The year 1967 was a transitional moment for the rehabilitation of activist art and the formation of black identity. It was likewise significant for Faith Ringgold, who was preparing the solo exhibition that would introduce her to the New York art world. That summer, after riots devastated Detroit and Newark, NJ, she painted Die expressly for the show. The wall-size canvas depicts an interracial cast of clean-cut antagonists trying to kill one another.
Although the painting represented the kind of large-scale, politically motivated figuration that had been out of favor since the 1940s, it earned favorable attention from key art journals. I argue that its warm reception indexes the painting’s ability to speak differently to different constituencies, from mainstream and African American modernists to the activists in the Black Arts and peace movements then beginning to make waves. The painting’s multivocal potential encompassed an iconography that reads as either warning against or wishing for social unrest and a format that inserts the large-scale figuration of public murals into the more rarified space of the commercial art gallery.
As a microhistory focused on Die’s production and reception, this study aims to illuminate how racial politics influenced a politics of style in this volatile moment. To do so, it situates Die in relation to a mounting attention to protest, violence, social realism, and black aesthetics, especially as they crystallized in writer Amiri Baraka’s engagement with the Newark riot and in gallery director Robert Newman’s facilitation of Ringgold’s shift to large-scale imagery.