“The world closes in on us, and yet painting . . . becomes more expansive. No longer content to be a discrete object, painting aspires to become a world.” So the critic Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Times in July 1967, described how oversize paintings fill our field of vision. Faith Ringgold left the same exhibition Kramer was reviewing with a markedly different impression: “I came away with the idea that there was more to a big canvas than its size; that there had to be a good reason for taking up so much space if the painting was to be more than merely expensive wallpaper.”
At that moment Ringgold was immersed in her own large-scale painting project for an exhibition that December at Spectrum, a cooperative gallery a few blocks from MoMA. The show would be her first outside Harlem, where she was born, lived, and taught art at P.S. 100. Its capstone, American People Series #20: Die (hereafter Die, as it was known at the time), was her last, largest, and most ambitious painting of that summer.
Die conjures a blood-spattered world of indiscriminate interracial carnage. Its gridded but otherwise featureless landscape evokes formalist painting, urban concrete, and pawns on a chessboard. While the figures are standardized racial types, their matching costumes imply that some fundamental transracial commonality has ruptured for reasons unknown. The adults fight, flee, or die as two overlooked children cower near the center, instantiating a moral about generational responsibility that presumably aligns with Ringgold’s priorities as a mother and schoolteacher. To telegraph the message and counterbalance the chaotic subject, she deployed a structured composition, restricted palette, and graphic style.
Ringgold had joined Spectrum the previous year as its only black member. The group, which was heavy on New York School abstraction, voted her in on the strength of her American People series, easel paintings of interracial contact that she had been making since 1963. Psychological snapshots of African American experience as the Civil Rights Movement’s integrationist ethos was giving way to the nationalist one of Black power, they were antithetical in form and content to the cool, ostensibly apolitical modernism then hegemonic at MoMA and well beyond it.
Die advertises Ringgold’s ambition in both its size and its nods to iconic world-makers. Her preparatory drawings signal a debt to Guernica, “my favorite Picasso,” which she knew from visiting MoMA and as a touchstone for modernist “protest art” and oversized figurative painting. Die’s grid evokes the monochromes of Ad Reinhardt while its spatters, controlled disorder, and extended horizontal format suggest Jackson Pollock.
In metabolizing exemplars of modernist abstraction in a figurative critique, Ringgold reveals a predisposition to pastiche, soon to become a hallmark of postmodernism and an autodidact’s independence of mind. The latter may owe something to her training as an art teacher, which, as she recalled, “didn’t teach me anything about being a black artist; no, I learned that by myself.”
Ringgold developed her murals with the support of Spectrum’s director, Robert Newman, who supplied the gallery, empty for the summer, as her studio. Newman, she recalls, “wanted me to depict everything that was happening in America—the ’60s and the decade’s tumultuous thrusts for freedom.” Those “tumultuous thrusts for freedom,” problematically labeled “race riots,” were caused by systemic racism and typically ignited by police brutality. During what would become known as the Long Hot Summer of 1967, well over 100 of them erupted in Black communities across the country, most famously Newark and Detroit, leaving scores dead, hundreds injured, and infrastructure devastated. Anxiety was rampant that, in the words of one reporter, “the disorder was the beginning of a ‘black revolution.’” Malcolm X had spoken of revolution in 1963 and 1964, and LeRoi Jones (soon to be Amiri Baraka), leading light of the Black Arts movement and key influence on Ringgold, had announced in 1965 that “a Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it.” Another of Ringgold’s murals that summer, American People Series #19: U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power, evinces her dual loyalties by wedding Black nationalism to an icon of the American state in an apparent act of mutual validation, however ironic.
Ringgold’s strategic equivocation takes several forms in Die. The cause of the violence is unclear. The racially balanced cast challenges the default identification of unrest with Black neighborhoods. The figures’ consistency and lack of shadows make it difficult to tell if the image represents a single giant melée or sequential views of repeating characters, and whether they are alive (standing) or dead (supine). Finally, there is no information about to and for whom the imperative title Die is speaking. Those formal and conceptual ambiguities amplify Die’s chaos even as they obscure the import of racial difference to the conflict: Is the knife-wielding man in the group at upper right protecting the woman from the gunman’s intraracial attack or launching his own? Is he motivated by self-interest, group psychosis, or interracial hostility? Perhaps inadvertently, the resulting image allows viewers, regardless of race, to identify with the victims, not perpetrators, thereby broadening the painting’s appeal.
By the time Ringgold’s exhibition opened to encouraging if reductive reviews, she had already moved on. Her Black Light paintings, started that same year, eliminate white paint from her palette and white figures from her compositions to represent Blackness as powerful, joyful, and autonomous. She matched that imagery with a fervent activism that initially aimed to redress museums’ underrepresentation of artists, curators, and audiences of color, then quickly expanded to include free speech, feminism, and prison reform.
Until recently, the early phase of Ringgold’s career has been overshadowed by her narrative quilts and prints, children’s books, and even an animated television program. That work might be construed as a series of inspirational history lessons in Black agency, often via female protagonists. MoMA’s purchase of Die in 2016, just one year shy of its 50th anniversary, bespeaks the new millennium’s sensitivity to politically engaged art and realizes the kind of institutional validation for a more expansive conception of modernism that Ringgold and her fellow activists were demanding in 1970.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019).
Anne Monahan, independent scholar