For years, Faith Ringgold was best known in the art world as a maker of gorgeous painted quilts and as an author and illustrator of children’s books. Her most famous work has long been Tar Beach (1986), which is both a quilt and a charming book about a family enjoying an evening on the roof of their apartment building. In 2010, though, the Neuberger Museum of Art, at Purchase College in New York, reminded everyone of Ringgold’s early achievements, showing rarely seen paintings from the 1960s—searingly radical works that present racial strife and incisive political messages, as in Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969), an American flag with the last two words of the piece’s title hidden within its stars and stripes. Most of the work on view in that exhibition came from the artist’s collection and had not appeared in public in years.
Since that show, a few institutions have acquired early Ringgolds, like the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Harvard Arts Museums. Now the Museum of Modern Art in New York has, too, adding American People Series #20: Die (1967) to its holdings. Purchased earlier this year, the work is now on view near the entrance to the museum’s fourth-floor collection galleries. (A note: Thomas Lax, an associate curator at the museum, recently wrote a superb essay talking about the work in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.)
The painting appeared in Ringgold’s first solo show, at the Spectrum co-op gallery in 1967. Twelve feet long and six feet tall, it covers two square canvases. Because her studio at the same was modestly sized, she told me when I interviewed her last fall, she made it while working at the gallery over the summer. It shows a race riot in progress, bodies falling in every direction, even off of the canvas so that only limbs visible. Ringgold fills the painting, creating a all-over composition reminiscent of a Pollock abstraction or a Stuart Davis picture—or, as MoMA points out on its wall label, Picasso’s Guernica, which Ringgold apparently saw there in the 1960s. Another intriguing move: the checkered gray background recalls the reductive abstraction that was in vogue at the time while also pointing the way to Ringgold’s later quilts. (That latter point comes from Barnes Foundation Director Thom Collins, who helped organize that Neuberger show.)
It is not entirely clear, but a few characters seem to recur in the painting, as if it is presenting scenes from an event unfolding over time. A white man holds a revolver on the far right side of the canvas and on the left he is sprawled out on the ground, eyes and mouth wide open, apparently dying, as he is held by a black man. Two young children, one black, one white, grip each other close, horrified. Blood is everywhere, splattered in small pools around the canvas—a technique of gestural abstraction and Color Field painting repurposed for potent new ends. The whole thing is painful to look at.
The people and their clothes are painted with unusual shapes of complementary colors, vaguely recalling that other masterwork at MoMA, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). And just as Picasso splintered and blurred space in that painting (it’s unclear if the women standing or reclining or somehow doing both), Ringgold ingeniously expertly tweaks it here. Her people appear to be running, sprawled out on the ground, huddling together, and just barely standing, all within the same plane. It is impossible to resolve the painting into a coherent reading, and so it seems to quake with action and danger and fear.
About three and a half years before Ringgold painted that work, Andy Warhol, of course, made his own own remarkable paintings of a race riot, though the tone of his works is very different. To create them, he silkscreened onto canvas a now-iconic Charles Moore photograph of a police dog biting at a young black protester at a protest in Birmingham, Alabama. As was his tendency, Warhol printed it again and again, across a number of canvases. That repetition mirrored the way that the appalling image had been disseminated in Life magazine, and the way that most Americans experienced the civil rights struggle: through the media, at a safe remove. In Ringgold’s work, though, we are all into the middle of the action. All of their eyes are staring out directly at us.