Exceptional Works: Charles White | David Zwirner
A brown title card containing artwork info: Charles White, Untitled, c. 1966-1967, Oil on canvas
A close-up of the work called Untitled by Charles White, it is a man who wears a green coat looking down with his right arm raising up.

“I try to deal with truth as truth … in a very spiritual sense—not ‘spiritual’ meaning religiously spiritual, but ‘spiritual’ in the sense of the inner-man.”

Charles White, 1965

A painting by Charles White titled Untitled, circa 1966 - 1967.

Charles White

Untitled, c. 1966-1967
Oil on canvas
28 1/2 x 50 1/2 inches (72.4 x 128.3 cm)
Framed: 30 1/4 x 52 inches (76.8 x 132.1 cm)

Charles White (1918–1979) is celebrated for his prodigious body of work that resolutely depicts the American experience, combating racial and economic injustice with images of strength and resolve. 

Untitled (c. 1966–1967) is a powerful mature work. Made in the last part of White’s career, it is a rare example of an oil painting by the artist, whose health forced him to focus on drawing in the second half of his life.

Portrait of Charles White sitting on a Chair and staring into the camera

Charles White, n.d. © The Charles White Archives

Charles White, n.d. © The Charles White Archives

An artist, educator, and political activist, White was an integral part of the intellectual milieu in his hometown of Chicago, and later in New York and Los Angeles. 

In 1956, White moved with his wife to California, where he became the first full-time Black faculty member at his alma mater, the Otis Art Institute. Among those he mentored there were Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons, who have testified to White’s crucial influence on their work.

White remained steadfastly committed to figuration during a period when abstraction was quickly becoming the dominant artistic paradigm.

His detailed images of individuals resonate universally, yet remain grounded by his interest in history and his personal interpretation of truth, beauty, and dignity. 

A painting by Charles White, titled Woman in Green Dress, dated 1935

Charles White, Woman in Green Dress, 1935

Charles White, Woman in Green Dress, 1935

“All my life, I have been painting one single painting. This doesn’t mean that I’m a man without angers—I’ve had my work in museums where I wasn’t allowed to see it—but what I pour into my work is the challenge of how beautiful life can be.”



—Charles White, quoted in Kellie Jones, “Charles White: Feminist at Midcentury,” in Charles White: A Retrospective, 2018

A detail of a drawing by Charles White, titled Awaken from the Unknowing, dated 1961

Charles White, Awaken from the Unknowing, 1961. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

Charles White, Awaken from the Unknowing, 1961. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

“From the late 1950s on,” Ilene Susan Fort writes, “White typically focused on single figures. He also eschewed positioning figures in interiors or naturalistic landscapes, as he had done in [earlier works]. Devoid of most references to specific settings, his compositions usually focused on one or two figures, with White conveying situations through pose, gesture, and facial expression.”

This is a scanned version of an article titled Charles White, Portrayer of black Dignity published on Ebony Magazine, 1967

“Charles White, Portrayer of Black Dignity”, Ebony Magazine, 1967

“Charles White, Portrayer of Black Dignity”, Ebony Magazine, 1967

A detail of a drawing by Charles White, titled Cat’s Cradle, dated 1964.

Charles White, Cat’s Cradle, 1964 (detail)

Charles White, Cat’s Cradle, 1964 (detail)

Untitled is one of a number of works from this period featuring a single figure against an abstract “metaphysical” background. Together with related works including Move On Up a Little Higher (1961) and Nat Turner, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1968), Untitled demonstrates White’s emphasis on spiritual awakening throughout his practice—the idea of reaching for the unattainable while maintaining hope and dignity. 

 

This is a close-up of the work by Charles White, titled Move On Up a Little Higher, dated 1961.

Charles White, Move On Up a Little Higher, 1961 (detail). Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Charles White, Move On Up a Little Higher, 1961 (detail). Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

This is a close-up of the work by Charles White, titled Nat Turner, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, dated 1968

Charles White, Nat Turner, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, 1968 (detail). Courtesy The Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists

Charles White, Nat Turner, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, 1968 (detail). Courtesy The Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists

“[In California] … he felt free to create symbolic images, artworks that promoted civil rights differently than literal portrayals of the struggle.… White’s drawings could produce an emotional experience akin to that of music, an effect one Los Angeles critic called ‘visual spirituals.’”

—The Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Oh Freedom! Charles White”

This is a detail shot of the painting by Charles White, titled Untitled, dated c. 1966-1967

Charles White, Untitled, c. 1966-1967 (detail)

Charles White, Untitled, c. 1966-1967 (detail)

This is another detail shot of the painting by Charles White, titled Untitled, dated c. 1966-1967

Charles White, Untitled, c. 1966-1967 (detail)

Charles White, Untitled, c. 1966-1967 (detail)

“What a beautiful artist Charles White was. Hand of an angel, eye of a sage.… Agency, the power to generate action and self-definition, was the crucial element White brought to the Black figure.”



—Holland Cotter, The New York Times, 2018

This is an installation view of an exhibition named Charles White: A Retrospective at Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Installation view, Charles White: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Installation view, Charles White: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Installation view II of an exhibition named Charles White: A Retrospective at Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Installation view, Charles White: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Installation view, Charles White: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Installation view III of an exhibition named Charles White: A Retrospective at Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Installation view, Charles White: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Installation view, Charles White: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

In 1967, Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White was published, featuring a foreword by White’s friend, the singer Harry Belafonte, and texts by James A. Porter and Benjamin Horowitz (White’s gallerist and friend). 

“In an era when the artist is expressing his detachment from the human condition by a ‘cool’ and geometric style,” Horowitz writes, “Charles White’s superb drawings challenge this lack of faith and self-involvement. Their epic quality affirms his deep concern for humanity, his love of man and life, and his belief that brotherhood is not just a catchword. Here, on his canvases, the vitality and poignancy of humankind are captured for the eye to see and the heart to feel.”

A cover of a book, untiled Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, dated 1967

Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, 1967

Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, 1967

“Charles White is to painting and drawing what Langston Hughes is to literature: both men direct their art to primal human concerns, to the simple problems and pleasures, the ordinary joys and sorrows of the long journey from the cradle to the grave.”

—Review of Images of Dignity, June 1967

This is a line drawing for the work titled Songs Belafonte Sings by Charles White.

Line drawing for Songs Belafonte Sings, 1967

Line drawing for Songs Belafonte Sings, 1967

“My people’s speech, their poetry, their folklore, their dance and their music.… Particularly the music affected me, the spirituals, blues, ballads, work songs, gospel songs, church songs and secular songs, and it has remained one of the most important influences on my work.”

—Charles White, “Path of a Negro Artist,” 1955

A portrait with Harry Belafonte and Charles White

Charles White and Harry Belafonte working on Songs Belafonte Sings. c. 1960. © The Charles White Archives

Charles White and Harry Belafonte working on Songs Belafonte Sings. c. 1960. © The Charles White Archives

“In a period when many artists have deserted reality for the various schools of nonobjectivity and abstractionism, Mr. White has continued to work for broader horizons of human expression and to explore deeper dimensions of truth and reality.”

—Harry Belafonte, June 1967

Charles White sit in his studio

Charles White in his studio, n.d.

Charles White in his studio, n.d.

“An atmosphere of stillness and quietude envelops the space in and around the work.… White kept common cause with the great masters of art history, holding up his end and passing the torch to the generations that followed him.”

—Kerry James Marshall, “A Black Artist Named White,” in Charles White: A Retrospective, 2018

An installation view with a scale model of a painting by Charles White, called Untitled, dated c. 1966-1967.

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