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Faith Ringgold, American People Series #9: The American Dream, 1964, oil on canvas, 36 x 24".

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #9: The American Dream, 1964, oil on canvas, 36 x 24".

Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold, American People Series #9: The American Dream, 1964, oil on canvas, 36 x 24".

Faith Ringgold’s paintings from the 1960s stand alone and they have for some time. Long excluded from art-historical narratives, the canvases are frank and unforgiving in what they depict (racial conflicts, gender troubles), but they also have a rather curious way of being so. Ringgold constructs her pointed subject matter via anomalous means, deploying odd but successful color choices, imbuing figurative compositions with bold geometry, and implementing a wending of Matissian line. This body of work—which was culled by Dorian Bergen from the 2010 survey organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, before it is reconstituted this summer in Washington, DC, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, from June 21 through November 10—is paired with Ringgold’s more recent and better-known quilt pieces. These stem from the artist’s identification as a feminist in 1970 and leave behind the traditional stretched canvas for “women’s work” and African textiles. Yet Ringgold’s break with convention was evident before then.

The series “American People,” 1963–67, shows Ringgold buoyantly imaging suppressed aspects of Americanness, employing figuration to a nuanced, generative end. In American People Series #9: The American Dream, 1964, a woman is seated for a portrait in three-quarter profile with her right arm held upright and her wrist bent to reveal a large, brushy diamond ring. But consumerism isn’t the primary critique at hand. Brightly lit from above, her skin (composed of a sampling of pink, cream, and blue) looks porcelain, yet a portion of her head is covered in shadow. The exaggerated darkness of the skin there registers not merely as the effect of shadow; the woman appears to have a two-toned complexion, light and dark. The appearance of this fractured self in 1964 calls forth more contemporary notions of race and gender as performance, and also helps set the stage for Adrian Piper’s performative questioning at the start of the next decade.

Such fragmentation of the self complicates many of the works that were on view. In American People Series #20: Die, 1967, a gruesome, blood-spattered riot painted on a grand scale, Ringgold quells chaos by abandoning verisimilitude through a boldly flat, graphic style. Compositionally and thematically located somewhere between Guernica and Bay Area painter Joan Brown’s jocular, defiantly two-dimensional interior portraits of the 1970s, the painting conveys the moment’s urgency with a deadpan flamboyance. The static figures, each implicated simultaneously as victim and aggressor, stare forward with vacant, disinterested expressions that belie the trauma they have experienced. The result is a sense of isolation that is evident throughout many of Ringgold’s ’60s works.

Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969, emphatically takes up one of Jasper Johns’s signal subjects—the American flag—and pushes Leo Steinberg’s notion of “the commonplace as a painting” to a bluntly provocative edge, interweaving prejudice into the composition of Old Glory: The first word of the title’s imperative is flatly laid atop the stars, the red stripes winding the second one into formation. Here, the US tricolor is tonally darker than we’re used to: red, gray, and blue. The “Black Light” series, 1967–69, to which Flag belongs, is marked by Ringgold’s decision to forgo the use of white paint, a refusal that allows protest to reach visible and internal equipoise in her work. “Protest art” is often identified through its explicit subject matter, yet Ringgold’s production goes further—visually signifying her protest and physically embodying it as well. This limiting structural tenet imbues the paintings with a palpable density, as if the nails they’re hanging on might buckle under their weight.

Beau Rutland