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Vol. LXIII, No. 26
 
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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Art


“SONNY’S QUILT”: This acrylic on canvas (appliqued, printed, and pieced fabric) from 1986, Faith Ringgold’s tribute to her childhood friend Sonny Rollins, can be seen in “Declaration of Independence: 50 Years of Art by Faith Ringgold,” which will be on display in New Brunswick’s Mason Gross Galleries, Civic Square, 33 Livingston Avenue, through June 26. Hours are noon to 4 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays, and by appointment. The exhibition was curated by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin, directors of Rutgers’ Institute for Women and Art.

Mason Gross Galleries
Obama, the American Dream, and the Yes-We-Can Art of Faith Ringgold

Stuart Mitchner

In New York the poets own the bridges: Paul Simon owns the 59th Street, Hart Crane the Brooklyn, Sonny Rollins the Williamsburg, and Faith Ringgold the George Washington, which was being built as she was being born in nearby Harlem Hospital on October 8, 1930. The George is hers; she’s claimed it in her art, flying over it 58 years later in the starlit rooftop summer night vision of her painted story quilt, Tar Beach. According to the notes for “Declaration of Independence: 50 Years of Art by Faith Ringgold,” which will be on display in New Brunswick’s Mason Gross Galleries through June 26, Ringgold’s father, Andrew Jones, helped hoist cable during its construction, and according to Ringgold, Tar Beach was inspired by Sonny Rollins blowing tenor sax cadenzas mid-span on his bridge so as not to disturb his Grand Street neighbors.

Ringgold and Rollins, who both received honorary doctorates last month at Rutgers, go way back. In We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold (Little Brown 1995), the author reveals that she and Sonny, ages 12 and 13, once shared a kiss during a game of Post Office. When they were growing up in Harlem’s Sugar Hill, he used to come by with his saxophone and “once or twice” she sang while he played. Among the many pleasures in “Declaration of Independence” is Sonny’s Quilt, which shows the tenor colossus standing tall in an immense maypole of a bridge trailing cables like gaudy streamers. There’s also an acrylic on paper of the venerable tenor man 40 years down the road (Sonny Blows) in Jazz Stories, a series of nightclub images that practically jumps off the wall at you. I wish the amazing Mama Can Sing, another acrylic on paper from the same period, could be blown up and plastered on a giant neon billboard in front of the Mason Gross so that passersby might be tempted inside to feast their eyes. The sad truth is that on a Saturday afternoon in June such inspired and inspiring work — free and open to the public — was lighting up a virtually empty gallery.

An Obama Ending

If “Declaration of Independence” has a patron saint, it’s President Barack Obama. Had it been mounted a year ago under the same title, it would have been like a novel bereft of a denouement. The words and images in the first room with its bloody American flag (“The Flag is Bleeding,” oil on canvas, 1967, one of the artist’s first major works) and vividly documented betrayals of the words of the original Declaration (the last image juxtaposing Jefferson at his desk with Martin Luther King in a jail cell) would have seemed politically dated. Instead, the artist is able to dedicate these “illustrations” to “the American People” who elected “our first black president.” A similar plotline is played out in the various galleries, the message writ large when you come to Ringgold’s portrait of the smiling 44th president (“Yes We Did”) dated 4/20/09 with the artist’s handwritten reference to “the power of the American Dream” manifested when “nearly 70 million Americans voted the Dream and the Dreamer into the White House.” The show’s closing act is a series of panels illustrating Ringgold’s latest project, a limited edition of playing cards with the theme “Yes I Can,” a pack of which can be bought at the exhibition (or won if you sign up for a lottery).

A big reason why the Obama campaign’s rallying cry has special resonance for Faith Ringgold can be seen in the film being continuously shown in one of the side rooms. You can also understand and appreciate the force behind her work when you observe her painting or telling you her story face to face while adorned with African earrings and beads and beaming a smile that’s as good as a song and a laugh that’s even better. The highlight of the film is the gusto with which she relives the moment of truth early in her career when she asked an art teacher who didn’t like her drawing of a mountain if he thought she had enough talent to be an artist. When he said “No,” she came right back at him almost as if she’d been daring him to doubt her determination. “Now I know I can ’cause you said I can’t.”

Watching the coverage of Obama’s recent whirlwind tour of the Middle East and Europe, I kept imagining a Faith Ringgold story quilt based on a young African American dreamer lying on his back on some Indonesian equivalent of Tar Beach, gazing at the starry sky he can almost begin to see himself flying through, over the Sphinx and the Pyramids, Omaha Beach, and the spires of Paris, with maybe his sister or mother telling him, as Cassie Louise Lightfoot tells her little brother Be Be, “Anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.”

In We Flew Over the Bridge, Ringgold describes how young fans of Tar Beach in book form (Crown 1991) have asked their parents to take them to the Guggenheim to see the original, only to find that, being just one among thousands of artworks in the permanent collection, it’s not on display. According to Ringgold, Guggenheim personnel actually became “annoyed with their persistence” and asked her why “the kids thought it would be on view.” She gave the obvious answer: because the note at the back of the book says that the quilt is in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Will a “totally Eurocentric male-dominated” museum ever exhibit, she goes on to wonder, “a painted story quilt by an African-American woman?” If they do (and maybe they have by now), “it will be due to the children.”

Coming to Jones Road

What impressed me as the most brilliantly conceived and executed series of works in the exhibit, Coming to Jones Road: Under a Blood Red Sky (1999-2004), has its roots in an unhappy piece of personal history that seems all the more incredible at the dawn of the Obama Era. In 1992 Ringgold and her husband moved to a ranch house on Jones Road in Englewood (an address with special meaning for Faith Jones Ringgold), across the river from her Harlem birthplace and a stone’s throw from the bridge she calls her birthmate in Tar Beach. The plan was to build a studio on top of the two-bedroom house. As she tells it in the statement accompanying the exhibit, “White neighbors (unsuccessfully) sought to deny us the freedom to live there. Freedom, you know, is not free — It took me six years to realize my dream of a beautiful studio surrounded by a beautiful garden.” You might think that the racial theme would overshadow or even compromise a work expressly based on such an experience. At this point in the exhibit, the viewer knows better, having had clear and exhilarating evidence that Ringgold, who still lives on Jones Road, was doing some of her most accomplished work as she entered her seventies. Instead of stressing the merely topical/political aspect of a painful subject, she summoned her ancestral muse for the creation of this extraordinary series of haunted images inspired, she writes, by “ancestors on the Underground Railroad” who helped her find “a new inspiration” in “icons of black men and women making the music the whole world loves, the music we brought to America along with the pain of slavery.”

Recent Work

“My ties to Rutgers go back many years,” Ringgold says. “I think it’s been a mutually gratifying relationship. They gave me my very first retrospective, covering the years from 1963 to 1973, and it was just absolutely wonderful. I’ve made a lot of friends at Rutgers.” That exhibition took place at the Rutgers University Art Gallery, now the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum. Since then she has appeared numerous times on campus, giving lectures and meeting with students. She also created two print editions at Rutgers’ Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions. Recent work includes Our Ancestors, which Ringgold describes as stories about the world’s children “who faced with life in a world at war have forgotten how to play. We call upon our ancestors who would surely bring love and happiness into their lives? Where would we have been without them?” In 2007 she completed a series of eight serigraphs for the publication of Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham City Jail.

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