(Museum of Modern Art, New York; acquired through the Modern Women’s Fund; photo by Jonathan Muzikar)

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)

American People Series #20: Die, 1967

On view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York

Great Works, In Focus

American carnage

Faith Ringgold’s response to 1960s’ race riots is as powerful as it is unsettling

Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die,” 1967. (Museum of Modern Art, New York; acquired through the Modern Women’s Fund; photo by Jonathan Muzikar)

But not everyone was ready to see what Ringgold was showing.

Emerging from the elevator into the 57th Street gallery in New York, a woman saw this painting and yelped. Then, as Ringgold told it, the woman stepped back into the elevator and fled.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die” in 2016. At first, curators placed it on a wall facing the busy escalators so that it was almost impossible to come to the museum and not see it. It now hangs alongside the museum’s single most prestigious painting, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

The painting, which combines two panels and measures 6-feet-by-12, was inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s mid-century reinvention of history painting, and by Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece “Guernica.” For more than 40 years, “Guernica” hung at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where Ringgold says she saw it almost on a weekly basis.

Ringgold, who is 89, is an artist and activist. Born and raised in Harlem, she worked for almost 20 years teaching art to children who ranged from prekindergarten to college age. She is famous for her “story quilts.” But she has always painted, as well.

She painted “American People Series #20: Die” in response to race riots breaking out around America in 1967 — in Detroit and Newark, most prominently, but hardly confined to those cities. Between 1965 and 1968, there were more than 150 riots or major disorders. In 1967 alone — the year Ringgold painted this work — 83 people were killed, 1,800 injured, and property valued at more than $100 million was damaged, looted or destroyed. “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” stated the 1968 Kerner Commission report, “one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Ringgold wanted people to understand that the riots were “not just poor people breaking into stores.” They were about white flight, urban blight, dying industries. They were about, she said, “people trying to maintain their position, and people trying to get away.

“Everybody,” she said, “was involved.” Which is why half the figures in her painting are white and half black, and why Ringgold chose to show them wearing cocktail dresses and suits.

Hale Woodruff, the acclaimed African American artist, had criticized Ringgold’s earlier work for being too static. She had wanted it that way. But she also wanted to show Woodruff that she could convey movement, and what it feels like to be in a violent, volatile situation, when, as she put it, “there’s a willingness to do the right thing, but somehow the wrong thing gets done.”

If Woodruff’s criticism was the creative goad Ringgold needed, long live criticism!

Ringgold’s other works in the “American People Series” are interesting and okay, but no more than that. “Die,” with its two children huddled near the center of a bloody maelstrom, its overt stylization (which now feels prophetically realistic as mass murderers try to re-create movies or video games as they commit their atrocities) and its citrus palette of pinks and oranges against grays and blacks is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.