Charles White (1918–1979) powerfully interpreted African American history, culture, and lives over the course of his four-decade career. A superbly gifted draftsman and printmaker as well as a talented mural and easel painter, he developed a distinctive and labor-intensive approach to art making and remained committed to a representational style at a time when the art world increasingly favored abstraction. His work magnified the power of the black figure through scale and form, communicating universal human themes while also focusing attention on the lives of African Americans and the struggle for equality. This exhibition—the first major retrospective of White’s work in more than 35 years—showcases an accomplished artist whose work continues to resonate amid today’s national dialogues about race, work, equality and history.
Born in Chicago and educated at the School of the Art Institute, White was part of the city’s flourishing black artistic community of the 1930s. He was determined to employ art in the struggle for social change, declaring, “Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent.” Influenced by Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera, White completed several important mural commissions in the city, including one for a branch of the Chicago Public Library.
White married sculptor Elizabeth Catlett in 1941, and the couple soon settled in New York. Together they traveled to Mexico City, where White honed his printmaking skills as part of the printmaking collective known as the Taller de Gráfica Popular. In New York in the 1940s and early 1950s, White showed his work at the progressive ACA Gallery and was a prominent member of African American and leftist artist communities. White moved to Southern California in 1956, and his career flourished as he embraced drawing and printmaking more fully, pushing at the boundaries of his media while continuing to engage with civil rights and equality. Despite his rejection of the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism and ongoing use of an expressive figuration, he found critical acclaim in the United States and abroad.
Charles White: A Retrospective unites a selection of White’s finest paintings, drawings, and prints, presenting the full breadth of his work and demonstrating his artistic development. The themes he explored—African American history and the fight for freedom, the nobility of black people, and the dignity of labor and human nature—reveal his talent and passion, and encourage viewers to consider current questions of history, politics, and identity in relation to the recent past.
Charles White: A Retrospective is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and The Modern Museum of Art (MoMA), in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Following its debut at the Art Institute, the exhibition will be on view at MoMA October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019, and then travel to LACMA, where it will be on view February 17–June 9, 2019.
Image: Charles White, printed and published by Edward Hamilton. Love Letter III, 1977. Margaret Fisher Fund. © The Charles White Archives Inc.