ART WORLD NOTES
MAGAZINE Vol 40
2018 – Semester 02
Charles White Art Institute of Chicago
Cover: Over 80 paintings, drawings, and prints come together to trace Charles White’s four-decade career from his emergence in Chicago through his mature work as artist, activist, and educator.
Charles White (1918–1979) powerfully interpreted African American history, culture, and lives over the course of his four-decade career. A superbly gifted draftsman and printmaker as well as a talented mural and easel painter, he developed a distinctive and labor-intensive approach to art making and remained committed to a representational style at a time when the art world increasingly favored abstraction. His work magnified the power of the black figure through scale and form, communicating universal human themes while also focusing attention on the lives of African Americans and the struggle for equality. This exhibition—the first major retrospective of White’s work in more than 35 years—showcases an accomplished artist whose work continues to resonate amid today’s national dialogues about race, work, equality, and history. Born in Chicago and educated at the School of the Art Institute, White was part of the city’s flourishing black artistic community of the 1930s. He was determined to employ art in the struggle for social change, declaring, “Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent.” Influenced by Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera, White completed several important mural commissions in the city, including one for a branch of the Chicago Public Library.
White married sculptor Elizabeth Catlett in 1941, and the couple soon settled in New York. Together they traveled to Mexico City, where White honed his printmaking skills as part of the printmaking collective known as the Taller de Gráfica Popular. In New York in the 1940s and early 1950s, White showed his work at the progressive ACA Gallery and was a prominent member of African American and leftist artist communities. White moved to Southern California in 1956, and his career flourished as he embraced drawing and printmaking more fully, pushing at the boundaries of his media while continuing to engage with civil rights and equality. Despite his rejection of the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism and ongoing use of an expressive figuration, he found critical acclaim in the United States and abroad.