Faith Ringgold, at 91, remains a marvel of straight talk and luminous art. An activist, author and educator, she has labored across media and produced work that is always political but also deeply, reverberantly personal, humming with her singular sensibility. Ringgold’s place feels so entrenched in the artistic landscape that it’s hard to remember how unknown she was, and for how long. Born in 1930, she had her first major shows in the 1980s.
Now, the New Museum in New York has congregated a lifetime’s worth of wonders into a massive retrospective that stretches across three floors and covers all aspects of her career, from her engaged, enraged, early paintings through her first experiments with fabric, culminating in the Story Quilts series. These elaborately narrative works, graphic novels at architectural scale, fuse vernacular techniques and lofty style. They are resplendent and agitating, seductive and edifying, like stained glass in a cathedral window.
I asked a guard where to start and he wisely suggested I trace her career backwards, starting at the top and working my way down to the early 1960s. By the time I got to those first, fulminating paintings, I knew that she would eventually come to a hard-won buoyancy. To witness the peace before the struggle isn’t confusing; it’s consoling.
Ringgold often looked backwards, stitching together innovations out of the fragments of her past so that her mature works recapitulate the early chapters of her imaginative life. “The French Collection” (1990-97) tells the tale of Willa Marie Simone, a fictional amalgam of the artist and her mother. The 12 mural-sized wall hangings combine painting, sewing and handwritten text into a decorative epic. Sombre truths lie scattered beneath sprays of whimsy.
We first meet the character as a 16-year-old black girl on a visit to France, where she soon marries a wealthy white American expatriate. He sticks around just long enough to father two children, then conveniently dies, leaving a fortune to his young widow. Liberation! Willa Marie dispatches her kids to live with an aunt back home and throws herself into the artistic whirlwind of Paris.
History obligingly compresses the decades, so that she can reap the fruits of multiple periods at once. She’s invited to Gertrude Stein’s home; mingles with Gauguin, Van Gogh and Seurat at a Parisian café; welcomes African-American artists Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett to the avant-garde bigwigs’ table.
But the most enthusiastic interloper here is the artist herself, dropping in from another era to rewrite history according to her predilections. In “Picnic at Giverny”, her version of Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”, Ringgold’s alter ego paints the scene: a pale, scrawny Picasso posing nude for a conclave of blithe, fully clothed women. Ringgold does not let us forget that we are seeing her work, not theirs; the masters have been demoted to bystanders in her creative act.
Like her protagonist, she visited France with her mother and two daughters in 1961, a moment of maximum uncertainty. Teaching art in a New York City public school and with a masters degree in the subject from the City College of New York, a life in art beckoned but she had to thread her way through unending obstacles. More than 35 years later, she finally exorcised those anxieties: “The French Collection” is a middle-aged artist’s declaration that she has found her place.
In one of the panels, “Dancing at the Louvre”, Willa Marie and her daughters frolic through the galleries, claiming those foreign halls as their own through sheer force of delight. That dogged, determined giddiness permeates the text in the borders. “Should I paint some of the great and tragic issues of our world?” she asks rhetorically in “Picnic at Giverny”, before issuing a ringing response:Nun! I want to paint something that will inspire – liberate. I want to do some of this WOMEN ART. Magnificent!”
The real-life version of that period was harder. After returning from her first European trip, Ringgold repurposed her dining room as her studio and tried to make art her top priority. Like Willa Marie, she was single; unlike her, she was still responsible for her kids, who declined to vanish into someone else’s household. Motherhood “kept me from being an artist until 1964”, she later said.
That frustration was political as well as personal. The years of biding her time coincided with the escalation of the civil rights movement, so that her creative urges and rage amplified each other. When she did start painting, she focused on white liberals in northern cities, their tolerant facades hiding roiling racism. Her chief target, though, was sexism. In a catalog interview with co-curator Massimiliano Gioni, Ringgold recalls how lonely that period was for black women, who were simply omitted from the scene.
“The men had their friendships and their loves, but we just did not. It was impossible for us, ”she says. “I saw many black male artists who were happy to just paint white women and enjoy that freedom instead of talking about the struggle.”
Those were angry times. In “The Flag is Bleeding” (1967), a small white woman left arms with two men, one white, one black. The American flag stretches like a theater scrim in front of the trio, its stripes dissolving in smears of red. When Ringgold returned to the same image in 1997, she substituted the figures with a black woman and two young kids. This is no longer a desperate cry for racial reconciliation, but a refusal to disappear – an insistence that she belongs, even in a nation that refuses to heal its wounds or scrub away its stains.
In the years between breakthrough and retrospection, Ringgold dipped into children’s books, textile works, acrylic on canvas, effigies and embroidery, until she finally came up with her perfect medium: the painted quilt. “Echoes of Harlem” (1980), a collaboration with her mother, heralded the new genre. Faces – 30 of them, dark-skinned and fair, in profile and head-on, young and old, right side up and upside down – are arranged in a grid like a sheet of postage stamps, each one framed by a patchwork of cotton prints. The work still looks vaguely traditional and homespun, like something you might put on your bed.
Ringgold loved the way she could stitch a quilt together out of old scraps and time, re-enacting a frugal ritual that was at once communal and expressive. “You can make them out of rags, you can use old clothes. . . You can make a social event; the slaves did it, ”she said in 1994.
The series The Bitter Nest recounts a family saga in a series of vivid scenes, and in the panel called “The Harlem Renaissance Party” (1988), a gray-haired woman makes her entrance in a fabulously polychrome gown. She’s the avatar of a whole matrilineal order, at once embarrassing and inspiring in her outlandish, undimmable joy. Just as Ringgold wished her mother would “calm down and be natural”, so her daughters once asked the same from her. “She never would,” Ringgold says. “And I never will.”
‘Faith Ringgold: American People’ runs at the New Museum until June 5, newmuseum.org