Faith Ringgold has made flags bleed and girls fly. She has painted indelible images that speak to the racism endemic to American society and crafted quilts that inspire joy and hope. She has created spaces for Black women artists kept out of white-led mainstream institutions, and she has pushed behemoths like the Museum of Modern Art to be more inclusive. (In 1970, John Hightower, a former director of that institution, once wrote her and artist Tom Lloyd a letter saying that the two had “made an enormous difference in the outlook of the Museum of Modern Art.”) She has written award-winning books, and she once curated an exhibition that went down in history and briefly landed her in jail. All of these activities made Ringgold one of today’s most inventive artists. “Creativity,” she once told ARTnews, “is empowering.”
It can often seem as though there’s nothing that Ringgold, now 91, hasn’t been able to do successfully, a line of thinking that’s only reinforced by her New Museum retrospective, which opened in New York on Thursday. Building on previous surveys mounted by the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Neuberger Museum of Art in Upstate New York, the Serpentine Galleries in London, and Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland, the New Museum show is Ringgold’s biggest to date. It shows just how expansive her oeuvre is and demonstrates how innovative her works in multiple mediums have always been—even when they weren’t being shown by the biggest museums in the U.S.
To reflect on Ringgold’s varied output, below is a look at six essential works by the artist.
American People Series #20: Die, 1967
In 1967, Faith Ringgold spent the summer at New York’s Spectrum Gallery, which she used as her studio. The dealer behind the gallery, Robert Newman, wanted her “to depict everything that was happening in America—the sixties and the decade’s simultaneous thrusts for freedom,” as Ringgold recalled in her 1995 memoir We Flew Over the Bridge. What resulted was three large-scale figurative paintings—murals, as Ringgold termed them—that forcefully tackled the anti-Black racism that Ringgold witnessed daily. Die may now be the best-known work of those murals, though it wasn’t always so: the 12-foot-long painting wasn’t widely seen until the Museum of Modern Art acquired it in 2016. In MoMA’s rehang of works in its collection in 2019, it was featured beside Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Using a style that Ringgold called Super Realism because its sharp contours render “what was happening to Black people in America… super-real,” Die features a chaotic profusion of bodies engaged in a violent standoff. Black and white women jut across the canvas in sharp diagonals while Black men appear to stab white counterparts. As blood sprays everywhere, a white boy holds huddles with a Black girl. They both appear shocked by the atrocities to which they are bearing witness.
Die draws on Picasso’s Guernica (1937), another large-scale painting meant to commemorate the horrors of the Spanish Civil War that Ringgold had seen at MoMA. But Guernica is in some ways abstract, and Die feels even more visceral because it so directly approximates the broadcasts of violence against Black Americans that could be seen with frequency at the time. And the painting retains its shock value today. Of the bloodshed within it, Ringgold told the Guardian in 2021, “I found it very easy and very interesting. Because I saw it all the time, you see. People were having these riots, but nobody was painting them.” Ringgold’s figurative style helps enhance the painting’s directness, and also differentiated her from other Black artists in New York at the time, many of whom were working in an abstract mode that was more palatable to mainstream institutions.
Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969
When Ringgold painted Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, the American flag would still have been closely aligned with Jasper Johns, whose masterpiece, Flag (1954–55), reshaped art history. But Ringgold detected something off about Johns’s composition: it may have been influential for formal and conceptual reasons, but it in some way failed to encapsulate the rot beneath the stars and stripes. “I felt Johns’s flag presented a beautiful, but incomplete, idea,” she wrote in her memoir. “To complete it I wanted to show some of the hell that had broken out in the States, and what better place to do that in the stars and stripes?”
Her response was to create Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, which rearranges the red-and-white stripes until they spell out the racist slur in the painting’s title. Meanwhile, the word “DIE” is embedded beneath the stars. The threatening aura of the painting is enhanced by its hues, which are more muted than normal for renderings of the American flag. This is because the painting dates to an era when Ringgold was eschewing the use of white paint that would lighten her colors. The style, Ringgold’s daughter Michele Wallace once wrote, is “the aesthetic accompaniment to the Black Power movement.”
The American flag has been a subject Ringgold has returned to repeatedly, most famously in “The People’s Flag Show,” a 1970 exhibition at New York’s Judson Memorial Church that she curated with Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks. Intended as a protest against the Vietnam War, the show featured numerous works that used the flag to expose what was really going on in America at the time. When the show opened, Wallace, Toche, and Hendricks were arrested, but because Wallace was still a teenager at the time, Ringgold encouraged police officers to arrest herself instead. Recalling the moment when Ringgold was hauled off to jail, Wallace wrote, “Faith, then known as one of the Judson Three, had always been more radical than I was.”
United States of Attica, 1972
From almost the very start of her career, Ringgold saw no separation between her art and her politics. Starting in the late 1960s, she joined and formed various activist groups in an attempt to raise the visibility of Black artists—and often in particular Black women artists—within an art world dominated by white men. Ringgold, whom feminist art historian Lucy R. Lippard calls “determinedly marginal and proud of it” in the New Museum catalogue, started the group Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation in 1970 with Wallace; among its early activities was a protest against the 1970 Venice Biennale, which the group demanded should be “not only white male ‘superstars’ but ‘50% women’ and ‘50% people of color,’” as Wallace once recalled. Ringgold also attended demonstrations at the Whitney Museum by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and joined Where We At, a famed collective of Black women artists that staged what Ringgold considers to be the first New York show composed entirely of Black women.
Ringgold’s activist sensibility also infiltrated her art in the form of posters such as this one, a lithograph paying homage to the inmates who died during a prison uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York the year before the print’s making. The prisoners revolted in protest of their poor living conditions, and armed officers killed more than 40 inmates during the effort to quell them. Ringgold inscribes this event within a larger history of violence in the U.S. that includes conflicts (the Revolutionary War, World War I), racist killings (the assassination of Martin Luther King, anti-Japanese actions during World War II), and colonialist carnage (the Long Walk of the Navajo, the Trail of Tears). In denoting this bloodshed all over the map, Ringgold asserts that violence is just as integral to American identity as the landscape itself. She hints that this history is hardly complete by way of a note at the bottom that encourages viewers to add mention of events not already marked.
Slave Rape #3: Fight to Save Your Life, 1972
This self-portrait is part of a three-part series called “Slave Rape,” with the other two related works envisioning Ringgold’s daughters Michele and Barbara in a similar setting. The first part of the work’s title suggests a form of racist sexual exploitation that is not depicted—the rape in question appears to take place either before or after the moment pictured, or not at all. Whatever the case may be, Ringgold renders herself as a figure who refuses to be submissive. She brandishes a hatchet, as though ready to perform violence upon any viewers who may pose a threat. Additionally, her eyes meet ours—she stares her viewers down.
As she told the New York Times in 2019, the “Slave Rape” series was “heavily inflected with my feminist perspective in both content and aesthetics,” so it can be connected to some of her political activities. But it also can be tied to an ongoing interest in art history and its limits that has persisted in Ringgold’s work. She displays an interest in forms of art-making that exist beyond the Western canon, here relying on a format intended to recall Tibetan thangka textiles, which are often painted with Buddhist images and used as teaching tools. She also offers a counterimage to the supine female nudes seen throughout Western art history by standing up and proudly caressing her pregnant belly. Indeed, the emphasis of motherhood is literally threaded into this painting—Ringgold’s own mother, Willi Posey Jones, who had educated the artist early on about quilt-making, helped her sew the work.
Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach, 1988
Perhaps no work by Ringgold is better known than her picture book Tar Beach (1991), a masterpiece that is beloved by both children and adults. Before Tar Beach existed as a book, however, it appeared in the form of textile pieces that have been labeled narrative quilts because they unspool fantastical stories that bend time and space. (Ringgold hadn’t thought to develop the quilts into a book until she was invited to do so by Crown Publishers; Tar Beach later won the Caldecott Medal, the highest award for picture books in the U.S.)
In this quilt, Tar Beach’s protagonist, a young girl named Cassie Louise Lightfoot, appears on the roof of a Harlem apartment where her family has dinner. The work’s title alludes to a colloquial phrase referring to when New Yorkers journey up to their roofs as their apartments get too hot during the summer. We learn from text scrawled above this nighttime scene that Cassie was born in 1931 on the same day that George Washington Bridge was opened to traffic. She has an unusual ability: “I can fly, yes fly,” she says. And indeed, off in the distance, she soars over the bridge, her arms raised in front of her à la Superman. The mood may be lighthearted, but Ringgold does not ignore the realities of the world. This image is intended to offer an inspirational message to young Black girls: if you will it, it can happen. As Zoé Whitley writes in the New Museum catalogue, “Her young protagonists all possess the belief that they can one day be presidents, property owners, opera singers, time travelers, and, above all, that they can take flight.”
Ringgold’s narrative quilts are also special because they are so formally audacious. But when she began incorporating textile elements, the mode was regarded as craft, which was seen by mainstream art critics as being “feminine.” Women artists of the ’70s, Ringgold included, embraced craft for that reason and used it toward feminist means.
Dancing at the Louvre: The French Collection Part I, #1, 1991
In her 1991 series “The French Collection,” which at the time represented Ringgold’s most ambitious project to date, Ringgold synthesized art history and her own autobiography to communicate, as her daughter Michele Wallace writes in the New Museum catalogue, “the process of becoming a successful Black woman artist.” Like Tar Beach, this series contains a somewhat fantastical air—made-up people intermingle with real ones, as in one image where the protagonist of “The French Collection,” the fictional Wilia Marie Simone, models for Henri Matisse during a trip to Paris in the 1920s. (She has been sent there by her aunt, who believes she will find greater success as an artist in France than she will in the U.S.) Also like Tar Beach, “The French Collection” is not blind to the realities of life—it deals head-on with the tricky balancing act of being a mother and a painter simultaneously, and with forms of implicit racism that manifested in beloved modernist artworks such as ones by Picasso.
In this image, the first in the cycle, Wilia Marie, her kids, and her friend Marcia go to the Louvre, where they twist and turn beneath paintings of white women by Leonardo da Vinci. An autobiographical element is present: Wilia Marie shares a semblance with Ringgold, and Marcia is modeled on Ringgold’s daughter Barbara, who has three kids. The moment is a bit transgressive, given museum guards’ tendency to discourage such displays of joy. But in any case, Ringgold’s characters have found fulfillment in the presence of artworks appreciated throughout the ages. This sense that art can offer liberty for a Black woman like Wilia Marie is reflected in something voiced by her in a letter to her aunt in a later quilt from the series: “You asked me why I wanted to become an artist and I said I didn’t know. Well I know now. It is because it’s the only way I know of feeling free.”