by David M. Roth
“I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above George Washington Bridge,” writes painter/activist Faith Ringgold in the opening stanza of her signature “story quilt,” Tar Beach # 2 (1990). The title of the piece, now on display in Faith Ringgold: An American Artist at the Crocker Art Museum, comes from fantasies the artist entertained as a child on the roof of her family home in the affluent Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem. Born in 1930, at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, she strove to join the ranks of the outsized talents surrounding her: Sonny (“Saxophone Colossus”) Rollins, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Romare Beardon, Duke Ellington and Jacob Lawrence to name just a few. She succeeded. However, as the saga of her life unfolds across this highly telescoped sampling from a 50-year career — organized by Dorian Bergen of ACA Galleries in New York and expanded by the Crocker — what becomes abundantly clear from the 43 works on view is that it was artist, not the stars, doing the lifting.
“Prejudice,” she writes in her autobiography, We Flew Over the Bridge (1995), “was all-pervasive, a permanent limitation on the lives of black people in the thirties. There seemed to be nothing that could really be done about the fact that we were in no way considered equal to white people. The issue of our inequality had yet to be raised, and, to make matters worse, prejudice was blindly accepted as beyond anyone’s control.” By the early ‘60s, when the civil rights movement and her own career had begun to take shape, she encountered another barrier: sexism. Appeals to black male artists who she thought might help her career – Beardon and the poet/playwright Leroi Jones – were initially rebuffed, the unspoken assumption being that black women served the revolution best by standing behind their men. Ringgold fought back, organizing protests against the exclusion of women and blacks at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. At the same time, she was developing a multi-disciplinary art practice forged from African and Asian vernacular traditions, out of which she wove together thinly disguised autobiographical events to tell the story of Africans in America.
It’s a fabulous show. But there are flaws. No attempt is made to situate Ringgold within the context of her peers, predecessors or younger contemporaries. There are also notable gaps in what’s on display. Clearly, this is not a retrospective. Still, there are enough representative works from the artist’s wide-ranging career to make for a timely, engaging and well-documented exhibition whose appeals to history and conscience far outweigh any omissions, either of seminal works or of contextualization.
The show opens with two examples from the American People Series. Executed in a style the artist termed “Super Realism,” they depict lone figures, male and female, lost in thought. The strongest, Portrait of an American Youth, American People Series #14 (1964), shows a well-dressed black man, his downcast face overshadowed by the silhouette of a white male, flanked by a downward pointing red arrow: a bold, graphic statement about white suppression of black ambition. Other equally powerful pictures from this series (not included the show) depict blacks and whites intermingling at social gatherings. They amplify the prevailing sense of racial unrest to almost grotesque proportions, calling to mind scenes of 1920s Berlin painted by George Grosz, and, more specifically, the infamous soirees Leonard Bernstein organized for the Black Panthers, the militant group for which Ringgold once contributed posters. (For a detailed account of those black-rage-meets-white-guilt events, I refer you to Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), available free and in-full at New York magazine online.)
Such overtly political activities did little to endear Ringgold to museum gatekeepers or to older black artists who preferred a lower-key approach to “getting over.” Current art world trends didn't help. The ascendance of Pop and Conceptualism rendered narrative painting about as fashionable as Social Realism. Ringgold continued undaunted. She exhibited in cooperative galleries, lectured widely, curated shows and organized women’s resistance activities, all while supporting herself by teaching art in New York public schools until 1973. At which point her career took off, starting with a 10-year retrospective at Rutgers University, followed by a 20-year career retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem (1984), and a 25-year survey that travelled throughout the U.S. for two years starting in 1990.
These events were preceded by an aesthetic epiphany. It struck in 1972 while visiting an exhibition of Tibetan art at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. There, Ringgold saw thangkas: paintings on canvas surrounded by cloth “frames,” festooned with gold tassels and braided cords and hung like banners. Works that followed, made in collaboration with her mother, Willi
Posey, a noted fashion designer who learned quilt making from her mother, a former slave, set the stage for what became the story quilts: painted canvases hemmed fabric swatches that closely resemble those of Kuba tribe in the Congo region of Central Africa.
“I was trying to use these… rectangular spaces and words to form a kind of rhythmic repetition similar to the polyrhythms used in African drumming,” Ringgold recounts in her autobiography. She also runs stitching across the painted canvas portions, creating the appearance of a continuous, billowing surface, thereby erasing the distinction between painting and textiles. Several fine examples appear in An American Artist, the strongest of which is South African Love Story #2: Part I & Part II (1958-87), a diptych. The story is told in text panels that enclose a tussle between half-animal, half-human figures, a clear reference to Picasso’s Guernica and to the violence that wracked the country during Apartheid’s dismantling. Fabric strips cut into irregular shapes frame the scene, amplifying its emotional pitch with a riot of clashing solids, geometric shapes and tie-dyed stains.
Here, one thinks of the iconic blood-and-mayhem-filled Die (1967), a large-scale scene of interracial violence, made at the height of that era’s political and racial strife. Instead, we get a subtler, but no less devastating, psychological portrait, Coming to Jones Road #5: A Long and Lonely Night (2000), one of a series about a group of escaped slaves. The flashback, Ringgold explains in a wall label, was triggered by the racist hostility she encountered from neighbors when she applied for a permit to build a studio on her property in Englewood, N.J. “The sheer beauty of living in a garden amidst trees, plants, and flowers,” she states, “has inspired me to look away from my neighbors unfounded animosity toward me and focus my attention on the stalwart tradition of black people who had come to New Jersey centuries before me.” Further on, the artist enlarges our view by quoting dialog from another narrative work in the series in which escapees, speaking in the imaginary voice of her grandparents, describe the dangers and privations endured in their efforts to reach the North.
Ringgold’s paintings of jazz musicians and dancers offer joyful respite. Their bold colors and quilt-like format immediately bring to mind Romare Beardon’s pictures of the same subject, but with critical differences. Where his more densely packed collages mirror the fractured character of bebop rhythm and the frenetic pace of urban life, Ringgold’s jazz paintings slow it down, mining the music’s emotional core by calling up actual sounds, if not the sweaty, smoke-filled atmosphere of the clubs in which it was performed. In Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole my Broken Heart (2004), you can practically hear the sizzle of the drummer’s ride cymbal and the wail of the female singer, modeled, I believe, on Dinah Washington.
Additional levity (along with some serious tribal mojo) can be found in the dolls, costumed masks and so-called soft sculptures on display. All reflect the ongoing influence of Ringgold’s textile-savvy mother, and the decidedly Afro-centric direction black fashion had taken during the formative years of Ringgold’s career. A highlight is the life-size, rail-thin sculpture of Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot, 1-inch NBA superstar. The figure, clad in a gold sport coat and pinstriped trousers, towers above exhibition. Ringgold made it in response to negative remarks about black women Chamberlain is said to have made in his 1991 autobiography, View from Above. Wall text quotes Ringgold saying the basketball player “had every black woman I know up in arms and mad as hell,” but without saying why. A clue: Chamberlain claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women. Measured over a 40-year span of Chamberlain’s life, from age 15 to 55, that works out to 1.4 women a day.
I found myself drawn more to the 14 illustrated panels Ringgold made for the award-winning children’s book Tar Beach (1991), adapted from her quilt painting series, Woman on a Bridge (1988). They show eight-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot flying over buildings and bridges from her Harlem rooftop, circa 1939. One needn’t be black or have experience with suffocating New York summers to empathize with Cassie’s need to rise above it all. The desire for transcendence is universal. Ringgold’s efforts to achieve it leave us uplifted, emboldened, wiser and more aware.
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“Faith Ringgold: An American Artist” @ the Crocker Art Museum through May 13, 2018.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.