21 October 2019

Faith Ringgold's American People: In A New Light

The pairing of this painting by Faith Ringgold with Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in one of the newly rehung galleries at the Museum of Modern Art has attracted much comment even before the official reopening of the museum today (October 21).  Die contains  similar interlocking sections  of blue and white and lots of the color pink, orchestrating a race riot in rhythms as carefully blocked out as Picasso's seemingly chaotic Guernica

There are some glaringly obvious differences.  The prostitutes of the Carrer d'Avinyo confront the viewer eye to eye, their mask-lake faces at the same time challenging and indifferent to the viewer.  The women, men, and children in Die exist on several picture planes as they struggle against pervasive violence, fleeing and falling, pursued, it appears, by blotches of blood.

Ringgold, a keen student of French modernism, has said that Picasso's Guernica, painted in 1937 as a protest against the Spanish Civil War, was her model for Die three decades later, her response to the  rising Black Power movement.  Composed of two parts, Die measures six by twelve feet.  Ringgold's horizontal  mural, and its helter skelter melee, all contribute to a feeling of claustrophobia in the viewer. A sense of visual discomfort may accompany the eye as it moves around the canvas. As in cubist paintings, the lack of shading and perspective in Die places the action in an ambiguous dimension. In its early days Guernica was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art but it is now in the collection of the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

When Ringgold painted the mural Die she was searching for  a personal as well as political kind of black power.  The movement seemed, like the world at large, to ignore women of all races,as Ringgold knew only too well.  When she graduated from high school in 1948 and enrolled in City College, eight blocks from her home, she discovered that women were not allowed to major in art so, enrolling at the School of Education she majored in art and minored in education. 
 In 1966 she participated in the first exhibition of black art in Harlem since the 1930s.

The series American People was first exhibited at the Spectrum Gallery on December 19, 1967.  Die confronted viewers as soon as they got off the elevator; one woman was so upset by the sight that she retreated into the elevator and shouted to the operator to take her back to the ground floor.  Ringgold's husband Robert Earl Wallace remarked at the time that, "You would not see so much blood in Vietnam."  The idea that the work was too bloody now appears as a fading memory in the rear window of history.

For further reading: We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold, Boston, Little, Brown & Company:1995.

Faith Ringgold - American People Series # 20: Die,  1967, oil on two panels, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

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