Charles White: dignity on the long road

Charles White’s Images of Dignity

Graphic artist, painter, muralist, print-maker, teacher

from an exhibition at MOMA, NY, 2018

 

 

 

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Charles W. White, 1918-1979, American

 

 

There appears to have come a recognition in recent years that minorities are underrepresented in terms both of exhibition opportunity and in related art historical studies in major North American institutions. 

 

 

 

 

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Love Letter III, 1977, lithograph.   Art Institute of Chicago  loaned to a MOMA, NY retrospective in 2018 

Not long before his death, the artist began to depict natural forms and formations.

 

 

We know in detail the history of many white painters of all nationalities – their lives, their teachers, colleagues, stories, influences.  But we barely know this of African American artists working today or at any time.

 

 

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Love Letter, 1971, lithograph.  MOMA 

 

 

The work of artists who are not white also suffers from tokenism:  if one or two or four per generation become well-known, he or she or they are taken as sufficient representation of the whole community. 

 

 

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Love Letter I, 1971, lithograph.  MOMA, NY

 

The African-American artist, Charles White, was widely known in the United States during his life.   He was exhibited and collected. He worked in three cities: Chicago where he was born, New York, and Los Angeles where he died.  He taught everywhere he lived.

At his death, he was, to North Americans, the most famous African American painter.

An eclipse of his work followed his death.

 

The MOMA has mounted an exhibition of his work: rare for this institution because he is a figurative artist.

 

The artist emphasized that his concerns were for the human rights of all peoples:  if he painted his own people, he said, this should not be taken as an indifference to others; nor as different from a Dutch painter, for example who paints his or her own people.

You paint, he said, what you know.  And love.

 

 

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Five Great American Negroes, 1939, oil on canvas, and detail.

Howard University Gallery of Art on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

This work  – made under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration – was created as a fund-raiser for the Chicago South Side Community Art Center.  A survey in the Chicago Defender produced a poll of the five greatest African Americans of the time.

From right to left:  Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson and George Washington Carver.

 

 

‘Images of dignity’ is a Charles White phrase.

His aim was to represent his people both realistically and positively.  Work that did not have socio-political improvement as its aim had no purpose for Charles White.

He served both in the army (discharged for tuberculosis) and in jail for attempting to organize a union when he worked for the Works Progress Administration.

He had a large group of friends and among artists; and influenced an equally large group of artists.

Charles White was an adult long before the changes of the Civil Rights era.  He was alive during Jim Crow and when Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, and Medgar Evers were assassinated.

 

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One imagines that this spotlight at the MOMA, then, is both a recall of this artist’s art; 

and an aid to understanding the evolution of the work of two foremost North American artists, both Charles White‘s students:  David Hammons, conceptual artist,  based in New York since the 1970s and very prominent now for many years;

 

 

 

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Pray For America, 1969, pigment and screenprint on paper, and detail.  David Hammons, American, born 1943. 

A gift promised to MOMA, NY and the Studio Museum in Harlem, NY.

One of several body prints which the artist made by pressing his skin and clothing smeared with grease or margarine onto paper.  He would then sprinkle the surface with graphite or pigment.

 

 

And Kerry James Marshall, a Chicagoan, and, like his teacher, a narrator of the tales of his people.

Marshall was in his 60s before his work received a retrospective in New York (Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2016).

 

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Untitled (Studio), 2014, acrylic on PVC panels, and detail. Kerry James Marshall, American born 1954.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

 

Kerry James Marshall describes a visit to Charles White’s studio between his seventh and eighth grades.

 There was laid out the physical and human context which allowed him to understand that he, too, could become an artist.  Marshall studied with Charles White as an adult.

 

 

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History, resilience, suffering, strength, talent, struggle, inwardness, quiet, community.  And the ordinariness of everyday life.

 

 

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Untitled (Seated Woman), 1939, oil monotype on paper.  Private collection loaned to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Card Players, 1939, oil on canvas, and detail.  Saint Louis Art Museum on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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There were no Crops this Year, 1940, graphite on paper (light interference), oil on canvas.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Native Son No. 2, 1942, ink on paper, and detail.  Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Paul Robeson (Study for The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America), 1942-43; carbon pencil over charcoal, with additions and corrections in white gouache, and border in Wolff crayon, on cream drawing board.

Princeton University Art Museum on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in American, 1943.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

The Contribution of the American Negro to American Democracy, 1943.  A mural in the collection of the Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia.  Image from the NY Times (painting not included in the exhibition). 

A painting which takes in different historical periods.

 

 

 

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Untitled (Four Workers), 1940, tempera on paperboard.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018.

These workers are protesting.

 

 

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Spiritual, 1941, oil on canvas. South Side Community Art Center, Chicago on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Hear This, 1942, oil on canvas, and detail. The Harriet and Kelley Harmon Foundation for the Arts on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

 

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Headlines, 1944, gouache, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Soldier, 1944, tempera on masonite, and detail.

  The Hunting Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Black Sorrow (Dolor Negro), 1946, lithograph, and detail.  Philadelphia Art Museum on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Study for Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present), 1940; tempera on illustration board, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Two Alone, 1946, oil on board, and detail. Clark Atlanta University Art Collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Our Land, 1951, egg tempera on panel, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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O Freedom, 1956, charcoal with crayon, erasing, stumping, and wash on ivory illustration board, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Work (Young Worker), 1953, Wolff crayon and charcoal on illustration board, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Frederick Douglass Lives Again (The Ghost of Frederick Douglass), 1949, pen and ink over pencil on illustration board, and detail.

  Sheldon Universtiy of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln on loan to MOMA, NY, in 2018

 

 

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Harvest Talk, 1953, charcoal, Wolff crayon and graphite with stumping and erasing on ivory-wood pulp laminated board, and detail.

The Art Institute of Chicago on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Ye Shall Inherit the Earth, 1953, charcoal on paper; anonymous loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Gospel Singers, 1951, tempera on board, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Goodnight Irene, 1952, oil on canvas.  Loaned to MOMA, NY by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2018.  This is a portrait of Huddy ‘Leadbelly’ Leadbetter, blues and folk musician, 1888-1949, American. Image from the web.

 

 

Detail of album cover from the website of Amazon.com

The painting was bought first by the singer Harry Belafonte who used it as a cover for his portrayal of  the music of African Americans from their arrival in slave ships to the spirituals, blues and folk music of the early 20th century.

  Harry Belafonte was a friend of Charles White who was also a friend of and inspired for social activism by Paul Robeson.

  Mr. Belafonte has said that it was when he heard Leadbelly’s songs that he learned language and then embarked on the huge endeavour of this collection. The singer’s activism, of course, has not ceased.

 

 

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Folksinger (Voice of Jericho: Portrait of Harry Belafonte), 1957, ink and coloured ink with white additions on board, and detail.

  Loaned by members of the Belafonte family to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned, 1956, compressed and vine charcoal with carbon pencil and charcoal wash splatter over traces of graphite pencil on illustration board.  Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas as Austin on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Preacher, 1952, pen and ink and graphite pencil on board, and detail.  Whitney Museum of Art on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Bessie Smith, 1950, tempera on panel , and detail. Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Mahalia, 1955, charcoal and Conte crayon on board.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Visitors to the exhibition, autumn 2018

 

 

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Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep, 1956, graphite and pen and ink on board, and detail.

  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Solid as a Rock (My God is Rock), 1958, linoleum cut, and detail.  MOMA, NY

 

 

 

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J’Accuse #7, 1966, charcoal on paper, and detail.   Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

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Poro Headdress (Kworo), Cote d’Ivoire, Senufo Peoples, 19th-mid-20th centuries, wood, cloth, cane, mud.  Kworo is a ritual performance at which headdresses of this kind are worn.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

 

 

 

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J’Accuse No. 10 (Negro Woman), 1966, charcoal on paper, and detail. (Cover of Ebony Magazine, Special Issue on ‘The Negro Woman’ of August, 1966. 

Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Visitors circulating, autumn 2018 

 

 

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J’Accuse No. 1, 1965, charcoal and Wolff crayon on illustration board, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Nat Turner, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, 1968, drybrush and ink on board, and detail.

  National Center for Afro-American Artists on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

 

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Elmina Castle, 1969, ink on board, and detail. Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY

 

 

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Dream Deferred II, 1969, oil wash, ink, and Wolff crayon on paper, and detail.

  Colby College Museum of Art on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Birmingham Totem, 1964, ink and charcoal on paper (with light interference).  High Museum of Art on  loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Wanted Poster #17, 1971, oil wash and pencil on poster board (with light interference and colour distortion), and detail.

  Fint Institute of Fine Arts, Flint, Michigan on loan to MOMA, NY 2018

 

 

 

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Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man), 1973, oil on washboard (light interference and colour distortion). MOMA, NY

Kerry James Marshall found the source of this painting: a photograph in  Leonard Freed’s Black and White America (1969). The image is of a street preacher in North Carolina in the 1960’s. 

Charles White transforms this image into one recognizable in the 1970s.  This painting is not related to images of dignity and is somewhat elusive in its meaning.

 

 

 

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Missouri C, 1972, etching, and detail.  MOMA, NY

 

 

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Cat’s Cradle, 1972, etching, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

  A child wise before his time for the things he has witnessed.

 

 

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Harriet, 1972, oil wash on board (with light interference).  The University of Texas at Austin on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Wanted Poster Series #10, 1970, oil wash brushed and stenciled with masking out over traces of graphite pencil on commercial laninated board (light interference and colour distortion), and detail.

Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin loaned to MOMA, NY in 2018

 

 

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Banner for Willy J., 1976, oil on canvas, and detail.  Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018.

  The artist’s cousin died in a shooting at a bar where he was a bystander.

 

 

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Sound of Silence, 1978, lithograph.   Art Institute of Chicago on loan to a MOMA, NY retrospective in 2018

A representation, just before his premature death, of the strength, fragility and beauty of the life of an artist, born to multiple disadvantages, who went forward to live his life-enhancing life.

Likewise a representation of the potential of any child.

Likewise a reminder to us of the stillness within us. A potent and natural life force.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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