Faith Ringgold, Black Light Series  #12: Party Time, 1969, oil on canvas, 59 3⁄4 × 85 1⁄2".

Faith Ringgold, Black Light Series #12: Party Time, 1969, oil on canvas, 59 3⁄4 × 85 1⁄2".

Faith Ringgold

The past several years have brought a succession of major exhibitions by Black artists who came to prominence in the late 1960s and whom the institutional art world has finally begun to properly recognize. Like many of her peers, Faith Ringgold, raised during the Harlem Renaissance, was denied fine-arts training and initially found her footing as a public-school educator. Yet she continued painting all the same, producing figurative works—with faces contoured in sinuous blues, a recurring motif throughout her career—that suggested the uneasy dualities between our inner and outer selves. As the early optimism of the civil rights movement curdled into skepticism in the wake of political assassinations and failed promises, Ringgold found inspiration in the era of Black Power, a nascent second-wave feminism, and seemingly disparate cultural expressions, from West African carvings to Tibetan Buddhist textiles.

At every turn, Ringgold refused the orthodoxies of the day, from the “purity” of abstraction to the detachment of the much-touted “return of painting” in the 1980s. Instead, her boundary-skewing fusions of sundry materials with image and text exemplify a boldly committed practice that presages the themes and textures taken up by a new generation of Black and diasporic creators. It is fitting, then, that a major survey of her art was presented at Glenstone. While the show originated at London’s Serpentine Gallery before the pandemic, Glenstone owns many of those works, which take on a new urgency in an American context. Ringgold’s quilts and canvases resonated with a concurrent exhibition by Arthur Jafa, as well as with Kerry James Marshall’s Black Painting, 2003–2006, a figurative take on the abstract monochrome, which was part of a yearlong presentation of the artist’s work that came down in March 2020.

Marshall’s recasting of optics through “black light” elaborates the imperatives of the Black Arts Movement and AfriCOBRA, along with their formulation of new aesthetic categories. Unsurprisingly, Ringgold herself is known for her “Black Light” series of oil paintings from 1967–69, which often feature interlocking geometries adumbrated by faces and/or block texts. Her Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969, grimly merges the titular racial slur into the design of the old Stars and Stripes. The work echoes Martin Luther King Jr.’s anxious thought that America invested billions to put, in poet Gil Scott-Heron’s words, “whitey on the moon,” while leaving its citizens of color to languish on Earth. This canvas and a selection of works on paper made around the same time were on display in the “People’s Flag Show” at New York’s Judson Memorial Church in 1970—a presentation that almost landed the artist and her collaborators in jail for “desecration” of the American flag. A highlight of the exhibition here was the related United States of Attica, 1971–72, a lithograph poster titled in honor of the prisoners’ uprising at the notorious New York state penitentiary. The print features a black-outline rendering of the United States and is overlaid by four stacked rectangles in red and green—colors from the Pan-African flag. Viewers were invited to write in instances of US imperialism both within and beyond the country’s borders. The piece spotlights the histories of racialized violence woven into the fabric of our institutions, as well as Ringgold’s sensitivity to intersectional forms of solidarity, some twenty years avant la lettre.

In the subsequent decades, Ringgold developed her mature style, which involved painting on quilted textiles, often in collaboration with her fashion-designer mother, Willi Posey Jones. By the 1990s, these semiautobiographical projects took the form of episodic narratives with interlaced fictional texts and epistolary fragments. The particularly potent series “Coming to Jones Road I,” 1999–2000, and “Coming to Jones Road II,” 2010, refer to her move from Harlem, New York, to Englewood, New Jersey, where, even by the early 1990s, white neighbors openly derided her presence. The quilted #4 Under a Blood Red Sky, 2002, features a pastoral scene with a sanguinary firmament, evoking the arduous journeys of enslaved people fleeing north via the Underground Railroad. Later works from the two series lionize Black leaders such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, their visages floating amid elaborate floral fields. Executed during the years of Barack Obama’s presidency, they are a reminder of the grueling road to liberation.