ENGLEWOOD, N.J. — Faith Ringgold has seen plenty of shake-ups and strange moments in her 89 well-traveled years. But the provocative Harlem-born artist — who has confronted race relations in this country from every angle, led protests to diversify museums decades ago, and even went to jail for an exhibition she organized — has had no reference point for the pandemic keeping her in lockdown and creatively paralyzed in her home in this leafy suburb for much of the spring.
“I’m trying to make sense of things, bring some light to the situation,” she said a few weeks ago, when the distraction of the news kept her from climbing the stairs to the beautiful and airy studio she had built when she moved from Harlem 30 years ago. “The children aren’t in school, and all over the world, the same situation,” Ms. Ringgold, a former art teacher, mused, while her two grown daughters hovered and MSNBC played.
“I’m just keeping my eyes wide open so I can find a point of view on all this,” she said with a sigh. “I’ve been waiting for the inspiration that can help me inspire others.”
Then, with the death of George Floyd on May 25, she found herself starting to emerge from her haze and to think more clearly, beginning to visualize how to get her thoughts down. She is, after all, the visionary behind the painting of a race riot in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art that, in the last week, has been called a “gateway” to challenging entrenched ways of thinking about social injustice. Her large-scale work “American People Series #20: Die,” from 1967, was inspired by “Guernica,” and hangs now alongside several of Picasso’s iconic paintings.
“I was just trying to read the times, and to me everyone was falling down,” Ms. Ringgold said of the well-dressed black and white people she painted tumbling to the sidewalk. “And if it upsets people that’s because I want them to be upset.”
The painting will still be on view in late summer, when the museum is set to reopen. Meanwhile, on June 18, Ms. Ringgold and Anne Umland, a curator there, will participate in a live Q. and A. session at 8 p.m. on YouTube, part of MoMA’s Virtual Views series. They will discuss “Die” in detail, and much more.
“Certain works become visitor favorites over a long period of time, but it’s rare when a painting instantly becomes one,” said Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, about the large canvas that stunned crowds in the months after the museum reopened last fall.
With her work recently displayed around the world as never before, Ms. Ringgold is having a late-life moment she would not have imagined when she protested at the Whitney 50 years ago, demanding it include more women and people of color. Dorian Bergen, her gallerist at A.C.A. (which has a history of representing political artists), thinks the surge in popularity (and prices) got a jump-start in 2017 with her inclusion in the Tate Museum of London’s “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”
The show traveled widely, including to Brooklyn. A crowd-pleasing retrospective at London’s Serpentine Galleries in 2019 followed; The Times of London called it “bright, beautiful and brutal” and “a gorgeous gut punch.” In the coming months, there will be shows at the Bildmuseet in Sweden and at Glenstone, the contemporary art museum outside of Washington, D.C. In addition, a Ringgold work with text, “Street Story Quilt” (1985), will be on view at the 150th anniversary show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when it reopens.
“It’s a story of survival and redemption and speaks to powerful social and historical inequities,” said Sheena Wagstaff, the museum’s chairwoman of Modern and Contemporary Art. She oversees a collection that includes younger black female artists (Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson and Wangechi Mutu among them), but notes that while some are better known, “Faith did it first.”
Ms. Wagstaff admires in particular how Ms. Ringgold incorporated black women into her scenes of daily life, adding that while Beyoncé may have invaded the Louvre in a recent music video, Ms. Ringgold had been there three decades ago. Her “Dancing at the Louvre” quilt series from the late ’90s shows exuberant black families enjoying great works of European art. In one work she shows Picasso painting a naked black woman in front of his “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”
“It acknowledges art history while subverting it,” Ms. Wagstaff said. “Faith Ringgold is always polemical but never one-sided.”
And also, never predictable. Some of the portraits in her “American People Series” show elegant black figures subjugated in subtle ways by whites. Later images include a postage stamp of a grid of faces with almost-hidden texts spelling out “Black Power” and “White Power.” One of her earliest painted quilts (her mother, a dress designer, helped) from 1983, called “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?,” uses her texts and images to reimagine the mammy figure as an entrepreneur.
“I’m always thinking about what can be better,” Ms. Ringgold said about looking at life straight on while questioning it. “And if you don’t get it out there, the situation will never change.”
If Romare Bearden, who encouraged Ms. Ringgold early on, believed that “an intense, eager devotion to present day life” was “the calling of the Negro artist,” she got the message. Every one of her images tells a story, as often to uplift as critique and almost always in bright, bold and inviting ways. In a quilt from her “American Collection” series (1997), she painted the Statue of Liberty with her own face and dreadlocks in a harbor full of flailing black figures. Her painting of the American flag called “Freedom of Speech” is covered with handwritten names in gold of everyone from Harriet Tubman to Jesse Helms.
“I didn’t want to leave anybody off,” she remarked in a laid back and youthful voice informed, it almost seemed, by a jazz rhythm. “Everybody gets to speak.”
Her Harlem childhood was full of music and the art-making that her mother encouraged. In 1950 she married Robert Earl Wallace, a jazz musician, had two daughters, Barbara and Michele, then divorced in 1955. She graduated from City College with a master’s degree in 1959 and taught art in public schools and later at college level. She married Burdette Ringgold, who became a loving provider, in 1962, found a gallerist in 1967, had a couple of shows that didn’t do much for her career, then got into organizing protests. She ended up in jail in 1970 for desecration at an incendiary American flag show she co-curated at Judson Church in Greenwich Village.
“They didn’t keep me in for long because the media was watching,” she said.
Around the same time, she met with women imprisoned at Riker’s, then painted a mural showing a female police officer, basketball player, minister, construction worker and U.S. president. “All the things life could bring them if they had freedom,” she said.
“Her images are often of active women wielding axes, marching or singing their lungs out, and as an African-American woman that always interested me,” said Lisa Farrington, an author and associate dean at Howard University. “She stood out because she was so in your face and so politically honest.” So much so that when Chase Manhattan’s curators were about to buy one of her flag paintings for the bank’s well-reputed contemporary collection, they backed off when they noticed it contained an incendiary racial slur.
Later decades have found her working in a variety of mediums and styles, including African masks and soft sculptures, thangka (Tibetan tapestries) and the quilts for which she is best known, including the lyrical “Tar Beach” series that became an inspiring picture book celebrating urban rooftops and the power of imagination.
In the months before the pandemic hit, Ms. Ringgold had been typically active. Using a cane she barely needed and wearing a “Women, Freedom, Now” T-shirt based on one of her collages, she took a day off from working in February to come to MoMA and check out her race-riot painting, and the crowds pondering it. She hit the Met Breuer, too, where her “Freedom of Speech” flag hung in a show of international political artists.
Back in her studio the same week, she was hoping to get back to a commission of stained-glass windows for Yale University that were to replace the racially insensitive ones depicting the former U.S. vice president and notorious slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, hanging in Calhoun College (now renamed for Grace Hopper). She also inspected her series of celebratory paintings of lively elderly people. “Old people don’t always act like old people,” was the message. “What I am saying to people my age is to let yourself continue,” she said.
But she herself could not continue.
Her beloved husband, who spent his life on an automobile assembly line, died on Feb. 1 after years in a nursing home with Parkinson’s. Near the stairwell of her home, she pointed to her painting of a 2001 garden party. He towered over guests with arms out as if to fly. “I guess he’s better off now,” she sighed. In her office, dozens of honorary degrees hung on every wall. A bold painting of some flowers from her student days brightened a corner.
“In college they never told you to paint the world as it really is,” she said as she turned off the light to go downstairs for dinner. “But I always have to feel something to paint it.”
Then came the virus that had her glued to the news without a response.
But with the death of George Floyd late last month, she started to wonder if it would be a catalyst that would turn the tides of social justice in this country. “I can’t imagine what he did to deserve to die,” she said. “His breath was stolen by a system that threatens our freedom.”
That’s when, as a late spring finally took hold outside, she felt her ideas and politics resurging. “I’ve got to see an idea in my head first, and I’m starting to visualize what it is I have to say,” she said.
As of this week, she is working again, actively mulling ideas for a flag project for a commission from the real estate giant Tishman Speyer. The company will install 192 of them in August in Rockefeller Center. Her flag will be flying in good company, with others by Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, Sarah Sze, KAWS and Laurie Anderson.
“And I’m not done yet,” she said. “I’ve got so much more to do.”
When she isn’t working and even, of late, doing strengthening and stretching exercises, she looks out at the big backyard garden that her husband loved so much, and that she featured in several works, with its colors as bright as any in her paintings. After years of neglect, it is being restored.
“That keeps me feeling up,” she said. “Because we are interested in life.”