Artist Charles White would have been 100 years old on April 2. His art work lives on, of course, but the work wearing his other hats — as teacher, activist, storyteller, and influencer — ensures that his legacy will be canonical for the next 100. Currently, three exhibits in Los Angeles show us how his work and influence manifested — with exactitude, negritude and attitude.
The first is a major show of his work at LACMA, “Charles White: A Retrospective.” Featuring nearly 100 drawings and prints and rarely seen oil paintings, it is the most comprehensive display of White's work since a 1977 show at Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park, just two years before his death. Accessibly laid out, it takes us on a journey of his art and his life in Chicago (1918-1942), New York (1942-56) and Los Angeles (1956-79).
It was a diagnosis of tuberculosis that brought him to Los Angeles for the warm weather, but you get the sense that catalyzing and building a vibrant artist community is what kept him here. It seemed that both types of climates fed his soul.
Before L.A., the works from his Chicago and New York periods show vibrant, stark, angular images, some via linocuts, in a melange of impressionism and cubism seen through an afrocentric lens. Large ideas like the Struggle for Liberation mural show this, as does the sorrowful Soldier in 1944, depicting the anguish for blacks in military service during World War II.
What carries over from those periods into Los Angeles is the sense of dignity and unapologetic blackness that has been White's raison d'etre. In works like Homage to Sterling Brown and Banner for Willy J., he employs softer, layered and more textured backgrounds for his subjects, with rich coloration and dabs of light. And while activism was a constant, in Los Angeles, he seems to stretch out more and be even louder. We see this in works like Birmingham Totem, the Wanted Poster series, Love Letter I (which became a “Free Angela Davis” poster), General Moses (Harriet Tubman) and the J'Accuse series.
There are also poignant images of celebrities, like friend Harry Belafonte (Folk Singer), and a tad more abstraction as well, through the greater use of symbols like roses, shells, targets. This shows most vividly in Sound of Silence, juxtaposing a young black man with a conch shell.
The second dimension of his work as a teacher shows in “Life Model: Charles White and His Students” at Charles White Elementary School. Here we are able to see the work of contemporary artists of color who studied and practiced their craft under White at Otis College of Art & Design.
It's quite a roll call — Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, Richard Wyatt, Judithe Hernandez, Martin Payton, Alonzo David, among others.
The show is insightful about White's influence, but to get the full context of their learning, watch the wonderfully unfiltered 18-minute short doc from Matt Kesling posted by LACMA.
Hearing them reflect on stories heard from White, like not being able to go to his own show of work one time in New Orleans because he was black, must have surely seared these young creative minds. But that was part of the teaching. “After lunch for critiques, Charles became a preacher,” Alonzo David says in the video. Ian White, Charles' son, is co-curator of the exhibit.
The gospel of Charles White, if you will, spread beyond the classrooms of Otis College. We see this third dimension of his reach with the exhibit, “Plumb Line: Charles White and the Contemporary,” at California African American Museum (CAAM). These artists, most not even born before he died and including a number who made pieces for this show specifically in 2019, show that the Charles White school of textured techniques, emotional representation, political advocacy is alive and well and will continue to be in session.
A look at He looks like me, by Deborah Roberts, literally illustrates this, reflecting the same intensity of White's cross-hatching technique; as well, the drawings All Water Has Perfect Memory by Kenturah Davis and Euretta F Adair by Lava Thomas, a depiction of Montgomery bus boycott heroines.
“Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent,” White once said. All three of these exhibitions work together like a prism, shining his colorful legacy to light us all.
LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile; through June 9, Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; lacma.org.
Charles White Elementary School, 2401 Wilshire Blvd., Westlake; through Sept. 15, Sat. only, 1-4 p.m.; lacma.org.
CAAM, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park; through Aug. 25, Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.;