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At LACMA, curators have culled around 100 works that encompass Charles White’s steadfast path over the course of his four-decade-long career as an artist, activist, and academic. From entrance to exit, visitors are offered a visual compendium of courage and compassion in chronological order, and are witness to a type of perseverance rarely demonstrated in the art world.
Early in his career, while employed as a Works Progress Administration artist in Chicago, White made bold yet contained compositions such as Kitchenette Debutantes (1939), a lively portrait of two robust African-American women seen dressing (or undressing) through the window of a wartime studio apartment. This watercolor painting shows the subjects as strong and sturdy, giving them reverence and relevance, regardless of their vulnerable position. White moved to New York in 1942, where he joined the Committee for the Negro in the Arts; he also started painting more puzzling pieces of sociopolitical skepticism, including a scared serviceman (Soldier, 1944) and a cowering couple (Two Alone, 1946). In 1951, during the Red Scare, he traveled to the Soviet Union and, upon his return Stateside, began to shrewdly utilize Social Realism as a means to promote and diversify the portrayal of black life and culture. In the early ‘50s, farmers entered his already labor-heavy scenes, revealing the neglected rigor demanded of black agricultural workers.
Once White arrived on the West Coast in the mid-50s, his influence continued to expand. He became a professor at the Otis College of Art and Design. His somber and surreal lithograph, Love Letter I (1971), served as the image that accompanied an open letter pleading to Ronald Reagan to free fellow activist and academic, Angela Davis. The mostly black-and-white print features Davis as an exasperated angel stoically staring ahead with a rose floating in front of her. The synthesized image is resilience in reverie.
White was truly producing some of the most arresting pictures of his oeuvre during this period. One example, Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man) (1973), is a large, sepia-soaked oil wash on board, depicting an ornately-framed, suave hustler, costumed in aviator sunglasses and fabric cross headwear. The man’s stance is sobering and his left hand is flashing the peace sign; the sandwich board hanging around his neck simply reads: NOW. Despite the fact that most people are currently more comfortable bitterly tweeting (and retweeting) about social issues than they are actually taking to the streets, White’s anthology of intimately rendered anthropological studies can give us the hope he always appeared to carry with him.
Charles White: A Retrospective runs from February 17–June 9, 2019 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036).