On ViewThe New Museum
February 17 – June 5, 2022
“I can no more hide the fact that I am a woman than I am a Negro. It is a waste of time to entertain such subterfuge any longer.” Handwritten on a small panel of fabric stitched into Faith Ringgold’s The Picnic at Giverny: The French Collection Part I, #3 (1991), the words belong to Ringgold’s alter ego, Willa Marie Simone, a fictional Black woman who appears in the artist’s series of story quilts. Simone travels to 1920s France to study the canon of art history. Unable to find her place as an artist within a lineage that venerates only European men, she meets up with other women artists and writers who inspire her to create work that expands historical narratives while affirming the uniqueness of her own creative expression.
Simone’s epiphany echoes throughout Faith Ringgold: American People, the artist’s largest retrospective to date, which spans three floors of the New Museum. Organized by the museum’s artistic director Massimiliano Gioni with curator Gary Carrion-Murayari and curatorial assistant Madeline Weisburg, the exhibition is jam-packed with more than forty years of Ringgold’s most prominent work. Moving between figurative painting, printed matter, soft-sculpture, and her beloved story quilts—forms that in their day went largely unnoticed by the art market—the show affirms Ringgold’s importance as an American artist and acknowledges the ways her groundbreaking career expanded the field for today’s generation of Black artists.
The exhibition begins with the eponymous series of paintings Ringgold made between 1963 and 1967. At the time, she was living in Harlem, parenting her daughters and teaching art at PS 100. Stirred by the Civil Rights movement, she turned her focus toward racial tension, painting in a style she calls “super realism” which features flattened spaces, simple lines, and swaths of muted colors. Her painting, American People Series #2: For Members Only (1963) recalls an incident from the artist’s childhood when she and her classmates were confronted by a group of white men bearing sticks while on a school trip to a suburban park. American People Series #20: Die (1967) is Ringgold’s response to what is known as the long, hot summer, when violent race riots erupted across the country. Bodies both white and black, young and old fall against a blood-splattered duotone grid in a mural-sized painting created in conversation with Picasso’s Guernica (1937).
In 1972, Ringgold began collaborating with her mother, clothing designer Willi Posey Jones, who sewed fabric borders along her paintings for her 1972–73 “Feminist Series.” In 1980, mother and daughter worked together on Ringgold’s first quilt, Echoes of Harlem, a rhythmic composition that includes thirty panels of painted faces set within a traditional flying geese pattern. Dismissed by both her Black peers and the art world at large for her fidelity to women’s work, Ringgold nevertheless developed this combination of textile design and narrative imagery into what she refers to as story quilts, large fabric hangings that often include written narratives. Her breakthrough work Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach (1988) tells the story of a young girl who flies over Harlem’s rooftops and the George Washington Bridge on a summer night. The work was adapted into a children’s book in 1991 and has remained a favorite of elementary-school reading corners ever since. We Came to America (1997) shows a roiling sea in which enslaved Africans struggle and drown, having jumped from a burning slave ship. A Black Statue of Liberty stands above them, cradling a small child in Ringgold’s re-examination of the American saga.
Alongside a steep flight of stairs that runs between two of the museum’s floors, a hidden niche holds two multi-media works, both created in response to the unsolved killings of Black children that occurred in Atlanta over a two-year period. In Save Our Children in Atlanta (1981), twenty small figures swaddled in black stand on a chessboard. What will be the next move? The Screaming Woman (1981) shows a soft-sculpture figure in a neatly tailored dress wearing a “Save Our Children” pin. Her purse has fallen to the ground, and its contents—her wallet, a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, a TV guide, and a lipstick, spill at her feet. She holds a sign listing the names of the twenty-eight murdered children. Among the artist’s most striking works, I was sorry to realize they were not accessible to the young man in the wheelchair and the woman pushing a stroller who visited the galleries the same day I did.
The twelve glorious quilts that make up “The French Collection” are reunited on the fourth floor for the first time since the museum first exhibited them in 1998. Lingering among the hanging chapters of Willa Marie Simone’s story, it is Ringgold’s voice I hear when I read, “You asked me once why I wanted to become an artist. It is because it’s the only way I know of feeling free. My art is my freedom to say what I please.”