prided herself on being in touch with the zeitgeist.
“I became fascinated with the ability of art to document the time, place and cultural identity of the artist. How could I, as an African American woman artist, document what was happening all around me?” she has said about the creation of “Die,” which resonates so strongly today.
“I wanted to show a kind of abstraction of what the fights were really all about. And it had a lot to do with race and class. It was to make sure that certain people on the bottom don’t get to the top. This was going on then, it’s happening now.”
Call her an activist artist who creates brilliantly colored paintings, posters, soft sculptures, story quilts and children’s books — some 17 in all — beginning with the beloved “Tar Beach” (1991). She is a master storyteller and social commentator, spinning narratives across mediums with results that are both visually appealing and consciousness-raising.
MoMA’s made-for-the-pandemic Virtual Views series presents a video Q&A with the artist and senior curator Anne Umland, poetry inspired by “Die,” Ringgold’s playlist (she shares some of her favorite music to paint by), a reading of “Tar Beach” by the author, and a wealth of children’s activities.
After earning two degrees in art education from City College in the 1950s, Ringgold taught in the public schools and devoted her spare time to establishing herself as a professional artist. When she approached a gallerist, Ruth White, with her landscapes and pretty flowers, her efforts were scoffed at.
“You can’t paint like this,” Umland recalls White saying to the artist in the video Q&A, meaning she should paint her experience — her experience as an African-American woman living in 1960s America, bearing witness to the historic struggle for civil rights.
“American society just keeps repeating itself ... Art should, too ... Being impressed, being inspired by the times we live in. Ruth White’s gallery was right: You can’t do this. Do your own time and place,” Ringgold says.
“American People Series #19: U.S. Postage Commemorating the Advent of Black Power” (1967) makes the point, with the aspirational slogan “Black Power” splashed along the painting’s diagonal, but, tellingly, only 10 black faces (in a sea of 90 white faces) are discernible. It “shows you how little power that was,” Ringgold says of the patent disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground.
“Hate is a Sin”
She became a feminist and demonstrated outside the city’s museums in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, lobbying for more representation (“50%!”) of women and black artists in programming. During a protest at the Whitney, a bystander directed the N-word at Ringgold, in the presence of her two daughters.
In 2007, she recorded the incident in a subversive print of the Confederate flag, emblazoning the words “Hate is a Sin” across the face of the flag and detailing the episode in an inscription along the border. In 2018, the Whitney owned the offense, quite literally, when it purchased the screenprint and displayed it.
This artist is especially revered for her story quilts, which mostly focus on the experience of African-American women. The first, “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?” (1983), imagines the original mammy character on the pancake box as a full-fledged human being with a real-life story, told in words and pictures on small squares. She has a family and a job as a restaurant owner; she’s an entrepreneur.
As Umland says, “You took something that was controversial and degrading and turned it into something inspiring and beautiful.” And she did it nearly 40 years before Quaker Oats announced on June 17 that it was dropping the Aunt Jemima logo and image — the latter updated but based on a racial stereotype — and rebranding its products in response to the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
A viewer asked Ringgold during the Q&A what her artistic response to the demonstrations would be. Her answer: “I’m gonna do some work on it. I have to see which way I’m going exactly. This is a very difficult time for me. It’s gonna take me a while to see it, and feel it, and do it.”
“Virtual Views: Faith Ringgold” at MoMA: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5233