The 1962 painting, an early work by the acclaimed artist, is encountered at the beginning of a powerful survey of her career on view at the Glenstone museum. Originally presented in 2019 at the Serpentine Galleries in London, the show traveled to Sweden and is seen here in its only U.S. venue. Bringing outside exhibitions isn’t Glenstone’s usual practice, says museum director Emily Wei Rales. But even before the death of George Floyd last summer, and the catalytic effect that had on the Black Lives Matter movement, Glenstone had made plans to host the show.
Seeing it today, while a trial examining Floyd’s death is underway in Minneapolis, is brutally hard, but also exhilarating. Ringgold emerges not just as a powerful advocate for racial justice and the equality of women, but as a prophet. And seeing a cross-section of the 90-year-old artist’s career leaves one thrilled by something else as well: the cohesiveness and persistence of her ideas, impulses and gestures, which suggests a heroic sense of purpose, a mind dedicated to gathering things up, binding them together and making them legible to as wide an audience as possible.
Consider “Four Women at a Table.” There is a narrative here, apparently one of idleness, alienation and mutual distrust, though the picture doesn’t make it explicit. But there is also a tendency to foreground geometries that carry emotional weight, the angles and arcs of looking at or past one another, and the hierarchies of height and placement of the faces within a confined frame. The heads owe something to Picasso and even more to the abstracting lines and planes of Matisse, whose green facial shadows seem to have inspired Ringgold to create analogous blue ones in these first years of her career.
Throughout the exhibition, this tendency to geometry and abstraction recurs, connecting figurative work to occasional forays into pure abstraction. Ringgold, who was raised in Harlem and supported the Black Power movement in the 1960s, is remembered in the reductive shorthand of the casual museumgoer as a political artist, and a provocative one. The display of one of her most bracing works, the 1967 “American People Series #20: Die” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York both honors and attenuates that legacy of activism: The wall-size painting is juxtaposed with Picasso’s revolutionary 1907 “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” with the implicit suggestion that both are disruptive, spontaneous and wild in their tenacity of expressive purpose.
But that minimizes another fact about Ringgold, which becomes increasingly clear throughout this exhibition: the highly plotted and structured forms that underlie every painting or design. She is passionate about composition, making it a metaphor for understanding and thereby containing the energies her art depicts and deploys. One of her best-known works, the 1967 “American People #19: US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power,” uses the Pop Art trope of a familiar, everyday object, the postage stamp, to create a grid of faces, some Black, the others mostly White. The words “Black Power” are inscribed diagonally across the grid, clearly legible. But the grid itself is structured by the words “White Power,” with the letters distended and connected, and rendered in white, and thus almost impossible to read unless you are looking for them.
The ghostly, grid-like font makes a basic statement about the hidden nature of power structures, a ubiquity and omnipresence that makes them disappear within the implied natural order of things. But it also recalls a children’s game, in which words were written with characters stretched out vertically, such that the only way you could read them was to turn the paper so that it was almost horizontal to the floor, which made the vertically distended font appear like normal print.
This game offers a simple lesson in a basic artistic skill, foreshortening. In Ringgold’s hand, it also suggests that we should, at least mentally, take her paintings off the wall if we want to see things from a new angle. That demand becomes even more explicit in her famous quilt paintings, in which the lettering on some of the quilted canvases scrolls around the work geometrically such that it is sometimes upside down, or running up and down the vertical axis. Again, the best way to see this, to read it easily, would be to remove it from the wall — if that kind of thing was allowed in an art museum.
Ringgold turned to making her quilt paintings after discovering a room of 15th-century Tibetan and Nepalese scroll paintings, or tankas, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Paintings that could be rolled up were easier to move and store, which she found convenient at the time. “As a woman artist, you have to manage your work itself,” she said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Olbrist published in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue.
One could fill out a good-size dissertation on Ringgold’s quilt works alone — how they made storytelling and memory central to her work, allowing her to bypass the usual gatekeepers of narrative, and how they confounded old ideas about the line between art and craft, painting and quilting, legitimate and marginalized forms of expression. What strikes one most powerfully seeing them again, and so many of them all at once, is their intimacy. One virtue of things that are highly portable is that you can keep them close to you, and it is that quality of closeness that is most moving.
Among the exhibition highlights is the display for the first time in one gallery of a collection of nine abstract works Ringgold made in the early 1980s, after the 1981 death of her mother. She calls these paintings the Dah series, a made-up name given to them by her first granddaughter, who was learning to speak at the time. Formally, they build on the nearly abstract rendering of forests and greenery seen in some of her earlier works. The patterning also suggests the kind of camouflage we might wear if we were trying to remain inconspicuous in a forest of rainbows, silver and gold, and perpetual sunsets. They suggest paradise, or joy, perhaps the elation of discovery when a child points out something meaningful and says, simply, “that,” “there,” “yes” or “dah!”
The value of this exhibition is its accumulation of detail and insight. It doesn’t argue that Ringgold’s art is somehow more personal and intimate than we usually give it credit for, if only we could see past the politics. Rather, it adds the personal and the intimate to the activist and politically attuned sensibility. It connects the twists and turns in her life — a visit to see the Dutch masters at the Rijksmuseum leads to the discovery of tanka paintings — to her lifelong passion about justice in the world.
But it also offers something that is easy to lose sight of, the utopian “after” of political struggle. What does the better world we seek look like, when we achieve it?
The Dah series suggests it is already there, hiding in plain sight, like the pernicious words “White Power” on the postage-stamp painting she made in 1967.
Faith Ringgold opens at the Glenstone on April 8. Additional information at glenstone.org.
Image: “Early Works #7: Four Women at a Table” (1962) by Faith Ringgold