A detail from a print by Charles White titled Wanted Poster Series number 14a, dated 1970.
A detail from a print by Charles White titled Wanted Poster Series number 14a, dated 1970.
A detail from a print by Charles White titled Wanted Poster Series number 14a, dated 1970.
Power for the People: Charles White
January 3, 2019

In the next Viewing Room, David Zwirner is pleased to present a selection of works on paper by Charles White (1918–1979). Eight lithographs and an etching made in the early 1970s mark an acute period in which White’s artistic practice—one that consistently addressed social and political injustice with powerful and dignified portrayals of African Americans—expressed his response, with renewed force, to intensifying racial violence.
 
Recognized in its time and now considered White’s most famous group of works, the Wanted Poster Series (1969–1972) comprises fourteen oil-wash drawings and seven lithographs, of which four are presented here. Transferring his process to lithography for the latter part of the series, the artist was able to draw directly onto lithographic stone, achieving effects close to the those of his drawings while making them available to a wider audience. The Wanted Poster lithographs were produced at the prestigious Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, which awarded White a studio fellowship in 1970.
 
The twenty-one distinct images in the series draw on advertisements for slave auctions and wanted posters for escaped slaves found in a cache of old newspapers from the antebellum South given to the artist by a friend. Faces and bodies are framed by stenciled letters, numbers, and pointing hands that appear collaged or stamped onto crumpled backgrounds. The abstract patterns surrounding the figures in works such as Wanted Poster Series #14 (1970) (one of seven lithographs from the series acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1970) are among the vivid visual devices White used to evoke a lineage of oppression of African Americans. Far from having ended, the artist witnessed the continuation of this culture, enacted on people he knew.
 
Three additional prints in the Viewing Room demonstrate White’s engagement with religious iconography in depicting contemporary figures. One of several papal images the artist created in the 1970s, when magazine articles popularized the idea of a black Pope, Pope X (1972) portrays the head of a man wearing a miter, his gaze upturned. A year later, White completed Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man), a seminal painting acquired by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2013. This work, as well as several of the Wanted Poster prints, is included in a critically acclaimed retrospective at the museum that is on view through January 13, 2019.
 
Two portrayals of a woman feature in Love Letter 1a and Blues, both made in 1971. While the two compositions recall images of the Virgin Mary in their use of a rose motif and the color blue, the depiction of a young woman with Afro hair may reference Angela Davis, whose natural hairstyle became synonymous with political activism. Listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1970, Davis appeared on posters and on the cover of Life magazine that year—images, she has said, that "identified vast numbers of my black female contemporaries . . . as targets of repression." White supported Davis and gave permission for Love Letter to be used on an open letter to Governor Ronald Reagan requesting her release.
 
"We are all fugitives," the artist said of the Wanted Poster works; "I feel that at this point I have to make an emphatic statement about how I view the expression, the condition of this world and of my people . . . my own kind of way, of making an indictment." Seen together, these resonant images give voice both to the spirit of White’s practice as whole and to a critical moment in the artist’s work.

Image: Charles White, Wanted Poster Series #14a, 1970 (detail)