In 1963, Faith Ringgold was 32, the mother of two daughters, and on the hunt for a gallery to show her work. To say that it was difficult for black artists to find gallery representation at that time would be a gross understatement. Nevertheless, as Ringgold tells it in her memoirs, We Flew over the Bridge (1995), she was unrelenting in her search, and one day she had a meeting with Ruth White, who ran a gallery in Manhattan on 57th Street.
The artist’s second husband, Burdette Ringgold (everyone calls him Birdie), went along too, carrying her paintings, as he always did. “We never showed [galleries] books or slides,” Ringgold told me one morning in her studio at her home in Englewood, New Jersey. “We used to bring in the actual art because I didn’t want to hear anything about, ‘Yeah, but I can’t see it. I don’t know what you do.’ ”
Ringgold showed White her paintings—still lifes and landscapes in what she called “French” colors, which were very much in line with the gallery’s focus. The dealer studied the work, the artist told me, then said to her, “You”—pause—“can’t”—pause—“do that.”
“What is she talking about? I was taught that!” Ringgold remembered thinking. “She says I can’t do that. I can do anything I want! Hmmm. Hmmm. That’s interesting!”
Driving back to Harlem, she and Birdie talked about what had happened. “I said to him,” Ringgold continued, “ ‘You know something? I think what she’s saying is—it’s the 1960s, all hell is breaking loose all over, and you’re painting flowers and leaves. You can’t do that. Your job is to tell your story. Your story has to come out of your life, your environment, who you are, where you come from.’ ”
The encounter was transformative. Over the next few years, Ringgold would produce some of the most searing depictions ever made of race relations in America, beginning with her “American People” series of paintings, which presents interracial tensions with unflinching clarity. In The American People Series #2: Between Friends (1963), a white woman and a black woman eye each other, close up but from a vast psychological distance. In The American People Series #1: Members Only (1963), six menacing, white faces, cloaked in shadows, stare down the viewer.
“[I realized] I can’t tell your story, I can only tell mine. I can’t be you, I can only be me,” Ringgold told me. She stopped for a moment. “OK. I don’t know that’s exactly what she meant,” she said of White. “But as far as I was concerned, it was. And I started painting.”
The street that Ringgold lives on in Englewood is lined with large bushes and trees, which makes it hard to spot address numbers. But driving slowly down her block of nondescript suburban houses, it was immediately obvious which was hers—the one with a mosaic on the facade, depicting a young girl soaring across a brilliant blue sky. The image is of Cassie Louise Lightfoot, the eight-year-old star of Ringgold’s story quilt Tar Beach (1988), adapted in 1991 into an award-winning children’s book. (Ringgold went on to write and illustrate 16 more books for children.)
Ringgold met me at the door warmly, wearing a black jacket over a tie-dye-style top, all purples and blues, and a thin black bonnet embroidered with flowers. She is 85 but still hearty (her great-great-grandmother lived to be 110), bustling up the stairs to an airy studio she had built atop her house.
Scattered around the studio were folders bulging with materials documenting Ringgold’s nearly 70-year career of art and activism. These were being collected in preparation for the Faith Ringgold Study Room that the University of Maryland’s David C. Driskell Center, which focuses on African American artists and artists from the African diaspora, is planning. “One of the roles that the Driskell Center should play is being a means by which artists are honored,” its director, Curlee Raven Holton, told me. “They’re not always honored in the way that they should be. Faith was on the top of that list.”
While Ringgold’s narrative quilts, which she began making in the 1980s, have garnered her popular acclaim, the extent of her achievements remains too little known. “What I am interested in doing is showing the development of my work from the beginning,” Ringgold said. She showed me into her office, where high up on the wall, next to photographs of relatives and ancestors, was a dark still life, recalling later Braque. She made the work in 1948, as an 18-year-old student at City College’s School of Education.
Ringgold’s original plan had been to study art. But when she showed up at City College’s School of Liberal Arts, she was informed that it did not admit women. “They’re sitting there trying to make me understand that I cannot get a liberal arts degree there,” she said, “and I am refusing to understand. And out of it, one woman says”—Ringgold dropped her voice to a whisper—“ ‘She can do it. Let me tell you how. She can [enroll in the School of Education] and major in art.’ ”
Ringgold’s mother, a fashion designer, was relieved by the teaching degree. The artist’s grandfather on her mother’s side had been a teacher in the South, and there was a strong emphasis on education on both sides of the family.
And it provided a solid, though incomplete, foundation for Ringgold. “I got a fabulous education in art—wonderful teachers who taught me everything except anything about African art or African American art,” she said, starting to laugh, “but I traveled and took care of that part myself.”
After graduating, Ringgold earned a master’s degree in art, taught in New York public schools, and raised her children, Michele and Barbara, having split with her first husband, Robert Earl Wallace, a musician who would later die of a heroin overdose. She began spending more time with Birdie, a close friend of the family. In 1962 they married.
Ringgold was honing her art all the while, and meeting fellow artists. After being rebuffed by White, she wrote to Romare Bearden, hoping to join his freshly formed Spiral group. While Bearden did not invite her to be a member of the collective, he did write back that he enjoyed her slides, adding, “Don’t despair, just continue to work hard.” She did. Spotting the red-green-and-black Marcus Garvey flag outside a building one day, she headed inside; there she met Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and landed a spot in a show that his Black Arts Repertory Theatre was staging in public spaces throughout Harlem in the summer of 1966.
That same year, Spectrum, a co-op gallery in Midtown Manhattan, run by Robert Newman, invited Ringgold to join its roster. A solo show was put on the calendar for late 1967, but a problem quickly arose. “Everybody in the gallery was doing these large, huge things. It was that time,” she told me. “I was living in an apartment where I was limited as to how big the work [could be].” And so Newman gave her the keys to the gallery for the summer so she could use it as a painting studio, and her mother took her daughters. “I wasn’t going to be able to pay attention to them,” she said, “and you can’t have kids you don’t pay attention to. OK, so they went off to Europe, I stayed home. I actually left my husband”—she was laughing now—“because I had to be free to do the paintings.”
That summer she produced a group of astounding pieces, including The American People Series #20: Die, showing a brutal race riot as a tangle of naked black and white bodies spilling blood; The American People Series #19: U.S. Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power, consisting of a grid of faces with one diagonal formed by black faces and the other by the phrase BLACK POWER; and The American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, in which bloody stars and stripes overlay an image of three people—a white man, a white woman, and a black man with a knife—standing arm in arm.
In 2010, the Neuberger Museum of Art, at Purchase College in New York, mounted an exhibition of Ringgold’s paintings from the 1960s. The show was met with rapturous reviews, and a handful of major institutions have added work from that period to their collections, including the Harvard Art Museums, which in 2014 acquired Black Light #8: Red White Black Nigger (1969), a painting that riffs on Jasper Johns’s 1959 Out the Window. In it, Ringgold eschews Johns’s brushy marks for a crisp design, replacing the words RED, YELLOW, and BLUE with RED, WHITE, and BLACK. Floating behind each word is another, larger one: NIGGER.
“To my mind and eye, [those pieces] inform everything else she did, and you really cannot fundamentally understand the rest of her body of work without seeing it in the context of that first work,” said Tracy Fitzpatrick, who helped curate the 2010 show and now directs the Neuberger. Among Fitzpatrick’s duties for the exhibition was to arrange the loan of For the Woman’s House (1971), a mural that Ringgold made of women working as basketball players, police officers, bus drivers, and other male-dominated roles. The ideas for the subjects came from prisoners at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island in New York City, where the mural was installed.
The 1960s were a time of protests, and Ringgold was often front and center. When the Whitney Museum organized a show about 1930s American sculpture in 1968 that included not a single black artist, she mobilized demonstrations. “Faith was the one who just took the bit in her teeth and ran with it,” the critic Lucy Lippard said in a phone interview. The first time Ringgold was called a nigger, she has said, was during one of those protests, by a man taking his daughter to the museum.
Though Ringgold sold a few paintings from her first two solo shows, she often talks about that period as one in which she had nothing to lose. She was still an outsider in both the art world and its protest movement—one of a small number of women of color involved.
In 1970, Ringgold joined with Lippard and others to protest the male-artist-dominated Whitney Biennial as part of a group called the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee. They left eggs and women’s products in the museum with the words “50% women” written on them. (Ringgold’s daughter Michele was an active participant in the protests. She would later become a pioneering culture critic.)
“I remember Faith’s idea was to have these whistles,” Lippard said. “She gave us whistles. When you got in the stairwell, [you would] blow the hell out of the whistles. They would come running to see what it was, and all you had to do was slip it in your pocket and wander off.” The actions, she said, continued for a few months. Those who ran the museum were “pissed,” she told me, “but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do.”
The authorities were less forgiving that same year when, to protest the arrest of gallerist Stephen Radich for showing works by Marc Morrel incorporating the American flag, Ringgold helped put together a show of art featuring flags at the Judson Memorial Church in the West Village. “How dare you tell artists what they can do?” Ringgold said. “That’s the beginning of some really bad funk—bad, bad, bad.” On the penultimate day of the exhibition, plainclothes officers showed up and arrested two of the curators, Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche, along with Ringgold’s daughter Michele, giving up the latter only when Ringgold explained that, no, it was she who should be arrested. Eventually they had to pay fines.
Around this time, Ringgold also made posters for the Black Panthers and the imprisoned Angela Davis—crisp, punchy prints with slogans like “All Power to the People” and “Free Angela”—but that did not quite work out as planned. “They didn’t like them,” she said. “I couldn’t get them to appreciate anything.” The Panthers wanted a poster that read, “Kill whitey,” Ringgold told me. “Political people don’t seem to understand art,” she said. “It’s not what they’re trying to do. And if it is, let them do that. Don’t tell me what to do, because I have to look at this many years from now and be happy that I did it, not unhappy. And I would be unhappy with the ‘Kill whitey.’ It’s not my thing.”
Nineteen seventy-two brought another major shift in Ringgold’s work. During a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, she began talking to a guard who had lived in Harlem. He pointed her in the direction of the museum’s Tibetan thangkas, paintings on thin cloth framed with silk brocade. Ringgold was enchanted with the medium and returned to the States determined to experiment with it. With sewing help from her mother, she began what she termed the “Slave Rape” series, brutal images painted on fabric and surrounded, thangka-like, by pieced cloth borders. “It’s a fabulous way to work because what happens is I can roll [the painting] up—I don’t care how big it is—and take it myself,” she told me.
In the 1970s, Ringgold also made remarkable masks and soft sculptures (the first was of Wilt Chamberlain, “because Wilt was like a sculpture—7 foot 3, my God!”) and began doing performances, like The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro (1976), in which a pair of children are mourned by family members and people in the audience. Ringgold designed costumes for the family to wear. “I thought that up because [African Americans were saying], ‘We’re not going to celebrate that [U.S.] bicentennial because we weren’t free.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, we won’t celebrate, but let’s have a wake and resurrection.’ ”
“Oh, it was a very interesting time,” Ringgold said of those years. “People were really very dedicated to each other, to their freedom and support of one another. And I felt that I had something to say, and I wanted to say it.”
And then, in 1980, came the story quilts, narrative paintings on canvas surrounded by patchwork cloth borders and turned into quilts, picking up a craft Ringgold’s great-great-great-grandmother had worked in as a slave for her masters. Her mother assisted early on. The quilts’ subjects range from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video to Ringgold’s weight loss to Pablo Picasso. They found buyers. “We sold out all of her shows, without question,” said the now-retired dealer Bernice Steinbaum, who began representing Ringgold in the mid-1980s in New York, after visiting her 1984 retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem. “I went up, saw it, and fell passionately in love,” she said.
But Ringgold’s quilts have never quite been taken seriously by most major museums, perhaps because of their craft associations, whimsical range of subjects, or faux naive painting style. Neither the Museum of Modern Art nor the Whitney Museum owns one—though the latter has a 1971 collage calling for the release of Angela Davis. The Guggenheim has owned her masterpiece Tar Beach since the year it was made, 1988, but has never put it on view in New York.
That said, last fall the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, snapped up one at auction for a cool $461,000, a new record for Ringgold for a public sale by a multiple of 30. It dates to 1989 and was commissioned by Oprah Winfrey as a gift to Maya Angelou for Angelou’s 61st birthday. “One of the things that is extraordinary about [Ringgold’s] quilts in general, but this one in particular, is that it has these layers that intersect with each other,” said Margaret C. Conrads, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs. “There’s painting, quilt making, text—there’s high art, craft, figuration, abstraction, the visual aspects, narrative storytelling.”
Near the end of our day together, Ringgold started going through flat files, pulling out posters she made in the 1970s. One is a map of the United States in red and green—another Johns reference. It is titled United States of Attica, after the prison uprising there in 1971. In black text, all over the map, are written instances of bloodshed—riots, massacres, battles—from throughout American history. She could not fit everything she wanted to include. “I saw—you can’t do that, because it’s becoming more and more violent,” she said. And so, on the bottom of the poster is a simple directive in black block letters: “This map of American violence is incomplete / Please write in whatever you find lacking.”
Andrew Russeth is co-executive editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 90 under the title “The Storyteller.”