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‘Faith Ringgold’s America: Early Works and Story Quilts’

April 11, 2013

Few artists have kept as many balls in the air as long as Faith Ringgold. As the 25 works in this exhibition demonstrate, she has spent more than five decades juggling message and form, high and low, art and craft, inspirational narrative and quiet or not so quiet fury about racial and sexual inequality. Most of the paintings here are little-known efforts from the 1960s that resurfaced in the Neuberger Museum of Art’s 2010 show “American People, Black Light.” Joining them are nearly a dozen of her better-known story quilts from 1973 to 2004. (The paintings will rejoin the Neuberger show, which has been traveling and will open next at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington on June 21.) It’s great to see the story quilts with their elaborate figurative scenes framed by piecework borders, especially “Who’s Bad?,” a 1988 tribute to Michael Jackson’s pulsing music video, and also examples from the “Feminist” series, mounted on applique?d fabric in the manner of Tibetan thangkas. But the real attraction here are Ms. Ringgold’s implacable works from the ’60s and their assured synthesis of style, ideas and feelings. Often made without white paint as a protest against racism, they combine aspects of Pop art and Social Realism while using geometric and biomorphic abstraction in symbolic ways. Again and again, strong color, bold composition and a commanding internal scale render simple images complex. The uplifting message of “Study Now,” which depicts a young woman carrying a red book emphasized by a big red arrow, is complicated by the longing in her eyes. “The Artist and His Model” (1966) cuts several ways, showing a ferocious young black artist with a marvelous, masklike face in blue and brown, accompanied by a blond, fair-skinned model. And the harrowing mural- size “Die” (1967), with its battling figures and splattered blood, shows how the violent legacy of slavery permeates society as a whole. Ms. Ringgold’s most resolute activism is expressed in seve