PICASSO’S “GUERNICA” (1937) is admired and respected by many artists, including Kerry James Marshall and Faith Ringgold. In 1980, Marshall’s first trip to New York—and first flight on an airplane—was made expressly to see the grand work on loan from Spain at the Museum of Modern Art. Ringgold has described “Guernica” as her favorite Picasso painting and references to the work, his use of space, flatness, and distortion, can be found in her own grand work: “American People #20: Die” (1967).
Ringgold’s “Die” painting is currently on view at MoMA, presented alongside paintings by Picasso. The museum’s acknowledgement of the connection inspired “Close Encounters,” a brief essay by Marshall published in the January 2020 issue of Artforum.
January 2020: Faith Ringgold executed “American People Series #20: Die” (1967) on two panels. The current issue of Artforum devotes two covers to the painting, capturing the entire work, which is 12-feet-wide and six-feet high.
While “Die” references the style of a European master, it reflects what was going on in American cities at the time. Working in a Midtown Manhattan studio in 1967, Ringgold observed riots erupting in black communities throughout the United States. Uprisings in Detroit and nearby Newark, N.J., were among the most destructive. Despite civil rights strides made on the legal front, the racial violence was borne out of frustration with lived experience—racism, segregation, poverty, unemployment, and police mistreatment—during a period deemed the “Long Hot Summer.”
In response, Ringgold painted a stunning depiction of the chaos, a composition of black and white bodies—men, women, and children splayed across a sidewalk amid splashes of blood. A large-scale, two-panel painting, “American People #20: Die” debuted at Spectrum, a cooperative gallery that provided the studio space where she made three murals, including “Die.”
Spectrum hosted “American People,” Ringgold’s first solo exhibition. “Die” was featured in the December 1967 show and has been exhibited rarely in the years since. Spanning 12 feet, the painting appeared in “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” a traveling retrospective on view in 2012-13. It was included in the show courtesy of the artist and ACA Galleries, her dealer since 1995. For half a century, “Die” went unsold. ACA President Dorian Bergen confirmed to Culture Type that before arriving on the walls of MoMA, Ringgold still owned the painting.
A brilliant mix of art and politics, “Die” was purchased by MoMA through ACA Galleries in 2016. Shortly thereafter, it was displayed prominently on the fourth floor, near the entrance to the museum’s collection galleries. In 2018, MoMA published a book dedicated to the painting. “Faith Ringgold: Die” is part of the museum’s One on One series. Each volume is a “sustained meditation on a single work from the collection.”
“However Die was understood in the 1960s, it went unsold in a decade when topical critique—especially explicit representation of interracial violence—and work by women and artists of color struggled for institutional validation. It was also sidelined in the decades thereafter…”
— Anne Monahan
In the book, author Anne Monahan considers the painting’s reception over the years. “However Die was understood in the 1960s, it went unsold in a decade when topical critique—especially explicit representation of interracial violence—and work by women and artists of color struggled for institutional validation. It was also sidelined in the decades thereafter, along with Ringgold’s other work of the 1960s, as she focused on her story quilts,” Monahan writes.
“The painting was only recently ‘rediscovered’ hiding in plain sight as the new millennium’s investment in politically motivated contemporary art, especially work opposed to racism and war, has redirected attention to historical precedents in the 1960s. That attention signals the advent of an expanded conception of modernism that accounts more fully for the decades’ diverse styles as well as its divergent conceptions of what art can and should do.”
FAITH RINGGOLD, “American People Series #20: Die,” 1967 (oil on canvas, two panels, 72 × 144 inches / 182.9 × 365.8 cm). | Acquired through the generosity of The Modern Women’s Fund, Ronnie F. Heyman, Eva and Glenn Dubin, Lonti Ebers, Michael S. Ovitz, Daniel and Brett Sundheim, and Gary and Karen Winnick
AFTER CLOSING for a four-month renovation, MoMA reopened in October 2019 and “Die” returned to the collection galleries. This time, Ringgold’s monumental work is hanging in the same room as Picasso’s “Les demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). The curatorial arrangement caught the eye of Marshall and he wrote about it for Artforum, landing “American People #20: Die” on the cover of the magazine.
Marshall notes that the new installation includes a curious placement of benches. He observes that in a photo from 2004, “the last time MoMA was new,” Picasso’s “Les demoiselles d’Avignon” is on view sans bench. Today, there are benches in front of “Die” and “Les demoiselles d’Avignon.” In a nearby gallery, “Fiery Sunset” (1973) by Alma Thomas is installed adjacent to Matisse’s “The Red Studio” (1911). The presence of a bench completes the pairing.
“In the new new MoMA, the bench seems to be more than just a perch on which to take a load off. In at least two cases that got my attention, the benches mark the presence of Black artists in unexpected places, as if to suggest, You might need to sit down for a minute to get a handle on this,” Marshall writes.
“In at least two cases that got my attention, the benches mark the presence of Black artists in unexpected places, as if to suggest, You might need to sit down for a minute to get a handle on this.” — Kerry James Marshall
MoMA, where Ringgold once protested the lack of access and representation of black artists and women artists, made an audio guide for “Die.” In the recording, Ringgold explains her motivation for making the painting and the meaning embedded in the image.
“There was a lot of spontaneous rioting and fighting in the street and undocumented killings of African American people and great racism. It was amazing what was happening. Everybody knew. Everybody talked about it. But I would never see anything about it on television. Nothing. I became fascinated with the ability of art to document the time, place, and cultural identity of the artist. How could I as an African American woman artist document what was happening all around me?” Ringgold said.
“I wanted to show a kind of abstraction of what the fights were really all about and they had a lot to do with race and class and no one was left out. So you can see they’re all dressed in business suits and they are all hooty dooty, but they are fighting for their position in life in America to be retained.” CT
LISTEN to Faith Ringgold talk about “American People #20: Die”
FIND MORE MoMA’s collection also includes four preparatory drawings for Faith Ringgold’s “American People #20: Die” painting
Recently published, “Faith Ringgold: Die” provides the backstory for Faith Ringgold’s fascinating “American People #20: Die” (1967) painting. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” documents the artist’s 30-year museum retrospective. In addition to writing about his own work, Kerry James Marshall has weighed in on the work of other artists. Recent examples include contributions to the catalogs “Charles White: A Retrospective,” where the essay “A Black Artist Named White” appears, and “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor.”
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