charles white retrospective comes to moma

October 12, 2018

Charles White was not simply among the most technically gifted American realists of the 20th century—a draftsman, printmaker, and painter—he was an African-American artist who believed that, “Art must be an integral part of the struggle.” The career retrospective that opens this week at New York’s Museum of Modern Art portrays a life of work that was always allied with, in White’s own words, “the forces of liberation”; yet it also charts the constant personal creative progress and evolution that the artist’s sustained until his death in 1979. The show is the first major exhibition dedicated to White in over three decades.

Charles White. Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man). 1973. Oil wash on board. 60 × 43 7/8″ (152.4 × 111.4 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Richard S. Zeisler Bequest (by
exchange), The Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art, Committee on Drawings Fund, Dian Woodner, and Agnes Gund. © 1973 The Charles White Archives. Photo Credit: Jonathan Muzikar, The Museum of Modern Art Imaging Services

Born in Chicago in 1918, and coming of age around the Great Depression, White engaged American historical events and social movements throughout his artistic career. Beginning in the late 1930s, he created murals and large-scale works for the WPA Federal Art Project, a massive government relief measure that hired many kinds of artists during the Depression. During this period White also helped found the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), a WPA-sponsored art center that provided formal art education and exhibition space for artists who were denied gallery representation elsewhere. It was the beginning of a lifelong participation in community involvement. In Chicago, White’s circle of friends included visual artists, writers, and poets, all of whom shared a devotion to improving the lives of African Americans in the city. Additionally, their work provided ample source material for his paintings and drawings.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Paul Robeson (Study for Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America). 1942-43. Carbon pencil over charcoal, with additions and corrections in white gouache, and border in carbon pencil, on cream drawing board. 24 7/8 × 19 1/16″ (63.2 × 48.4 cm). Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Kathleen Compton Sherrerd Fund for Acquisitions in American Art. © The Charles White Archives/ Art Resource, NY

White’s layered political work of the 1940s and ’50s reflect on the intersectional discrimination against African-Americans, women, laborers, and political radicals. In keeping with his commitment to making his work available to the largest possible audience, White contributed to many commercial and popular entertainment projects, including book illustrations, album covers, commissions for television and film, and advertising-related work for Black-owned businesses. In the 1950s, he produced drawings for Vanguard Records’ Jazz Showcase series album covers, and in 1965 was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Album Cover, Graphic Arts.”

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Work (Young Worker). 1953. Wolff crayon and charcoal on illustration board, 44 × 28″ (111.8 × 71.1 cm). Private collection. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio © The Charles White Archives/ Charles White (American, 1918-1979).

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). J’Accuse #7. 1966. Charcoal on paper, 39 1/4 × 51 1/2″ (99.7 × 130.8 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Music was always an integral part of White’s life, and he often took influential musicians as his subjects, creating canonical portraits of figures like Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, and Bessie Smith. White began to teach at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1965, mentoring students such as Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, and many others. As Marshall once reflected, “Under Charles White’s influence I always knew that I wanted to make work that was about something: history, culture, politics, social issues. … It was just a matter of mastering the skills to actually do it.”

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Love Letter III. 1977. Color lithograph. 30 1/16 x 22 5/8″ (76.3 x 57.4 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago. Margaret Fisher Fund. © The Charles White Archives/ © The Art Institute of Chicago

“Charles White: A Retrospective” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 13, 2019.