How do we describe Charles White? Over four decades of a relatively brief life—born in 1918, he died in 1979—the distinguished African-American artist was a brilliant draftsman; occasional painter; accomplished printmaker, amateur photographer; award-winning commercial artist; inspiring and influential teacher; friend of musicians, writers, and poets; social activist; and tireless worker for the rights of black people—and I’m probably leaving things out. Adding to the enigma is this puzzling fact: in his last decades, White was internationally renowned, but his reputation has since gradually faded, even while, today, his admiring former students, such as Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons, are increasingly celebrated. This season, “Charles White: A Retrospective” at the Museum of Modern Art, the first major exhibition devoted to the artist in more than thirty years, has helped to focus attention once again on this pioneering figure and clarify our understanding of his multivalent achievement.1 A collaboration between moma and the Art Institute of Chicago (organized by Esther Adler, an Associate Curator in moma’s Department of Drawings and Prints, and Sarah Kelly Oehler, the Chair and Curator of American Art in Chicago), the show is accompanied by a substantial catalogue and an unusually broad and ambitious program of special events, workshops, and a discussion of “the possibilities of technology as a means of asserting political agency.”

“Charles White: A Retrospective” assembles about one hundred drawings, paintings, and prints, along with examples of record covers, book illustrations, personal photographs, and a few sculptural ceramic pieces, in an effort to present White whole, tracing the evolution of his work, with all its restless changes, over the years. There’s even a video clip from White’s close friend Harry Belafonte’s 1950s television program Tonight with Belafonte, in which White’s tense, lively drawing of the charismatic singer was the signature image displayed behind the title; other drawings by the artist introduced individual segments. The mainly chronological installation begins with White’s early years in Chicago, where he grew up and studied—on full scholarship—at the School of the Art Institute and also made work under the auspices of the wpa; we follow him to New York, where he lived most of the time between 1942 and 1956, and finally to Los Angeles, where he lived and taught in the 1960s and 1970s.

We are first confronted outside the entrance to the exhibition by one of the murals White made during his wpa years: Five Great American Negroes (1939, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). It’s an impressively large, compelling expanse, a hair under thirteen feet wide, with an unstable expanding and contracting space filled with agile figures whose muscular forms announce not oppression or submission, but rather strength and agency. The five protagonists, chosen by a poll of readers of the influential black newspaper The Chicago Defender, are the activist Sojourner Truth, the educator and presidential advisor Booker T. Washington, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the scientist George Washington Carver, and the contralto Marian Anderson. White turns out to be a brilliant illustrator who presents each of his subjects as an easily recognizable, powerful individual engaged in an activity that makes clear his or her contribution. Sojourner Truth, for example, moves towards us from the left side of the painting, followed by a column of people being led to freedom by the former slave, while Carver bends over a table of test tubes.

Charles White, Five Great American Negroes, 1939, Oil on canvas, Chicago Public Library, George Cleveland Branch.

White was just twenty-one and had only recently left the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when he painted Five Great American Negroes, but the ambitious mural already embodies everything that characterizes the later works we encounter as we move through the exhibition: a socially conscious theme enacted by heroic figures, presented with strong, subtle modeling and richly orchestrated tonalities. Nearby, three elegantly refined color lithographs, made in the 1970s, about African-American womanhood, prepare us for White’s virtuoso drawing ability. Five Great American Negroes shows White to be less interested in the emotional potency of color than his older colleague Hale Woodruff, to judge by the evidence of the murals Woodruff executed for Talladega College, in Alabama, in 1939, and less convinced of the dramatic potential of near-abstraction and hard-edged forms than his near contemporary and friend Jacob Lawrence, in his sixty-panel Migration series, completed when he was twenty-three. But White’s expressively inflected canvas and everything that follows make clear that he shared his fellow African-American artists’ desire to treat a particular, not always admirable aspect of American experience with dignity and profound aesthetic seriousness.

Charles White, Exodus I: Black Moses (Harriet Tubman), 1951, Linocut on paper, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Charles White Archives.

What soon becomes clear, as we move through sections headed “Chicago,” “The War Years,” and “Politics and People,” is that White is an artist who thinks in tone, not chromatic color. Many of the most arresting works in the show are drawings or prints—masterly orchestrations of nuanced grays, created with a broad spectrum of marks, touches, and swipes, set off by velvety blacks and stretches of untouched white. White’s lithographs, which take full advantage of the medium’s potential for saturated blacks and seamless transitions, reward close attention. Witness a ferocious 1949 head of John Brown, seemingly carved from obsidian. But his linoleum cuts are often even more dazzling, paradigms of how exquisitely delicate rows of black lines trapping narrow slots of white ground can model robust form, create personality, and embody feeling. Like the lithographs, they attract our attention with their images: Exodus I: Black Moses (Harriet Tubman) (1951, Philadelphia Museum of Art), for example, a large head of a handsome, forceful woman, emblematic of the former slave who led about seventy people to freedom via the Underground Railroad, with the heads of those she succored behind her. We are first engaged by the characterization and the composition, then intrigued by the narrative, and finally captivated and completely absorbed by those insistent parallel lines and the subtle tones they create from oppositions of pure black and white. Printmaking, of course, appealed to White for many reasons, not the least of which was its much-discussed democratic aspect. Prints were produced in multiples and were inexpensive, so they could reach many more people than individual paintings or drawings could.

White’s other strength was his gift for eloquent placement. In his early works, he often twists and compresses the figure to intensify the urgency of his message, enlarging eyes and making hands enormous, as if to symbolize the dignity of labor. The ravishing ink drawing Native Son No. 2 (1942, Howard University Art Gallery, Washington, D.C.), inspired by the protagonist of White’s friend Richard Wright’s novel, places an elderly man with bulging muscles in an angled, twisting pose, as complex and articulate as a Bernini sculpture. The contrapposto figure enters into a lively relationship with the edges and dimensions of the sheet as he clutches a wood carving in massive, powerful hands.

White is an artist who thinks in tone, not chromatic color.

Most of White’s early images in the sections entitled “Chicago” and “The War Years” share this type of exaggerated anatomy and complicated pose, but many are even more stylized and stylish, intensified to the point of mannerism. They are also very much of their moment—fierce social-realist comments on a world torn by political violence, persecution, and horror. White soon backed away from the rather self-conscious exaggerations of these works in favor of a generous, relaxed naturalism, exemplified by the selection of subtly toned charcoal drawings made in the early and mid-1950s. These seemingly effortlessly achieved, half-length figures, notable for their ample scale and isolation (for the most part) against barely indicated settings, are as solemn as High Baroque devotional paintings. White turns a straw-hatted mother, cradling her child, into a vernacular, rural Madonna. Two younger women ignore us as they engage in what seems to be a fraught conversation. A handsome old woman, her body misshapen by time and hard work, gestures toward us as she stands in front of a rough-hewn wooden building. It seems a benign, affectionate tribute, but White’s title I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned reminds us of his continual protest against inequities. Perhaps the best known of this group is the pen drawing Preacher (1952, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Purchased the year it was made, Preacher was the first of White’s works to be acquired by a museum. It’s a striking work that hovers on the edge of illustration, completely redeemed by White’s marvelous use of tone and the way he plays the repeated tight wrinkles of the sleeves against the vigorously modeled fingers of the extended hands. The low viewpoint—we look up at the minister through his gesticulating arms—turns us into seated members of the congregation, gazing up from a pew.

Charles White, Preacher, 1952, Pen and ink and graphite pencil on board, Whitney Museum of Art, New York.

White’s chosen ancestors are evident in many of his works of the 1940s and 1950s. The hard-edged forms, seemingly carved, rather than drawn, and the mask-like features of the tempera painting, Soldier (1944, Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens), suggest an enthusiasm for both African sculpture and Mexican mural painters such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. An early sketchbook drawing of a sculpture from Gabon confirms the former. A trip to Mexico, in 1946, with his first wife, the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, strengthened White’s admiration for the politically engaged Mexican artists of the period.

The installation includes a group of White’s personal photographs, never intended for exhibition, but as economically and handsomely composed as any of his drawings. They bear witness to his friendship with Jacob Lawrence, his participation in protest marches, and his alertness to the life of the streets. We also are shown some of White’s sophisticated album covers and the video of his work with Belafonte, along with other high-end publicity drawings commissioned by the movie industry after his move to Los Angeles. For anyone of my generation, many of these works are extremely familiar. The edition of Howard Fast’s 1951 novel Spartacus, about a slave rebellion in ancient Rome, with its economical cover drawing of a thick-set, classicizing figure, was a staple of my parent’s library and those of all their right-minded friends. White’s close engagement with music and musicians, suggested by the album covers, is reinforced by a section on images of musicians, such as the portrait of Belafonte singing—which we see in the video clip of his television show, as well—and portraits of Mahalia Jackson and Bessie Smith, all done with the same intensity and conviction as the heads of John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson, among others, in White’s more overtly political work.

Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, 1950, Black-and-white photograph, Private collection.

Which is not to say that White’s passionate engagement with social issues and his deep feelings about inequality and injustice had abated. Far from it, as we learn from the selections from a series titled J’Accuse, as an echo of Emile Zola’s famous defense of Alfred Dreyfus’s unjust accusation and conviction. These exquisitely modulated charcoal drawings are oblique, resonant protests against the continuing violence and injustice suffered by African-Americans, even as the civil rights movement gathered strength. They range from single figures, such as J’Accuse #1 (1965, Private Collection), a frontal, muffled, implacable seated woman, to J’Accuse #10 (Negro Woman) (1966, Courtesy Charles M. Young Fine Prints and Drawings), a crowd of extremely diverse heads, pressed into the circle of a tondo. Even more explicit is a second iteration of White’s early tribute to Harriet Tubman, General Moses (Harriet Tubman) (1965, Private Collection), in which she sits, facing us but inwardly focused, in front of a pile of boulders. The figure is as solid as the rocks themselves.

Charles White, J’Accuse # 10 (Negro Woman), 1966, Courtesy Charles M. Young Fine Prints and Drawings.

White’s large, assured works from his last decade are among his most enigmatic and mysterious. Some are meticulously naturalistic, but in others recognizable images seem to emerge momentarily from expanses of pulsing, transparent abstract planes of dry brushed ink or sepia-toned oil wash, before subsiding again into the flickering sea of brushmarks. In the tall, narrow Elmina Castle (1969, Private Collection), a crisp oval floats above urgent vertical strokes that threaten to coalesce into near-intelligibility. Our gaze is captured by the carefully rendered face trapped between the rough slats of the oval, a haunting presence that becomes even more so when we learn that Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, was notorious in the seventeenth century as a place where enslaved people were held before being shipped to America or the Caribbean. The conversation is enlarged by examples from the Wanted Poster series, 1970–72, angry riffs on the notices posted by slave owners seeking the return of those who managed to escape, incorporating stenciled letters and disturbing, disjunctive texts. And then there’s the discomfiting Mississippi (1972, Private Collection), a vaguely threatening, heavily swathed, hooded figure that becomes a massive pyramid against an untouched white ground. An enormous, bloody handprint floats above, with stenciled letters indicating the cardinal points, relationships reversed, floating near the edges. Whatever provoked this disturbing image, I’m pretty sure it was nothing good.

Whatever provoked this disturbing image, I’m pretty sure it was nothing good.

The exhibition ends, as it began, with one of White’s late, hyper-realistic color lithographs, Sound of Silence (1978, Art Institute of Chicago), made the year before his death. It’s a perplexing image of a chubby, androgynous figure with a neatly groomed Afro, holding open a jacket as if to reveal a floating seashell. There are weird overtones of devotional images of the Sacred Heart, as well as sexual associations provoked by the vertically oriented shell. And more. We may never fully grasp the work’s significance, but it seems likely that we won’t soon forget it—nor the rest of “Charles White: A Retrospective.”

1 “Charles White: A Retrospective” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on October 7, 2018, and remains on view through January 13, 2019. It was previously on view at the Art Institute of Chicago and will next travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 44
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