At the time of his premature death, at the age of only 61, in 1979, White was, according to some observers, the most famous African American artist in America. But, as he recalled to Betty L. Hoag¸ who had interviewed him for the Archives of American Art in 1965, his mother, a domestic worker, had had very mixed emotions about his fondness for art as a child.
On the one hand, she had given him his first oil-painting set when he was seven, as well as a violin. And she had been very sympathetic to his attempts to use both – up to a point. Still, as her son became more and more involved in art, and considering it as a career, she began thinking that maybe this was a difficult way to make money. He would do better as a doctor or lawyer, as opposed to being either an artist or a construction worker, like his father.
Still, when she went shopping (presumably on Saturdays, when he wasn’t in school), she would drop him off at the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, and sometimes the Art Institute of Chicago (the two were not far apart).
At the Art Institute, he found that he liked Winslow Homer & George Inness. In the library, he read voluminously – all of Jack London and all of Mark Twain by the time he entered high school, but most especially “The New Negro: An Interpretation” (1925), by Alain Locke, a philosophy professor at Howard University often known as “the dean of the Harlem Renaissance.”
Although primarily an anthology showcasing work by African American stars of The Harlem Renaissance like Countee Cullen, this important book also presents Locke’s concept of “the new Negro.”
“The New Negro” abolishes the negative stereotypes associated with “the old Negro,” and personifies the dignity and talent more truly associated with the great contributions that Negroes have made to American culture (condescending as the term “Negro” sounds today, until the later 1960s it was considered the most “progressive” term to apply to African Americans).
Not only did Locke emphasize the under-recognized dignity and worth of African Americans, but also the leading role in their rehabilitation to be played by persons of culture – artists, musicians, and authors.
For both these reasons, White related to Locke, and this book stimulated him into finding more books about African Americans who had contributed to American culture and history.
Among those figures who stood out for him were Sojourner Truth, the 19th century activist and feminist; Frederick Douglass, the 19th century abolitionist, and two early 20th century figures: Booker T. Washington, educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), and George Washington Carver, the botanist who taught generations of agricultural students about crop rotation and other ways to improve the output of farms whose soil had been depleted by over-emphasis on cotton.
Studying his high-school U. S. history book, White found that the only African American in it was Crispus Attucks, the first American to be killed in the American Revolution.
He took his teacher to task about these omissions – only to be classified as a “problem child,” and made to appear as something of a joke to other students.
The school was 70 percent white, and while African American students were allowed to help make scenery for school plays they were barred from acting in them.
The negative attitude by White’s history teacher in turn led ultimately to the boy’s staying away from school altogether. He had no trouble with his art classes or his English literature classes, though (or with sociology and philosophy courses). In the end, he told Betty Hoag, it was the influence of his art teachers that enabled him to move on (he was in high school for five years).
In addition to the school’s art classes, a regular competition was offered by the Art Institute of Chicago to all the city’s schools. The best students from the city schools got to attend a 6- or 7-week lecture class at the Institute, and then submit a drawing for critique.
If its examiners thought the drawing was really good, they gave the student an honorable mention, and if the student earned ten honorable mentions, he or she got a gold pen. Young Charles attended a lot of these abbreviated lectures.
When he was old enough to move on from high school, he applied for scholarships to three Chicago art schools. He won scholarships to all three, but the first two – private ones – rescinded their offers when they discovered that he was African American.
Fortunately, the School at the Art Institute – easily the best of the three – had no such problems. And he was on his way.
The earliest work in the show at MoMA shows why. It is a simple self-portrait done in black crayon on cardboard dated 1935 and showing the artist at the age of about 17. Both subject and image are elegant.
Within three years after that, White was hired by the Illinois Art Project, a state affiliate of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
He also joined the Artists Union, a left-leaning organization that had agitated on behalf of founding the Federal Art Project originally and was a popular meeting place for all artists with even minimally leftist leanings.
White began as an easel painter for the FAP, and then transferred to its mural division. There he executed his first big assignment: a mural for the George Cleveland Hall Library in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood; that library was then a very active center of African American culture.
Entitled “Five Great American Negroes,” and completed in 1939, the mural personifies White’s grand ambition: to call attention to the dignity and worth of great African Americans, and their contributions to American culture and society.
An oil on canvas measuring 5’ x 13’, it features Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Marian Anderson, the operatic contralto who in 1939 had just recently attracted widespread attention with her nationally-broadcast concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The style is the combination of compact, cubist-influenced but flowing combination of forms most often associated with the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco & David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Although White had at that point never been out of Chicago, he could easily have seen such Mexican work in reproduction – and in any event, the style also had been and was being widely employed in other WPA murals (as well as internationally – in my philistine youth it was sometimes irreverently referred to as “Mussolini modern”).
In any event, “Five Great American Negroes” is a handsome combination of shapes and colors. It is on view at MoMA at the entrance to the current retrospective, on loan from where it now normally hangs – in the Law Library of Howard University in Washington.
Following the completion of this mural, White went to New Orleans with his first wife, a gifted sculptor named Elizabeth Catlett; she had a teaching job at Dillard University, and he was able to teach there, too.
Next, he landed the first of two fellowships he would receive from The Rosenwald Fund, an organization created by Julius Rosenwald, co-founder of Sears, Roebuck; the fund was largely concerned with improving the lot of African Americans (among others, Jacob Lawrence received an award from it)..
For the first third of that first fellowship, White was based in New York and studying at the Art Students League. During the last two thirds, he was creating another mural, this one at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia.
It was entitled, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,” and the current MoMA show includes a number of studies for it, including portraits of Paul Robeson, the activist, singer, football star and actor, and Denmark Vesey, a freedman who in 1822 planned a slave uprising in Charleston, but was betrayed and executed before it could begin.
At the Art Students League, White had studied with Harry Sternberg, and Sternberg was a teacher whom he remembered with especial admiration & fondness to Betty Hoag. White also became affiliated with the progressively-minded ACA gallery.
These two relationships– along with White’s membership in the Artists’ Union -- seem to have opened the way to a remarkable range of friendships celebrated in the current show at Michael Rosenfeld.
Sternberg was a “social realist.” This was a type of art that that had thrived during the Depression, and would continue to nurture alliances on through World War II and beyond.
Among the social realists, the show at Rosenfeld includes work by Sternberg, Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, William Gropper & Robert Gwathmey – all white men.
Less surprising to me are the distinguished African American artists from roughly White’s generation or earlier also in the show: Lawrence, Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, & Norman Lewis among painters, plus photographers Gordon Parks & Roy DeCarava.
It would have been only natural for White to meet and mingle with his fellow African Americans, but in the 1940s, most of the art world was more segregated than it is now. The exceptions would have been among those white artists with strong “progressive” beliefs, and the social realists often fit that category.
Whether or not they were card-carrying members of the Communist Party of America was a question mostly left unanswered, but there is no doubt that with the aid of these friendships, White was able to contribute to at least two far-left publications: New Masses (later Masses & Mainstream) and the Daily Worker, organ of the CPA.
The show at MoMA includes images that he made for these publications, “The Return of the Soldier (Dixie Comes to New York)” and “Can a Negro Study Law in Texas?” The sight of both these images and the presence of Shahn et al. in the Rosenfeld show took me back to my red-diaper childhood.
Now that Communism has been dead for more than 30 years, most people have forgotten the ideals it espoused in the 1930s, 1940s and even the 1950s. The CPA was never that large (at most, it may have numbered a million in the depths of the Depression, around 1933).
But its party members still fought the good fight against racial and sexual prejudice and discrimination before such issues went mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s. (The party’s concern with economic injustice and the domination of the few rich over the many less advantaged is more recently beginning to appear relevant.)
In retrospect, it seems that one of the most educational experiences I had when I was of high-school age didn’t take place in school at all. Rather, it was on the home front, when my mother in 1950 took in two actor-friends of hers who were on the lam from the House Un-American Activities Committee.
This meant the Daily Worker on our coffee table, next to Vogue and The New Yorker, with headlines denouncing Southern “justice” in the cause célèbre of Willie McGee, an African American accused of raping a white woman and facing the death penalty for it.
Both my mother’s friends were eventually forced to testify before HUAC, and asked if they were or had ever been, party members. Both took the Fifth Amendment, which was in those days widely taken as evidence that they were, in fact, members of the party -- and just as surely led to blacklisting in the entertainment industries.
However, to judge from the catalogue accompanying the Charles White show at MoMA, the matter is not as clear with him. A note in the catalogue says that although he was twice called upon to testify before HUAC, his appearances were then cancelled. So nobody knows whether he was a party member or not, though it is certainly clear that he and it shared many of the same concerns.
It is also true that there were certain benefits to be had from traveling in these circles after World War II. In 1944, White was drafted, and after being required to help out with flood relief in the Ohio/Mississippi Valleys, wound up with pleurisy that compounded underlying tuberculosis and led to a medical discharge and years in hospitals. Based in New York after the war, however, as a realist he benefited from his left-wing audiences in an era when abstract expressionism was claiming increasing attention.
When I was researching my book, "A Memoir of Creativity," I went back and reread the Daily Worker in microfilm. Here I discovered that as far as its reviewers, and the artists whom they reviewed, were concerned, abstract expressionism was only an unfortunate symptom of capitalist decadence, and the best art was still the kind that appealed to the masses—realism, in other words.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, White did a number of genre scenes in oils (and in color) featuring African Americans at work and at play. Both shows – the one at MoMA and the one at Rosenfeld – include examples of these.
However, the artist’s proletarian ideals ultimately led to his preference for creating lower-priced art that ordinary people might be able to afford and enjoy.
This included lithographs, and also to a long series of sometimes smaller but often monumental black-and-white or sepia-and-white drawings in crayon and/or charcoal of single African Americans.
As presented in these two shows, some of these images are of men, especially laborers or folk heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. & Harry Belafonte (a personal friend). More characteristic are the many figures dramatizing the strength and fortitude of African American women.
The Rosenfeld show has an especially fine example of such a portrait. Nearly 4’ tall, it portrays a massive but upright and extremely dignified older woman. Entitled “I Been Rebuked & I Been Scorned (Solid as a Rock),” it was done in 1954.
In the later 1950s, White relocated to the Los Angeles area, primarily for the sake of his fragile lungs. There he collaborated in some movie, television and publishing projects, but more importantly taught at the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design) from 1965 to the year of his death, in 1979.
Among his students were David Hammons & Kerry James Marshall, so they too are represented in the show at Michael Rosenfeld – lending it a contemporary flavor, as well as a historical one.
The MoMA show has previously appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago, and will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from February 17 to through June 9, 2019. It was organized by MoMA's Esther Adler and the Art Institute's Sarah Kelly Oehler.