That’s one of the many messages in the comprehensive survey “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” opening June 21 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. They are paintings of a nation convulsing from civil rights and feminist ideals. They are the faces and bodies of people going through massive social change during a time when the abstract traditions of Pollock and De Kooning held sway, and minimalism and pop art — cubes and commercial imagery — were ascending. It is a message that has come back around, though it’s taken decades.
The 49-piece exhibition unfolds chronologically, taking up eight galleries and provoking visitors with paintings of enormous size, arresting intimacy and unsettling intensity. They are marked by large, emoting eyes, her signature U-shaped line descending from the eyebrows around the nose, and “high-keyed” blues, reds, and greens, colors that dominate not with brightness, but with depth. It is a style she calls super-realism — one that demands that viewers engage.
The pictures are of people alone with their thoughts, alone with their mirrors, or using other people as mirrors. They are blacks and whites together in crowds, silent, or smug, or alienated. Or, as in the case of 1967’s “Die,” dripping blood, and savaging one another. There are words painted inside American flags, black and brown faces alight with the beauty of self-love, along with posters of revolution:Free Women, Free All Political Prisoners, All Power to the People.
“Every time people struggle, they survive, they do better and then they forget and they end up back where they started from,” Ringgold says. People learn to speak up, to make themselves seen and heard and counted, then suddenly they stop doing those things. “It has happened over and over again. It is so sad that it takes so long for people to understand what needs to happen in order to be free.”
Ringgold, 82, a Harlem native, was an icon of the Black Arts Movement, a conscious, community-connected, politically engaged artistic aesthetic that shared philosophical corollaries with the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But she is most celebrated for her revival of African American story quilts beginning in the late 1970s. After the early 1970s, Ringgold says people didn't want to show her early paintings, “and I mean they didn’t show it,” she says. “It was a political time, but not with art,” which was “beautifully abstract, but abstract. And here I come with these images of black and white people and a lot of people got angry at me.”
When an artist becomes famous for a certain thing, it can take time “for historians and galleries to reconnect with what an artist did early in their career,” says museum director Susan Fisher Sterling. But everything that informs Ringgold’s story quilts was in process in her earlier work, Sterling says. “It was the proving ground, if you will. The first stages toward that desire to create a different view of African American life and her sense of herself as a woman, and an artist and as an African American, not necessarily in that order.” Sterling says Women in the Arts is the last venue in a tour of Ringgold’s 1960s work that began in 2010 at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Westchester County, N.Y., and continued on to Spelman College in Atlanta and the Miami Art Museum.
The paintings begin in 1963 — the year of the March on Washington and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers — with the intimacies of “American People.”
“Neighbors” features four unsmiling white figures, a family, seemingly of one accord in their aloofness. “Portrait of an American Youth” is an image of pervasive sadness and stifled promise. A young man in suit and tie, seated and going nowhere against a white figure in the background and red, white and blues all around. In the hierarchy of “The In Crowd” a suited black man is at the bottom of a pile with a white hand across his mouth, his own hands nowhere to protest. Though the white man, “Mr. Charlie” is a rare smiling portrait, it conveys only menace and duplicity; an archetype of such singular historical resonance, it disturbs, even decades later.
“You have these tremendous social changes going on and Ringgold’s art addressed those social changes, says Sterling. “There’s no gloss-over on that.” Early in her career, Ringgold's canvases fit on easels, but by 1967, she had secured a large gallery space, sent her daughters (one of whom is noted feminist writer Michele Wallace) to Europe for the summer and began to stretch out. Her paintings grew larger and more imposing (72 by 144 inches for “Die”), their size a metaphor for the bigness of the issues she grappled with.
Also in 1967, Ringgold began exploring African American skin tone, diversity, beauty and love with tonal studies of abstracted faces in “Black Light.” It is work that presaged the “black is beautiful” idea, Sterling says. It was a notion that was bubbling up, and Ringgold caught it and made it her own. The series represents an evolution in her art and activism; a reflective move to the interior of a people. She rendered events of the late ’60s in text-based works, often painting words — “Music,” “Dance,” “America,” “Love” — on her canvas. Her later political posters used complementary colors, red and green to vibrating, three-dimensional effect, and Ringgold concentrated her artist’s voice on specific issues. “The United States of Attica” is a densely worded “Map of American Violence” covered in murders, wars, uprisings and numbers of dead. In 1970’s “The People’s Flag Show,” she painted these words in all-capital letters, unpunctuated and running together: “the American people are the only people who can interpret the American flag. A flag which does not belong to the people to do with as they see fit should be burned and forgotten.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ringgold’s art and activism became more organized and took on more of an overtly feminist bent. She organized protests by black artists demanding their work be shown at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Museum of Modern Art.
“I started out trying to open up museums to African Americans, because we weren’t getting any opportunity to show our work,” Ringgold says. But she noticed the curators would invite only the men in to talk. She worried that all her agitating seemed to make it easier for black men alone to walk through doors that were once closed. That’s when she became a feminist, Ringgold says. “I don’t need to be struggling for something that’s against me. I’m for others, but I’m also for me.” A protest at the Whitney museum led to exhibitions of works by artists Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud in the museum’s 1970 Sculpture Biennial, the first black women ever included. Ringgold herself has never had an exhibition at the Whitney.
Even all these years later, Ringgold says she’s excited to be showing her early work. “I’m excited because it’s in Washington D.C., and it’s the only women’s museum [dedicated to women in the arts] in the country.” From 1969 to 2010, she says she didn’t show her ’60s work at all, which is why much of it remains in her possession. But “I did not stop working,” she says. She has constantly reinvented herself, writing her autobiography in words, or writing her autobiography in quilts. She’s written 17 children’s books. From 1987 until 2002, she taught at University of California at San Diego. Her publicly commissioned work “People Portraits,” 52 mosaics, was installed in the Los Angeles Civic Center subway station in 2010. She’s created a deck of Obama family playing cards. And she is working on a series of acrylic paintings that will be the illustrations for a forthcoming book “Harlem Renaissance Party,” to be published by Harper Collins.
In her autobiography, she wrote: “I have always wanted to tell my story, or, more to the point, my side of the story.”
To do that, “you have to stay in the game,” she says. You can’t be turned around, or turned out, or stopped. “People don’t mean any harm,” Ringgold says. “Don’t let them do you harm.”
“Just keep working.”
American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s
at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, June 21-Nov. 10. For more information, call 202-783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.