Recalling her motivation for making this work, Ringgold has explained, “I became fascinated with the ability of art to document the time, place, and cultural identity of the artist. How could I, as an African American woman artist, document what was happening around me?” Ringgold’s American People Series confronts race relations in the United States in the 1960s; this work, the mural-scale painting that concluded the series, evokes the riots that were then erupting around the country. On the canvas, blood spatters evenly across an interracial group of men, women, and children, suggesting that no one is free from this struggle. Their clothing—smart dresses and business attire—implies that a well-off professional class is being held accountable in this scene of violent chaos.
Ringgold has allied herself with a range of artists who took contemporary violence as their subject, from Jacob Lawrence to Pablo Picasso. In particular, Die’s scale, composition, and abstract background explicitly refer to Picasso’s Guernica: Ringgold studied that monumental 1937 depiction of the tragedies of war at MoMA when the painting was on long-term loan there from 1939 to 1981. Even as she was looking back, however, Ringgold was also looking ahead: “I was . . . terrified because I saw Die as a prophecy of our times.” The children grasping each other near the center of the painting give form to this fear of the future.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
The frenzied spectacle depicted here evokes the race riots that engulfed the United States in the 1960s. The composition is also reminiscent of Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937)—the artist's response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War—which Ringgold visited regularly at The Museum of Modern Art. Ringgold's decision to present the figures of Die in business attire and fashionable dresses speaks to the hidden racial antagonisms that permeate even the most well-to-do segments of American society. The work was intended not only to address the tense race relations of the moment when it was made but also to express the artist's fear that racial violence would continue to escalate in the future.
Gallery label from 2016.