Sometime in the early 1960s, the artist Faith Ringgold, who turned 88 on 8th October, visited the Ruth White Gallery in New York to show the well-known dealer her landscapes and still-lifes. According to Ringgold, a living icon of the Black Arts movement, White looked at them and immediately advised her to adopt another tack. “All hell is breaking loose,” the artist remembers White saying, “and you’re painting flowers and leaves. You can’t do that. Your job is to tell your story.”
What White meant, Ringgold understood, was that she should focus on her own experience of America’s unfolding racial, social and political tumult. As a longtime Harlem resident and eyewitness to both the 1964 Harlem and 1967 Newark riots, she knew the evolving narrative of urban unrest only too well.
Subsequently, she made 20 paintings she titled “The American People Series”. The works—which addressed the realities of race in America straight, no chaser—went largely unseen for decades. Today few works of art are more relevant or prescient.
According to an interview Ringgold gave The Washington Post in 2013, it took decades for those early paintings to be recognized as masterpieces. Starting with a show of her 1960s work at the Neuberger Museum of Art in 2010 (“American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s”) the script about those canvases was slowly rewritten. “It was a political time, but not with art,” Ringgold says about the period that saw abstraction give way to Pop.
Eventually, the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Harvard Art Museums acquired paintings; as did Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art (until recently, American People Series #20: Die, 1967, hung near the entrance of MoMA’s fourth-floor collection galleries).
Now another of those searing paintings is on view in New York at the Brooklyn Museum in a powerful show called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” (until 3 February, 2019). A collaboration between the Tate, the Brooklyn Museum, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and The Broad, it is curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley of the Tate, and overseen in New York by Brooklyn Museum assistant curator Ashley James. Titled The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding (1967), Ringgold’s rectangular canvas features a trio of quintessentially American faces peering through a bloodstained version of the stars and stripes.
Though the three figures appear united—the black man in the painting locks arms with a white woman who, in turn, has linked hands with a white man in a jacket and tie—it’s the African American man who has been wounded. His blood flecks the composition and provides the drama inherent in Ringgold’s narrative of fractured social cohesion.
Fifty-one years ago, the artist says she was partly moved to document the blood she saw on the streets of Harlem. Today, during another conflicted period, Ringgold’s bloodied flag and figures represent a powerful model for painterly candor and artistic activism.