Earlier this year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired one of Faith Ringgold’s landmark early paintings, American People Series #20: Die (1967), a potent 12-foot-long scene of a riot that shows black and white men and women running, crying, and falling to the ground, their faces gripped by horror. Two terrified children hold each other amid the mayhem. Blood is everywhere.
For the past few months, Die has been on view at the entrance of MoMA’s collection galleries on the fourth-floor, and it always seems to have a crowd around it when I pass by. Last night Ringgold sat center stage in a theater at the museum—a museum that she protested in the late 1960s and the early 1970s—to talk about the painting. It was a packed house.
Ringgold, who turned 86 in October, was in fine form. As Anne Umland, a curator in the museum’s painting department, and Thomas Lax, an associate curator in its media and performance department, asked questions, she shared one story after another from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, interspersing her comments with jokes and gossip.
At the time she made Die, Ringgold was teaching in New York City public schools, raising two daughters, Michele and Barbara Wallace, who were in the front row during their mother’s talk, and experimenting with her art—“I wasn’t going to get accepted, so actually I had nothing to lose,” she said, referring to the discrimination she faced in the art world as a black woman.
Ringgold said that she painted Die on two 6-foot-square canvases so that she could move it through the stairwell of the building that housed the Spectrum Gallery, a co-op in Midtown Manhattan, where she had her first show, in 1967. (Even at that size it didn’t fit in the elevator.) It is her largest work on stretched canvas, and in the 1970s she began working with un-stretched fabric, a move that would lead to her now-famous quilts. The switch was a matter of practicality. Working with large stretchers, she said, “I had to wait for my husband to come home from work to move the art. That doesn’t make any sense!”
Photo Credit: The Museum of Modern Art