In 1970, Faith Ringgold made her first big sale. Chase Manhattan Bank almost bought “Flag for the Moon,” a painting that reminded them of a Jasper Johns — until they realized these stars and stripes were letters spelling a violent racial slur.
So instead they picked “The American Spectrum” (1969), a row of abstract faces painted in a gradient of skin tones from dark to light. As Ringgold, her daughter Michele Wallace and Kirsten Weiss write in FAITH RINGGOLD: POLITICS / POWER (Weiss Publications, $49.95), the piece was originally called “Six Shades of Black,” but the new title “was deemed more amenable to collectors and less likely to encourage inconvenient questions about ethnic and racial representations.” The bank paid $3,000 for it, and still has it today.
But a name is just that, and as this book shows, all of Ringgold’s work in the ’60s and ’70s pushes the viewer toward just such questions: about the whiteness of women’s liberation, about the exclusion of Black artists from the establishment, about criminal justice. The oil paintings, collages, photos and textiles herein trace 25 years of U.S. history through the eyes of a key figure in the Black Power and Black feminist movements. “I didn’t want people to be able to look, and look away,” she says. “I want to grab their eyes and hold them, because this is America.”
Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.