Charles White: An Artist Ahead of his Time Finally has his Moment

Two concurrent exhibitions celebrate the art and legacy of one of the 20th century’s most accomplished draftsmen



It’s been a busy couple of years for the late artist Charles White. To commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday, a major retrospective opened in 2018 at the Art Institute of Chicago, before heading to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and on to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This year two exhibitions are concurrently on view at the University of Texas: “Charles White: Celebrating the Gordon Gift” at the Blanton Museum of Art and “Charles White and the Legacy of the Figure: Celebrating the Gordon Gift” at the Christian-Green Gallery, part of the Art Galleries at Black Studies.

Both shows celebrate the African-American artist’s life and lasting influence, thanks in large part to the donation of 23 works by his close friends, Drs. Edmund and Susan Gordon. At the heart of the Gordon’s gift to the university is a lifelong friendship between two families, their communities, and ensuing generations impacted by their life’s work.

In addition to spanning White’s 40-year career, the UT shows incorporate works from other artists — both peers and protégés.

“The Blanton exhibition thinks of him in relation to his colleagues, who he admired, and who admired him,” explains Cherise Smith, Chair of the African & African Diaspora Studies Department at UT Austin and founding Executive Director of the Art Galleries at Black Studies. Artists from his inner circle — Fletcher Martin and the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquerios, for instance — can be seen in the Blanton show.

In contrast, the exhibition at the Christian-Green Gallery considers White’s legacy and the artists and students he inspired along with the idea of why figuration continues to matter.

“The human figure is having a resurgence in a political moment when the humanity of so many people is taken for granted or not acknowledged at all,” says Smith.

Which is why White is also having a moment — amongst art historians, academic institutions, and major museums — though for the Gordon family, they had to look no further than their own kitchen, where White’s “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” hung proudly for years, the portrait’s matriarchal figure overseeing their home in Pomona, New York, a quiet town 25 miles north of Manhattan. The friendship between Charles White and Ed Gordon, a distinguished African-American child psychologist and researcher, struck the perfect balance: one, an artist, and the other, a social scientist, sharing a vision which might best be described as humanist.

White was born in Chicago in 1918 and was raised on its South Side, developing an affinity for reading and art at a young age. He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on full scholarship, eventually landing a job in 1938 with the Illinois Art Project (a state affiliate of the WPA) to paint murals. While serving in the U.S. Army, White contracted tuberculosis and subsequently dealt with lifelong health issues. Early on in his career, fumes from painting proved too much for his compromised lungs, so he turned to printmaking and drawing.

Charles White, "Awaken from the Unknowing,"
Charles White, “Awaken from the Unknowing,” 1961, compressed charcoal and brown and gray vine charcoal with scratching out, blending, and erasing. Gift of Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon to the units of Black Studies and the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin. © The Charles White Archives

White and his first wife, the artist Elizabeth Catlett, spent time in New Orleans before moving to New York City in the early 1940s, where White joined a thriving community of artists and intellectuals. He studied at the Art Students League and learned lithography, a process he favored throughout his life, as it meant his work could reach average working people; appearing on album covers, magazines, even insurance calendars — sating White’s socialist belief that art should be accessible to all.

He and Catlett traveled to Mexico City and briefly stayed in an arts collective, a pivotal moment for them as artists and people of color who were interested in making work which spoke to the struggle and strength of underrepresented communities. White and Catlett split up soon after (she stayed in Mexico, remarried, and later became a citizen). He went back to New York City, where he met Frances Barrett, a white social worker from Harlem, who he married and had a family; they were together until his death.

In the early 1950s, Charles and Frances became friends with Ed and Susan Gordon, also an interracial couple who shared similar social values and ideals as the Whites. Around this time, the Gordons opened a children’s health clinic in Harlem (Susan was a pediatrician and educator), where White’s work hung in the waiting room. In this sense, the Gordons were some of the earliest investors in White’s art. The friendship between the Whites and Gordons remained strong even after the artist moved  his family to Southern California in the 1960s, where he began teaching at Los Angeles’ Otis Art Institute. He continued to produce work up until his death in 1979, at the age of 61.

White was committed to depicting the robustness of the African-American experience, conveying dignity, resilience, and strength in much of his work. Though he produced portraits of famous historical figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Harriet Tubman, he often drew composite social realist figures, archetypes that anonymized the black individual and universalized the black identity.

For “Charles White: Celebrating the Gordon Gift at the Blanton Museum of Art,” works by White’s peers are included, such as Thomas Hart Benton’s “Romance” (1936) and Fletcher Martin’s “Down for the Count” (1936). Installation view, University of Texas at Austin, September 7, 2019–December 29, 2019.

His work reflected agency, but also urgency: the women from his own family loomed large, as well as the men — five of whom had been lynched in the Jim Crow-era South. Injustice shaped White’s views as a black artist. So did the idea of excellence: as a young man, he was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, most notably Alain Locke’s book “The New Negro: An Interpretation.”

A superior draftsman of Renaissance proportions, White mastered techniques such as cross-hatching, chiaroscuro, even trompe l’oeil. Though his work is superbly meticulous, it is also highly innovative and experimental, often including symbols of black power: a bloodied palm print, the letter “X,” a young man sporting an unapologetic afro, a young woman toiling over a pile of books. Such depictions made White’s work both subversive and radical: his graphic precision was on par while his political message was on point. White brilliantly protested the canon in this way and emerged as one of its most important artists.

David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall — both former students of his at Otis — have strongly advocated for White’s resurgence in recent years.

“He was very famous in his lifetime, both as an artist and beloved educator,” explains Veronica Roberts, Blanton’s curator of modern and contemporary art, and editor of the publication associated with the Gordon gift. “I knew about Kerry James Marshall, before I knew about Charles White. He wasn’t in any of my art classes; no one was talking about him in museums. But it’s been a personal mission of David and Kerry to make sure he isn’t forgotten.”

Hammons and Marshall may have been the most vocal contemporary artists advocating for White’s recent retrospective, but it is the Gordon family’s personal connection to UT which has made these two exhibitions uniquely possible. Their son, Ted Gordon, is a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Vice Provost for Diversity. When Cherise Smith approached him about bringing his family’s personal collection to the university, Ted gave her his blessing — but not much more. Smith understood the ethical obstacle, so she set out to Pomona, to convince the Gordons herself.

Ed Gordon and his late wife, Susan, wanted to find the right repository for White’s artwork. Many historically black colleges and prestigious universities were in the running, but UT emerged as the most viable candidate. The Gordons were already impressed with what their son had been able to achieve, with the help of various colleagues, in his 30 years at UT. Under Ted Gordon’s directorship at the Center for African and African-American Studies, some 80 faculty of color had been hired, the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies was created as was the Institute for Urban Policy and Research Analysis. Ed and Susan were also intrigued that the university had three art historians on faculty studying the black diaspora; no other college or university could boast of such a thing.

The decision was made. Rather than deposit White’s work in the Yale Art Gallery or the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture (where many of Ed Gordon’s own papers have ended up), their gift came to UT Austin.

“I successfully made the case that if UT became the repository for the Charles White collection, more collections like this would come,” adds Smith, “And that has been the case.”

When it came to dividing up the Gordon gift for UT’s two exhibitions, the process was straightforward and collaborative.

“Cherise and I brainstormed together,” say Roberts. “From the get go, she wanted the contemporary, looking at the figurative and White’s legacy. Because she had such clarity on that, it made it easier for the Blanton show.”

In focusing on White’s legacy, the Christian-Green exhibition includes pieces from some of the most well-known contemporary artists working today, such as Deborah Roberts, Kerry James Marshall, Michael Ray Charles, and Vincent Valdez.

White’s “Homage to Sterling Brown,” hangs in the Christian Green Gallery flanked by the work of Michael Ray Charles (left) and Jasper Johns.

A quote from Charles accompanies “I Live,” a crumpled black-and-white American flag framing the portrait of a small black child: “His depictions of Black pain, Black suffering, and Black Beauty, frequently induce within me feelings of joy and strength, a simmering pride offset by an unbreakable spirit of determination. White’s excellence, in its own unique way, greets each generation with the presence of a master’s mind.”

Renditions of American flags feature prominently in White’s art as well. In “Wanted Series #9” and “Wanted Series #10,” on view at the Blanton, the flag serves as a faint sepia backdrop, its creases and folds enveloping various black figures: a swaddled baby, a naked African-American woman, cowering blacks boys without any clothes on. Though inspired by runaway slave posters from pre-Civil War newspapers, White’s “Wanted Poster Series” was in response to the incarceration of black activists, nearly 100 years after such posters were printed.

Charles Whites, "Wanted Poster Series #6,
Charles White, “Wanted Poster Series #6,” 1969, oil wash brushed and stenciled with masking out over traces of graphite pencil. Gift of Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon to the units of Black Studies and the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. © The Charles White Archives

One-hundred years have now passed since Charles White was born, his life and legacy leaving a far-reaching mark. In honor of the Gordon Gift, UT has fittingly named a building on campus the Gordon-White Building to immortalize the friendship between these trailblazers, luminaries of the African-American community and visionaries who helped shape America, in all its possibilities.

“Charles White and the Legacy of the Figure: Celebrating the Gordon Gift” continues though Nov 30, 2019  at the Christian-Green Gallery.

“Charles White: Celebrating the Gordon Gift” continues through Dec. 1, 2019 in the Paper Vault at the Blanton Museum of Art.

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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