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 mural-sized painting evokes the civil uprisings erupting around the country at the time. 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)
This frenzied spectacle set against a gridded sidewalk responds to the street riots that broke out in the United States in the 1960s. Ringgold said she wanted to show an “abstraction of what the fights were really all about, and they had a lot to do with race and class, and no one was left out.” The artist depicted the figures wearing business attire and fashionable dress to express how racial antagonisms permeate all segments of American society. In the middle of the chaos, two children sit “trying to help each other out.” Ringgold based her composition on Picasso’s Guernica (1937)—the artist’s response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War—which she regularly visited when the monumental canvas was on display at The Museum of Modern Art.
Gallery label from 2019