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First comprehensive survey of Faith Ringgold's politically charged paintings of the 1960s opens
Faith Ringgold, American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches, Courtesy of Faith Ringgold and ACA Galleries, New York, © Faith Ringgold 1967, Photo courtesy ACA Galleries, New York.

WASHINGTON, DC.- Best known as the originator of the African American story quilt revival that began in the 1970s, Faith Ringgold’s pointed political paintings of the 1960s are the focus of American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s, an exhibition on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts June 21–Nov. 10, 2013. The exhibition explores the emotional and at times contentious issues that were at the forefront of her experience of racial inequality in the United States during the 1960s. Ringgold created bold, provocative paintings in direct response to the Civil Rights and feminist movements. With only a few exceptions, these once influential paintings disappeared from view, omitted from critical art-historical discourse for more than 40 years. The exhibition includes 49 works from the landmark series American People (1963–67) and Black Light (1967–71), along with related murals and political posters.

“In this important anniversary year for the Civil Right movement, NMWA is proud to show these little known but important early paintings by Faith Ringgold. This engaging and challenging exhibition reflects the depth of Ringgold’s work and the compelling issues she addresses,” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “Art and activism in the 1960s broadened opportunities within the art world for women artists, a goal that we continue to strive for at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.”

During 1963, the year of the March on Washington, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the political assassinations of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy, Ringgold began work on a series of 20 paintings entitled American People. Rendered in a style that synthesizes post-cubist Picasso, pop art, and traditional African sculpture and textiles, these paintings present subjects black and white, male and female, and rich and poor. In her words, “American People is about the condition of black and white America and the paradoxes of integration felt by many black Americans.”

The first painting in the American People series, Between Friends (1963), delves into the challenges of integration. Two other paintings in the series, The Flag Is Bleeding (1967) and Die (1967), examine the hierarchies of power and equality.

As a result of the violent uprisings that took place in many U.S. cities in the mid-1960s, Ringgold’s activist politics and her art evolved. In 1967, she continued her exploration of race through the series Black Light, celebrating the diversity of complexions among African Americans and examining standards of beauty within the “black is beautiful” movement. Perceiving the color black as emblematic of African Americans’ cultural and political “invisibility,” Ringgold developed dark, tonal studies of abstracted faces reminiscent of African masks in works such as Big Black (1967).

Through the Black Light series, Ringgold found her political voice. She painted words such as black, white, free and die inside the American flag and pinwheel-shaped fields of color. Her bold designs reference events that shaped the late 1960s, including the manned Apollo missions to the moon, the race riots, and the imprisonment of activist Angela Davis. These text-based works prompted political posters such as The People’s Flag Show (1970), produced for an exhibition organized by Ringgold and fellow artists in support of a gallerist who was arrested for exhibiting antiwar sculpture fabricated out of the American flag.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ringgold focused her art and political activism on behalf of people of color, especially on behalf of black women. She organized a demonstration by black artists demanding inclusion in the programs of the Whitney Museum of American Art. She participated in several protests at the Museum of Modern Art, resulting in the addition of two black trustees to the board and major survey exhibitions for Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt. In 1970, a second demonstration at the Whitney resulted in the first-time inclusion of black women artists (Betye Saar and Barbara Chase-Riboud) in the museum’s popular Biennial exhibition. Ringgold’s first public commission, For the Women’s House (1971), was the result of a Creative Arts Public Service grant to create a mural for the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island. She created this work based on in-depth interviews with the inmates and decided to include only women in the mural to emphasize the importance of their activities.

Art history typically defines American art of the 1960s by the movements of pop art and minimalism, styles that largely failed to connect with the social and political circumstances of the time. American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s offers clear insight into a critical moment in the history of the United States as well as the powerful experience of an African American artist making her way at this time.

The exhibition is curated by Miami Art Museum Director Thom Collins and Neuberger Museum of Art Chief Curator Tracy Fitzpatrick with students from the Purchase College, SUNY 2010 Art History Exhibition Seminar.

American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s is organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art.

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