PURCHASE, N.Y. — The American artist Faith Ringgold, who turned 80 this year, is best known for the vivacious story quilts about African-American life that she’s made over the past three decades. But if all that survived from her career were her paintings and prints from the 1960s and early ’70s, she’d still be in the history books. An inspired and incisive exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art here shows why.
Ms. Ringgold was born in Harlem to an art-encouraging family — her mother was a fashion designer — and earned an M.F.A. from City College in 1959. By that point she had been married and divorced, had two daughters (one of them is the art historian Michele Wallace), and was teaching in public schools. She painted only late at night and on vacations, doing mostly, by her own account, Impressionist-style landscapes.
At the same time she had also been reading James Baldwin and LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) and watching the world around her change as the civil rights struggle shifted emphasis to black power from pacifism. By 1963 her art had changed, too, becoming topical and figurative and incorporating African textile patterns in a group of paintings she titled the American People Series.
Unusual for that era, Ms. Ringgold’s works showed middle-class blacks and whites together in power situations, however unequal the power actually was. In one picture, “The Civil Rights Triangle” (1963), three men in business suits, two black and one white, form a pyramid, with the white man on top, suggesting that to the extent the civil rights movement was white-approved, it was also white-controlled. In “The Cocktail Party,” from the next year, a crowd of white faces presses together in conversation, while a single black figure, squeezed down into a corner, stares out mutely.
It was probably no coincidence that these pictures came at a time when Ms. Ringgold was trying to break into the New York gallery scene and was running into resistance from both the white and the black art establishment. Meanwhile, her confidence and political commitments were deepening. The last few pictures were history-painting size and vehement in content.
In “The Flag Is Bleeding,” from 1967, three ambiguously related figures — a white couple and a black man with a knife — stand behind the dripping red stripes of an American flag. The potential violence implied explodes into full-out war in “Die” (1967), and the war is beyond racial. In an accurate gauge of the mood of the day, all the participants, black and white, look baffled and terrorized by the bloodbath they’re part of.
For Ms. Ringgold, much of the rest of that decade and the beginning of the next were devoted to hands-on activism and formal experimentation. In 1968 she initiated a demonstration against the Whitney Museum’s near-exclusion of black artists, and helped organize another at the Museum of Modern Art. For a series of paintings called Black Light, she eliminated white from her palette and added black pigment to colors in a group of African-American portraits.
By 1969 she was making extensive use of words in paintings and in eye-grabbing posters designed to drum up support for the Black Panthers, the inmates at Attica and the imprisoned Angela Davis. By then Ms. Ringgold considered racial politics and feminism inseparable, and threw her energy into gaining visibility for women.
Then, in what turned out to be the last oil-on-stretched-canvas painting she’d do for years, she made a portable mural for the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island, consulting with the inmates first, asking them what they wanted to see. When, years later, the institution was converted to a men’s prison, the painting narrowly escaped being lost. Rescued and conserved, it is appearing away from a prison setting for the first time.
It’s the culminating work in an exhibition, organized by Tracy Fitzpatrick, a Neuberger curator, that could hardly be better. Cleanly laid out, with some pictures accompanied by excerpts from the artist’s autobiography, “We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold” (Bulfinch Press, 1995), it’s a potent visual experience and an important piece of American art history. That Ms. Ringgold went on to do so much else is, of course, phenomenal. That the Neuberger did this show is a gift.