The National Gallery of Art has acquired The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding (1967), its first painting by Faith Ringgold (b. 1930). This pivotal work by a leading figure of contemporary art exemplifies the artist’s skill in using art as a vehicle to question the social dynamics of race, gender, and power. As a visual storyteller, Ringgold is known for her thought-provoking depictions of the difficult realities of the American experience. The painting was acquired with funds gifted by Glenstone Foundation and from the Patrons’ Permanent Fund. On view through October 24, 2021, at Glenstone Museum, the work is scheduled to appear in Ringgold’s retrospective at the New Museum in New York from February 17 to June 5, 2022.
“This may well be the most important purchase of a single work of contemporary art since the National Gallery acquired Jackson Pollock’s No. 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) in 1976,” said Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of the department of modern and contemporary art.
For Ringgold, the American flag is a potent and powerful symbol. She has said, “The flag is the only truly subversive and revolutionary abstraction one can paint.” This painting is part of her first fully developed body of work, The American People Series (1963–1967). Considered to be among her most powerful series, it features unflinching and often puzzling depictions of the racial tensions and political divisions in the United States during the 1960s.
The Flag is Bleeding examines American identity and history in and through an iconic depiction of the flag, one of Ringgold’s signature motifs. The painting features a semitransparent US flag with colors that appear to bleed or run as a bold backdrop to the ambiguous interactions of three figures—a Black man, a white woman, and a white man—who stand with arms linked. The Black man, who holds a knife with one hand and covers his bleeding heart with the other, simultaneously protects the wound and pledges allegiance to the flag. The vague and shifting relationships of the figures speak to the violent protests in Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, DC, and elsewhere during the politically turbulent era of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the late 1960s.
Ringgold is a painter, mixed-media sculptor, performance artist, writer, teacher, and lecturer whose multifaceted career spans six decades and encompasses a variety of media: paintings, prints, collages, drawings, sculpture, textiles, and children’s books. Her works explore many themes—the race, gender, and class in the United States, as well as history, memory, family, community, and popular culture—all conveyed in a simplified representational style that she has termed “Super Realism.” Ringgold received her BS degree in fine arts and education and MA in fine arts from the City College of New York and is a professor emeritus of art at the University of California in San Diego. After struggling for many years to gain proper recognition in the art world, she has been acclaimed as one of the leading artists of our time, receiving more than 80 awards and honors, including 23 honorary doctorates.
Throughout her career, Ringgold has been driven by a commitment to political change and an interest in world art. During the early 1960s, she created her first political paintings, The American People Series (1963–1967), and had her first and second one-person exhibitions at Spectrum Gallery in New York. In the early 1970s, Ringgold began making tankas (inspired by the Tibetan art form of paintings framed in richly brocaded fabrics), soft sculptures, and masks. She later used this medium in her masked performances of the 1970s and 1980s. Inspired by African art during the 1960s, it was not until the late 1970s that she traveled to Nigeria and Ghana to see the rich tradition of masks that have continued to be a great influence.
(Source: National Gallery of Art Press Release)