Earlier this year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired one of Faith Ringgold’s landmark early paintings, American People Series #20: Die (1967), a potent 12-foot-long scene of a riot that shows black and white men and women running, crying, and falling to the ground, their faces gripped by horror. Two terrified children hold each other amid the mayhem. Blood is everywhere.
For the past few months, Die has been on view at the entrance of MoMA’s collection galleries on the fourth-floor, and it always seems to have a crowd around it when I pass by. Last night Ringgold sat center stage in a theater at the museum—a museum that she protested in the late 1960s and the early 1970s—to talk about the painting. It was a packed house.
Ringgold, who turned 86 in October, was in fine form. As Anne Umland, a curator in the museum’s painting department, and Thomas Lax, an associate curator in its media and performance department, asked questions, she shared one story after another from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, interspersing her comments with jokes and gossip.
At the time she made Die, Ringgold was teaching in New York City public schools, raising two daughters, Michele and Barbara Wallace, who were in the front row during their mother’s talk, and experimenting with her art—“I wasn’t going to get accepted, so actually I had nothing to lose,” she said, referring to the discrimination she faced in the art world as a black woman.
Ringgold said that she painted Die on two 6-foot-square canvases so that she could move it through the stairwell of the building that housed the Spectrum Gallery, a co-op in Midtown Manhattan, where she had her first show, in 1967. (Even at that size it didn’t fit in the elevator.) It is her largest work on stretched canvas, and in the 1970s she began working with un-stretched fabric, a move that would lead to her now-famous quilts. The switch was a matter of practicality. Working with large stretchers, she said, “I had to wait for my husband to come home from work to move the art. That doesn’t make any sense!”
The opening night at the Spectrum sounds like it was a ball. The gallery’s director, John Newman, set up a record player in one of the rooms for Ringgold’s young daughters and their school friends to dance. Some 400 people turned out, Ringgold said, and one woman stepped off the elevator, saw Die, let out a yelp, and immediately got back on the elevator. “She saw the blood,” the artist said, before adding, “It gives you the creeps to paint blood. Because where there’s blood, there’s death.”
It is still a painful work to look at—it is absolutely unflinching in depicting the racial violence that continues to permeate American life. “I wanted people to understand it’s not just poor people breaking into stores and stuff like that,” she said of the riot she depicted. “What is happening is people are trying to maintain their position in life, either rightly or wrongly, trying to keep one group down. One group is trying to keep the other from advancing. Another group is trying to maintain their position. Another group is trying to get out of the way. So you’ve got all of these things that are happening. Everybody is involved, nobody gets away without a struggle. There is a struggle.” She paused and spoke more slowly. “Freedom is not free. Everybody is going to have to pay a price to be free.
Ringgold was heavily involved in activism at the time. In 1970, she was arrested along with artists Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche for their involvement in organizing “The People’s Flag Show” at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, for which scores of artists had made works involving the U.S. flag, to protest the arrest of New York dealer Steven Radich on the grounds that he had desecrated the stars and stripes by displaying works by the artist Marc Morell that involved it.
“The art world turned out to defend the flag!” Ringgold said. The Judson 3, as they soon came to be called, were convicted and forced to pay a $100 fine. (Later court decisions protected flag burning and so-called flag desecration as on First Amendment grounds.)
A twinkle of mischief came across Ringgold as she remembered the affair. “Somebody better tell someone because we don’t allow that,” she said, clearing alluding to President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s recent proposal that those flag burning be stripped of their citizenship. “Freedom of speech is absolutely imperative. You can’t have art of any kind without freedom of speech.” The audience burst into applause.
Umland announced that Hendricks, who is a curator at MoMA these days, was actually in the audience. Ringgold was delighted, calling out to him, “Well, you know they’re talking about the flag burnings again, you know that, right?”
“I’d heard that,” Hendricks replied dryly.
“Isn’t that interesting?” Ringgold said. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah, ready to move to Switzerland,” Hendricks joked.
As it happens, Ringgold’s newest children’s book—her 18th—concerns another hot-button issue: immigration. It’s titled We Came to America, and tells the story of all types of people finding a home in this country. “I think it might have been the most difficult one [I’ve made] because so many people came here,” Ringgold said. “I didn’t want to leave anybody out. Now, today, we’ve got so many different ethnicities of children, and I wanted them all to be able to see themselves.”
Before opening up the floor to questions, Umland asked Ringgold to think about Die in the context of today, at a time of political crisis. Ringgold made some comments about the work, but then shifted her attention immediately to the present. “I see it coming, people disrupting the peace and tranquility of our country—not that we’re all that tranquil,” she said. “But I think that people will definitely not sit still and allow our freedoms to be assaulted.”