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“Charles White: A Retrospective”

Charles White, Wanted Poster Series #12, 1970, lithograph on paper, 24 × 37". © The Charles White Archives Inc.

IN 2017, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a one-on-one exhibition pairing Charles White’s Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man), 1973, a large oil-wash-on-board drawing from its own collection, with a small drapery study on blue-tinted paper by Leonardo da Vinci, on loan from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Collection Trust. The show, curated by artist David Hammons, proposed White’s work as a continuation of the grand tradition of picture making, highlighting the skill, sensitivity, and attention to detail embodied by both works on view. White was, indeed, a master of drawing (his preferred mode of representation). By extension, he was also a superb printmaker, who spent time perfecting the art at the Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico City. It makes sense, then, that two of his favorite artists were Francisco Goya and the social realist Käthe Kollwitz, both of whom produced significant bodies of printed work. This June, the first truly comprehensive retrospective of White’s work opens at the Art Institute of Chicago, then travels to MoMA in October. Nearly forty years after White’s death, audiences will finally have a chance to experience the rigor of his craft and the fullness of his commitment to art and history. The sheer beauty of his drawings as objects and of his technique as process is an invitation to engage with his subject matter as content. No other artist I can recall has depicted black people with the power and presence we experience in his images.

White was never a trendy artist. He didn’t fall for such now-clichéd modernist devices as fragmentation, neo-primitivism, and juvenilia. Perhaps this accounts for his absence from the collections of most major museums. His early Cubist-inflected forms were highly stylized, but they were never distorted into grotesque monstrosities. If Cézanne wanted to “make of Impressionism something solid and enduring, like the art of the museums,” White wanted the same for his pictures of black people. He is recorded as saying, “An artist must bear a special responsibility. He must be accountable for the content of his work. And that work should reflect a deep, abiding concern for humanity.”

Charles White: A Retrospective,” curated by Sarah Kelly Oehler and Esther Adler, will be on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from June 8 through September 3; travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, February 17–June 9, 2019.