LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles is where the artist Charles White spent the last 23 years of his life, concluding his illustrious arts career by teaching at the Otis Art Institute and inspiring generations of artists to merge their aesthetic and political concerns. Surveying a career that spans from the Great Depression to the age of Black Power, Charles White: A Retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) tracks the artist’s development, his relationships with other political radicals and fellow travelers, as well as his mastery of art forms in service of elevating the lives of everyday African Americans and working people.
Labor, in Charles White’s artworks, is never glamorized. It’s never portrayed as anything less than physically demanding or potentially coerced. The emotional weight of White’s depiction of workers comes from their quiet resolve or simmering tension. Hard work in and of itself doesn’t bring dignity to these scenes, but rather moments in which workers realize their own agency.
In an untitled painting from 1940, a group of men with shovels and pickaxes have paused their work and assembled themselves in a circle as if in discussion of a work stoppage. They stare back in defiance with furrowed brows. The young man shouldering a pile of wood in “Work (Young Worker)” looks over his shoulder with wary eyes, possibly directed at an overbearing foreman. His left hand, braced against the waist, is drawn with precise detail, every groove and musculature suggesting a life of hard labor that’s in contrast to his boyish face.
In “Hear This,” a man to the right urgently draws attention to a fold of paper, perhaps an injustice in the form of a newspaper story or a contract that’s discriminatory or unfair. The man to the left rebuffs his proclamations and closes his eyes in dismissal of the other’s outrage. It’s a dramatic tableau that could be drawn from White’s own experiences as a union member during the New Deal era.
In 1938, Charles White was hired as an artist by an Illinois state affiliate of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency meant to alleviate poverty and provide meaningful work to the unemployed. Despite being qualified, many black artists were discriminated against and denied from taking part in projects. White and others formed a union to protest and demand equal rights, experiencing arrest and time in jail as a result. Their ultimately successful efforts further politicized the young artist and informed his interest in depicting the dignity and power of working people.
Intimacy or generosity in White’s work, whether it’s in the mournful embrace of a couple in “Black Sorrow (Dolor Negro)” or the private blues performance of “Goodnight Irene,” acts an alternative to the cruelty and sadism of political and economic realities faced by African Americans. Sometimes, White seems to confront grim events by turning inward, as in “Birmingham Totem,” a drawing that depicts a young man sifting through the wreckage of a white supremacist bombing that killed four young black children at a Birmingham church in 1963. A protective heavy blanket (a recurring motif) covers the man, whose look has the stoic determination to rebuild from the chaos.
White’s artworks, however, are not just about vulnerability or suffering. Historic figures who resisted the injustices of their time appear throughout White’s most memorable works, including “The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy,” a 1943 mural which still stands at Hampton University, a historically black institution in Virginia. Leaders of slave revolts, like Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, are included in the mural’s pantheon, as are George Washington Carver, the polymath scientist and inventor who made significant innovations in agriculture, and Marian Anderson, the celebrated singer and first black performer to take the stage at the Metropolitan Opera and other segregated venues.
The exhibition also documents many of Charles White’s close friendships with artists whose dissident views and political radicalism exposed them to government surveillance and public scrutiny. In some cases, like Paul Robeson and Eartha Kitt, their political positions and outspoken views would cost them their singing and acting careers. The printmaker and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, who was married to White until 1946 and committed herself to political activism and art making in Mexico through the artist collective Taller de Gráfica Popular, would be barred from returning to the US. Although he likely sympathized with or shared his colleagues’ views, White’s style and personality were not those of the political firebrand or ideologue. His artworks convey a more muted, but no less powerful, rage against injustice.
In “General Moses (Harriet Tubman),” the famous abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad rests against a massive boulder, regally posed and staring back as if in waiting for those in the future to catch up with the scope of her vision. Tubman’s physical stature is echoed in “J’Accuse #1,” where an unnamed black woman, blanketed by a heavy robe, stares back with an authoritative, withering gaze. It is the look of someone whose patience is running thin and may very well be a caution for those of us who are like the man in “Hear This” who refuses to heed the injustices that are being pointed out to him. Half a century since the debut of this work, the robed woman continues to wait for the world to change.
Charles White: A Retrospective continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) through August 25. The show was organized by Sarah Kelly Oehler (Art Institute of Chicago), Esther Adler (Museum of Modern Art, MoMA), and Susan Ilene Fort (LACMA).