ed. by Sarah Kelly Oehler and Esther Adler. Art Institute of Chicago, June 2018. 248 p. ill. ISBN 9780300232981 (h/c), $50.00.
Reviewed November 2018
When Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, the New Yorker magazine called upon Kadir Nelson to create a cover in just hours. Nelson, in turn, beckoned one of Franklin's cultural contemporaries for inspiration – the artist Charles White. The resulting image, The Queen of Soul (after Charles White's Folksinger) captures Franklin lifting her head in song.
Nelson’s homage is a rich testament to White’s enduring legacy. He was the progenitor of many artistic children and grandchildren; it is likely his heritage will grow as younger artists are exposed to his work through the publication of Charles White: A Retrospective and the corresponding exhibition.
This book complements an important earlier volume by Andrea D. Barnwell, entitled simply Charles White (2002). Barnwell's narrative is more biographical, while the chapters of the newer book provide greater analysis.
Born in 1918 in Chicago, White was of African American and Creek heritage. He worked in Chicago, New York City, Mexico City, and Los Angeles, and more than one hundred well-reproduced plates in the retrospective are grouped to correspond to his three U.S. homes.
The 247-page volume includes seven chapters exploring White's work as painter, drawer, lithographer and photographer. Although the essays often overlap, each captures a different aspect of White's artistic career. The book opens with a fond first-person remembrance by another of White's "children," the artist Kerry James Marshall, who was a student at Otis Art Institute where White taught from 1965-1979.
White was ever the historian, steeped in both historical and sociological studies of the African American experience; Sarah Kelly Oehler argues that White's historical perspectives deepened over time as his later works conveyed the historical force of mass struggle. White's entire career was associated with radical black social movements from the leftist circles employed by the Works Progress Administration through the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Solo exhibitions in 1950s New York City exemplified White's ongoing commitment to figuration in the face of its widespread rejection by many of his contemporaries, and importantly, his views on black womanhood. In one of the more enlightening chapters, "Charles White, Feminist at Midcentury," Kellie Jones writes that for White, "[t]he clothed body, the working body, the happy body, the woman engaged in her life's work, was the ideal beauty."
Other chapters examine the 300 photographs that White left behind; the artist's drawing and printmaking; White the teacher and his pedagogical approaches; and his Los Angeles life.
The retrospective’s extensive back matter provides a detailed chronology and exhibition history, an inventory of White’s library, a bibliography, and the exhibition checklist. This volume is indispensable for art, women's history, and African American collections.