If you haven’t been, it’s worth a trip over to MAM to see their show of Faith Ringgold’s paintings from the 1960s. Ringgold is most famous in this country for her narrative quilts, which are a staple of grade school art appreciation courses, and for the Reading Rainbow standby Tar Beach. As these early paintings show, her current position as the kindly schoolmarm is a bizarre turn of fate. The paintings from the 1960s are filled with rage and formally experimental. More importantly, they challenge our notarized and sealed narrative of Post-War New York Painting. But as unexpected as their history turned out to be, the paintings themselves are a bit obvious. In the early 1960s, when Ringgold began these paintings, there were few African American artists with whom she could connect. Instead, she modeled herself after James Baldwin, a move which explains the paintings’ heavy narrative hand.
The above painting, American People Series #20: Die, 1967, is at once a pastiche of Guernica and an unexpected vessel for its political anger. What happens when the Canon and consumerism settle on a painting like Guernica? Does its critical power remain, or is submerged behind legend and bulletproof glass, where it waits to be recharged by someone like Ringgold (or Tony Shafrazi)? By being relatively unknown, these paintings are able to carry out the avant-garde mission of better known work.
One of the more blush-worthy paintings is Black Light Series #10: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969. The painting is at once a jenga stack of signifiers and a portrait of the actual flag placed on the moon on July 20, 1969, if it were only visible from the roofs of Harlem. In the 1960s, the space program was not popular with the African American community, who saw it as an absurd excuse to funnel public money away from the disenfranchised. This sentiment is most notably summed up with Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.” [See Video Below]
*This image (an American Flag with the N-Word) has been temporarily removed due to a copyright violation.*
“The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores him and denies him, or else transforms him into himself.” – Roland Barthes, Mythologies
”It fills a cruel gap with an authentic masterpiece,” said Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s director, calling the painting ”as good as they come.” While he refused to say what the Met paid for ”White Flag,” experts estimate its value at more than $20 million. Many consider it the artist’s finest painting.” – Carol Vogel, “Met Buys Its First Painting By Jasper Johns,” New York Times, October 29th, 1998
Jasper Johns painted White Flag, 1955 after leaving the Army. It shouldn’t be seen as the American Flag painted white, but the American flag being drained of color. His military experience taught Johns how a body could be transformed into a symbol, and vice versa. By symbolically draining the blood from the flag, he leaves a sallow corpse. Ringgold picks up on this, and, by painting outside the established dictums of the art world, puts the blood back in.
American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s – November 6, 2011 – January 1, 2012
American People #20, Die, 1967, Oil on canvas, 72 x 144 inches, Courtesy of Faith Ringgold and ACA Galleries, New York
© Faith Ringgold 1967, Photo courtesy ACA Galleries, New York