Saturday, May 22, 2010

In the upcoming exhibition of Faith Ringgold's work from the 1960s to open at the Neuberger Museum at Purchase September 2nd, "For the Women's House," oil on canvas, will be the last work included.  Having had occasion to look at this painting a great deal lately, and most recently as part of a presentation I delivered on a panel that was featured in a Symposium on Feminism in Art at the Museum of Modern Art this  past Friday, I have been thinking hard about this longstanding American taboo against art that is both representational and political within the canon of Modern Art. 

I felt it most strongly as a participant in this symposium facing what appeared to me to be a very large female, yet entirely white audience at a public event to which I invited as many people as I thought might be interested to come.  Many people are, of course, entirely unsympathetic to anything wearing the tag of feminism so I kept that in mind when asking people to come.  And yet no one that I invited who might not have found the label feminism abhorrent and could also have come was interested enough on this very busy and very beautiful Friday afternoon to show up.  

Instead, I was greeted by a very polite audience who was nonetheless there I assume principally to take advantage of the other offerings of the women artists included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.  None of the women actually featured in the discussion or the exhibitions were black women, although my panel featured both an Indian and a Cuban woman artist whose presentations I missed, and the collection, itself, does include works by Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, both photographers, and Kara Walker, who is largely someone who works with cut paper.   

And yet still Modern Art is very much about painting.  Painting is clearly the most highly valued, generally as indicated by prices.  When Faith made her paintings in the 60s on stretched canvas with oil paint, she had to finally stop doing so because no one wanted to buy them, no one wanted to sell them and she finally had nowhere to keep them.  

This embargo against African American painters (regardless of whether they are representational or abstract) persists to this day and it is no laughing or casual matter. 

I really really love this painting I think for many reason that have nothing to do with its subject matter but rather with the way in which Faith chose to organize the space and the color in the frame.  Of course, objectivity would not be my greatest strength in this context.  And yet, is there any such thing as objectivity in the discussion of the relative merits of visual art.  Are we not all victims of the culture and the education that produced us?  

    In another quadrant of For the Women's House (1971), we see an important female politician
who is running for president speaking into all the network microphones for a press conference, and surrounded by the female members of her family.  The opposing image is of women playing professional basketball.  One player wear NY Knicks number.  The other player wears the number of Wilt Chamberlain.  

In this quadrant, a woman is being married by a female priest.  Her own mother is giving her away instead of her father.  The woman on the right is playing the drums, a significant taboo in the 60s and 70s although many women play the drums now.

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About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.