Charles White –– Black Art with A Universal Vision (Tiger Gao ’21)

Charles White –– a name that rarely rings a bell for today’s “Instagram generation” –– was the most famous and recognizable black artist in the U.S. at the time of his death in 1979. A deep believer of art’s power of really helping change people’s ways of interaction with their worlds, White created powerful images of African Americans — what his gallerist and White himself described as “images of dignity.” Almost forty years after his death, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened a large retrospective to exhibit White’s artistic, political, and social legacy, and I had a wonderful experience immersing myself into the strength and serendipity of White’s artworks.   

Charles White was born in Chicago in 1918 and studied at the School of the Art Institute. Winslow Homer and George Inness all became some of his most favorite painters. He took trips with his mother down to Mississippi to meet his aunts, many of whom were enslaved and were able to tell him their first-account experiences. These interactions no doubt greatly influenced White’s view on African Americans’ hardship and history, and strengthened his commitment to develop a socially committed artistic vision.

“Art must be an integral part of the struggle,” White insisted. “It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. … It must ally itself with the forces of liberation.” Because of White’s conviction in using powerful imagery to convey emotions, his works are filled with powerfully displayed black characters with serenity and strength.

Such style is perfectly captured by Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep, where two black women, possessed with a profound sense of serenity and composure, seem to be processing thoughts about the future. It’s such a beautifully captured moment that fully exhibits the strength and perseverance of many African American women.

Charles White. Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep. 1956.
Graphite and pen and ink on board, 39 1/4 x 41 1/2″ (99.7 x 102.9 cm).
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Edward C. Robinson III

Another artwork that I find so powerful is Wanted Poster Series #17. As explained by MoMA’s associate curator Esther Adler, who curated the exhibition, the mother has her arms around the boy’s shoulders in a protective manner, but the sense of dejectedness emanating from the work hints at how she would not be able to protect him from a life of hardship. Such feeling is further complicated by the eagle above –– a classic symbol of American ideals –– and a surprising appearance of the word “SOLD.” Rather than a simple indication of the difficult times that African Americans often had to go through, this imagery is more like an indictment of American history and the legacy of slavery.

Charles White. Wanted Poster Series #17. 1971.
Oil wash and pencil on poster board. 60 × 30″ (152.4 × 76.2 cm).
Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. B. Morris Pelavin. © The Charles White Archives

Though often having African American characters in his works, White believed that his art is ultimately dedicated to bringing all people together and possesses a universal power of compassion and love. “I think in just broad human terms… It doesn’t have to have a black appendage to it in terms of saying black compassion, black love, black hate…” explained White in person. It just happens so that black culture is his culture and naturally comes out in his works –– “It’s the same way that all of Rembrandt’s people were Dutch.”

It’s about bringing all people together –– I think that’s what’s so powerful about White’s ideology and artistic vision. As America enters a period of time filled with social transformations, White’s works propel us to contemplate and reflect on some of the very foundations, relationships, and emotions that our society is built upon. While White was convinced that contemporary art plays an incredible role in contemporary life, it’s clear how his works are still deeply relevant in shaping our discussions today, 40 years after his death… I would encourage everyone to visit this retrospective at MoMA.  

For more information on the exhibition:

New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): “Charles White: A Retrospective is the first major museum survey devoted to the artist in over 30 years. The exhibition charts White’s full career—from the 1930s through his premature death in 1979—with over 100 works, including drawings, paintings, prints, photographs, illustrated books, record covers and archival materials.”