‘American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s' at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art

The title, taken from a 1945 Dizzy Gillespie hit, also applies to the frieze of dancers she depicts, locked in immortal rhythms of good times.

But there is another side to this Harlem-born and bred artist, and it is the subject of “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s.”

The exhibition, organized by the Neuberger Museum of Art in New York to honor Ringgold's 80th birthday, presents rarely shown works dating from her early years as a professional artist, years that coincided with the civil rights and feminist advocacy of the tumultuous 1960s.

The exhibition documents a building anger. Ringgold began “The American People Series” (1963–1967) with a group of easel-size stylized portraits that reflected her observations of racial dissonance and inequity on an interpersonal level.

The black and white women in “American People Series #1: Between Friends” are, for instance, separated by a metaphorical architectural feature, and the tight, crowded composition contributes to the feeling of tension.

These works suggest the growing emotional pressure that would erupt in 1967, both on the streets and in large-scale canvases such as “American People Series #20: Die.” A latter-day history painting, “Die” is a depiction of the violence happening across the country.

As Ringgold moved her sights from individual relationships to national politics, her style changed, too. The earlier work, bearing hints of Picasso's Synthetic Cubist period, featured figures with mask-like faces outlined in black and filled in with unmodulated planes of color.

The outlines and unnaturalistic color disappear in “Die,” in which figures are splayed, frieze-like in frozen motion across a gridded field, a format repeated in “Groovin' High.”

Like many African-American artist peers, she worked to embed her values in her aesthetics. This came to the fore in her “Black Light” series. In these pieces, she explored a palette based on black and adapted masks and textile patterns and rhythms used in African art.

But Ringgold was always in conversation with contemporary art. If “Black Light” symbolized “black is beautiful,” it was also influenced by Ad Reinhardt's black paintings.

Ringgold discovered that works about self-representation were another form of political advocacy. “The Black Light Series: Party Time,” which captures the fashions of the day and the good times, is a another precursor of story quilts like “Groovin' High.”

Her children's book, “Tar Beach,” is, on one level, a magical story based on her experiences of Harlem summers. But the little girl's dream of flying above it all is a dream of liberation that goes as far back as slave myths -- a suggestion that the values forged in the '60s continue to pervade Ringgold's oeuvre.

Catherine Fox is chief visual art critic of  www.ArtsATL.com.

ART REVIEW

“American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s.” Through May 19. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon-4 p.m. Saturdays. Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. 350 Spelman Lane, Atlanta. 404-270-5607. www.spelmanmuseum.org. Artist talk: 6:30 p.m. March 22. Book signing and reception follow.

Bottom line: An illuminating look at Faith Ringgold's artistic formation.

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