Friday, November 23, 2018

Charles White: A Retrospective

The Museum of Modern Art

Charles White’s commitment to powerfully interpret African American lives, culture and the struggle for equality that defined 20thcentury American history was unwavering over the course of his career. Organized chronologically, Charles White: A Retrospective portrays the artist’s full body of work with more than 100 pieces - including drawings, prints and paintings. White’s remarkable drawing skills can already be seen in his sketchbooks from student years. But the artist was not only a superbly gifted draftsman. His unique way of capturing emotions in the expressions of his subjects is what makes his work– and this show so remarkable. In the 1940’s and 50’s White used these skills to reflect on current events connected to discrimination against African Americans, women, laborers and political radicals. Oftentimes he invokes historical African Americans and their successes in these artworks, such as in Exodus 1: Black Moses: This linoleum cut shows the abolitionist Harriet Tubman as a labor leader. The worried workers gather behind her powerful, confident figure, while she is leading the way, two fingers pointing towards the horizon. 

During the last decade of his career, White explored new technical terrain. This included developing a layered oil-wash drawing style, in which he mixed oil color with turpentine and then used a variety of utensils, such as brushes and cloths, to apply the paint onto the canvas. This highly detailed monochromatic drawing style can be seen in the Wanted Poster Series. The posters include stenciled letters, fragments of texts and images of women and children, sometimes combined in a collage from different perspectives. Everything is woven together into a patterned background that resembles the texture of wrinkled paper. Inspired by posters seeking the recapture of slaves who had escaped, the drawings link the challenges of contemporary African Americans with those of their enslaved ancestors. 

White’s belief in his responsibility as an artist to create thought provoking work with a deeper meaning remained consistent throughout his entire career. His interpretations of contemporary events make his work influential, and serve as a source of inspiration of how art can create awareness and instigate change today.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this review of the Charles White retrospective at MoMA. As an artist, he used such a wide range of materials and experimented with so many styles. I think you make it clear, however, that regardless of his techniques or tools, he has a consistent interest in portraying the Black American experience, which brings a level of cohesiveness to his oeuvre that wouldn't exist otherwise. Your review is really strong; I can only suggest that it might be interesting to hear if you, as a critic, favor one style of his over another since he worked in so many.