David Zwirner is pleased to present a significant group of works by American artist Charles White (1918–1979) on the second floor of the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location in New York. On view for the first time since the 1970s will be four monumentally scaled ink and charcoal drawings made by the artist as studies for the figures in his mural Mary McLeod Bethune, completed in 1978 for the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library in Exposition Park, Los Angeles, as well as related preparatory works and ephemera documenting the project—White’s last major artistic endeavor during his lifetime.
Image: Installation view, Charles White: Monumental Practice, David Zwirner, New York, 2019
"An artist must bear a special responsibility. He must be accountable for the content of his work. And that work should reflect a deep, abiding concern for humanity. He has that responsibility whether he wants it or not because he’s dealing with ideas. And ideas are power. They must be used one way or the other." —Charles White, 1978
A deeply committed artist, educator, and political activist, White frequently described the importance of libraries and reading for his artistic development. In contrast with the exclusion of African American history from his school textbooks, White’s self-guided study in the Chicago Public Library as a young boy illuminated subjects that became the foundation for his work. In a 1965 interview, White noted: "My mother, when she went shopping, would leave me at the public library and this was the time I was six or seven years old.… [After art] books had been my second greatest passion in life.… I came across quite accidentally in the library one of the most definitive and one of the most important books that had ever been done on the culture of the Negro, which was a book called The New Negroby Dr. Alain Locke who was Professor of Philosophy, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Howard University. Dr. Locke was the authority on American Negro culture, with a particular interest to me because of his own special interest in art, the history of the Negro artist in America.… This book opened my eyes, because I heard names, read names, read of people that I’d never heard of before.… Then I began to search for other books on Negroes, which led to Negro historical figures, individuals that played a role in the abolition of slavery.… For the first time, at fourteen years old, these names came to my mind. I became aware the Negroes had a history in America."
"Art is not for artists and connoisseurs alone. It should be for the people. A mural on the wall of a commonly used building is there for anyone to see and read its message." —Charles White, "Art Today," Daily Worker, 1943
Although he undertook only five, mural commissions constituted a major part of White’s oeuvre. For an artist deeply concerned with uplifting and dignifying African American history, large-scale public murals afforded a unique opportunity to render that heritage as active and accessible in the present moment. Adopting a social realist approach in both technique and ethos—an attitude shared with prominent mural artists such as Diego Rivera, whom he met in 1946 and whose work he admired—White created monumental wall works intended to instruct and inspire, with the ultimate goal of ameliorating the course of history.
"I want to paint murals of Negro history," he told the author Willard F. Motley in a conversation published in Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life in 1940; "That subject has been sadly neglected. I feel a definite tie-up between all that has happened to the Negro in the past and the whole thinking and acting of the Negro now. Because the white man does not know the history of the Negro, he misunderstands him."
Inspired by the legacy of this important black educator, civil and women’s rights leader, and government official, White devised a composition for the Mary McLeod Bethune mural that interpreted Dr. Bethune’s "Last Will and Testament," written just prior to her death in 1955—a text that also resonated with White’s own values and the predominant themes of his work.
"Bethune, the daughter of former slaves, rose to prominence not only as an activist and influential political figure but also as an educator, and White’s altarpiece-like mural pays homage to her legacy of teaching. In the painting a young child, a book open on his lap, sits at Bethune’s feet, the gridded alphabet behind him symbolizing her fight for educational opportunities for African Americans." —Esther Adler, "Charles White, Artist and Teacher," published in the catalogue for Charles White: A Retrospective, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2018
White’s practice and teaching has been a pivotal influence on the work of gallery artist Kerry James Marshall, whom White taught at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. "I took from him as a teacher that I have an obligation to tell everything that I know so my students can choose what they want to do," Marshall said in a talk at The Art Institute of Chicago last year; "If you left Charles White’s company, you were equipped.… He understood what the image was up against."