| First and Foremost, an
HAD CHARLES WHITE not been a black person, he probably would have been recognized as one of the finest artists the Americas have ever produced. A draftsman without peers, White produced engravings, etchings, lithographs, paintings, and murals (the last on view at Hampton Institute, Howard University and at the Mary McLeod Bethune Library in Los Angeles) and was best known for his charcoal drawings. His "Wanted Poster Series" (some ten or more major works), a segment of which is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum, was executed in oil wash. For his oil painting, "Mother Courage II," he was elected to the National Academy of Design. His works have been exhibited in leading art galleries in the United States and abroad, and several of these galleries hold works by White in their permanent collections. He was not prolific. Rather, he worked slowly, precisely executing each piece of work with meticulous attention to detail. Fortunately, some of his works have been reproduced and made available in portfolio or as illustrations in books and other publications.
In addition to possessing genius and renown, Charles was a humane and gentle person of deep social consciousness, who strongly identified with the black experience. Understandably, as a sensitive, caring and progressive black person, whose respect for human dignity dominated his being, the self that he brought to art could not but protest the indignities committed against his people and assert the beauty and honor of humankind. But although there was a period in his life when he briefly used his work as an instrument of social protest and has been defined by some as an artist of social protest, he did not view his work as protest art. In fact, he felt that the quality of his work was diluted by efforts to make it also polemical. In an interview with Jeffery Elliot,(1) White stated:
I feel that enough of life has rubbed off on me that I want to make a statement of who I am and where I'm at. I am not a political activist in the sense that I still march in demonstrations as I did when I was younger. I don't have those energies any longer. However, I do keep abreast of what's happening.
Those concerns are reflected in my work --- they have to be --- since my art is a reflection of my being. When I am in my studio, though, it's a totally subjective experience. I am not concerned with people or anything. There was a time, several years ago, when I would sit down and try to editorialize about current events. I found that wasn't in keeping with myself. I found that my work was being diluted. So I abandoned that approach, much to the disappointment of many of my followers, and tried to do that which I can do best --- namely, to paint and draw.
Being first and foremost an artist, White was undoubtedly concerned with far more than that which most of us see and applaud in his work. Indeed, simultaneous with presenting such content as has held viewers the world over enthralled, he was trying to solve technical problems of artistic expression in such a way as to advance his profession. But more on White's technical concerns later. As a compassionate black man living in a racist USA, White inevitably produced a body of work whose content was dominated by his own blackness and the condition of his people. However, his philosophy of life did not permit him to exclude any ethnic or national group from his range of concern. White liked to think of himself as a universalist and believed that his work had universal appeal. His human subjects tended to have black features, but they were symbolic of the dignity and humanity of all people. Elliot quotes White as saying:
I like to think that my work has a universality to it. I deal with love, hope, courage, freedom, dignity --- the full gamut of human spirit. When I work, though, I think of my own people. That's only natural. However, I am also a very cosmopolitan person. My philosophy doesn't exclude any nation or race of people. I have a special concern, however, for my own people --- their history, their culture, their struggle to survive in this a racist country. I think it's important to take pride in who you are. This doesn't necessarily have to lead to conflict. The fact is, I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud of being black!
The great sense of compassion conveyed in so much of Charles White's work may be related to his lifelong struggle with a personal feeling of being a "stranger in the village," to use James Baldwin's phrase. Though a joyful person in many ways who loved life passionately, he was troubled too. He was born "out of wedlock." While a youngster, he was denied certain opportunities to study art because he was black. His work as a representational artist was demeaned because abstract art was the reigning fashion. His first marriage to artist Elizabeth Catlett was unhappily brief. He contracted tuberculosis as a young man and ultimately lost one lung, which left him mildly deformed. He was physically small with slightly drooping torso in a society which prizes, in men, largeness and symmetry of body. Until he was past 40 years old, he was barely able to provide financial support for his family. The modest income from his work was doubly hard to accept as he saw lesser artists amply rewarded and a few of his friends in the performing arts flourishing
in their careers.
White was a highly intellectual person who, as he matured, moved in academic and other scholarly circles, but his verbal communicative style continued to reflect the mode of the streets of Chicago's South Side, of Harlem and of Watts. He was politically independent --- socialist and radical --- but not organizationally connected. He had many friends of varying political and social stripes and was comfortable in a wide variety of settings, but he struggled with feelings of difference, isolation and rejection --- even more so when his work was simply ignored. Thus, White's compassion and empathy may have flowed in part out of a sense of isolation from a world he did not want to be a part of but from which he expected and deserved better treatment.
At about the time he moved to California, the background features of his work --- the spiritual content born of conscious, as well as only partly conscious elements such as those cited above --- became a primary concern of White. By this time, he had emerged from a phase of his drawing which had been characterized by some rigidity and tightness of graphic structure and was achieving greater movement, fluidity and softness. Freedom and plasticity now complemented the already developed technical skill. He had mastered human image representation and could move on to the next plateau.
A recently completed documentary (2) filmed by Carlton Moss, long-time friend and confidant of White, illuminates the artist's approach to the artistic issues and suggests, as well, the source of his work's emotional resonance. In a segment of the film transcript made available by Moss, White speaks of his life and work:
I was born in Chicago, April 2nd, 1918. My father, who I really never knew, and my mother were separated when I was about three years old. Not long after that my mother married again. My step-father was an ordinary worker; worked in the steel mill in Chicago, stockyards and then in the later years of his life managed to get a more secure job at the Post Office, as a maintenance man. My mother, she was a domestic worker --- in fact, all her life. I guess she started when she was about eight years old. She often tells a story about how she had to be lifted up on a box to be able to wash the dishes in the people's houses she worked for. This was all in Mississippi. And when she grew up and came to Chicago she was about sixteen. I suppose I was born when she was around eighteen. We lived mostly on the South Side.I remember just three addresses in my entire childhood and young adult life. We had the only frame house in the block. It was a house behind a house. We were the only house on the block that had coal heat and every winter the pipes used to freeze and we never had any water and we always had to borrow water from our neighbors.
So this was the environment --- the kind of environment I grew up in with my parents.I went to elementary school and then later to Englewood High School. When I was around about 7th grade, I got a little scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago.
My mother' s coming from Mississippi gave me a very close tie to the South Prior to Mississippi, my family had originated really in Trinidad, so that my roots in Mississippi, when they were immigrated to this country, brought by an Englishman named Yellowbee, who had fathered my grandmother, had taken my great-grandmother as his slave wife and had fathered ten kids by her. And eventually had brought these kids along with his English wife and the ten kids he fathered by his legitimate English wife to Mississippi in a little town called Richland. From the time I was about eight, I used to make semiannual trips to visit my relatives.
There is a direct relationship between the content of what I do and this personal history. Actually, I've only painted one picture in my entire life each one of these things are segments of a relationship.I see my totality of 300 years of history of black people through one little fraction a family my family. Generally, when I create a head or figure, I'm thinking of the meaning behind the physical countenance of the person. I'm thinking of an expression of my own inner feelings of life. If I do a mother and child,I'm thinking of all mothers all children. I'm thinking of the meaning of love between a woman and her child.
I don't try to record it, but use it symbolically to make a very broad universal statement about the search for dignity, the search for a deeper understanding of the conflict and the contradictions of life so that there is more to it than just the illustrative portrayal of a history of a family what I'm trying to do is talk about the history of humanity.
As suggested here, White was wrestling with the artistic problem of how to articulate universal themes through images that were rooted in his own particular ethnic experience.
But there is a more abstract problem to which he sought practical solutions. Almost twenty years ago, I wrote a letter to Charlie in which I tried to summarize a discussion we had recently held. What we had been saying, I wrote, was that the artistic problem in drawing and painting is one of composition (mastery of space, form and chromatic or achromatic variation). The content is merely the vehicle by which the artist tries to solve the problem. The content is personal and subjective, born of the artist's life experience and social orientation. It reflects his or her concerns, passions, preoccupations. The content may convey a social message if the artist has a message to impart, or viewers may project social meaning onto the content of the drawing. The artist's task is to combine space, form and chromatic/achromatic elements so as to evoke feelings, mood, spirit, attitude, etc. --- the graphic composition of concepts that have meaning, first, to the artist and, secondly, to the viewer.
The viewer may be on the same perceptual wavelength as the artist or may bring to the drawing an entirely different frame of reference. These factors affect how a piece of art is received and can present a problem in understanding all works of art. Regarding the work of many black artists, the problem seems to have a unique dimension. Hale Woodruff has written:
He [ the Black Artist ] seems sometimes to have pursued a tangential and independent search for an appropriate dialect. There is speculation, if not certainty, that this search stems from present-day social motivations. On the other hand, his quest may come from overriding concern with the broader problems of art itself. Whatever reasons, it seems that the Negro artist has approached his art with a special dedication, singularly avoiding the traps of mere journalistic narrative and literal banality. (3)
Woodruff here identifies major elements in the controversy concerning the validity of Black Art. Some people claim that Black Artwork is too narrow, that it lacks universal appeal because of its "consuming interest in social protest." The contemporary Black Art movement, the argument goes, is not interested in expressing a broad range of human emotion and experience but only in conveying a highly self conscious political message. Others counter that this view is uninformed, that Black Art today is as complex and varied as the talented individuals who produce it. In his essay, "150 Years of Afro American Art," James Porter makes the further point that for centuries Black Artists have drawn upon the aesthetic and philosophical concerns of African, American and European art movements. From this mixed heritage, they have produced an outstanding array of paintings, sculpture, drawings and etchings. Unfortunately, these works have been largely ignored by art critics and galleries and, therefore, made inaccessible to the general public.
The term "Black Art" would not have pleased Charles White. He argued that there is no such thing as Black Artists; rather there is art by Black people and by artists who happen to be Black. He asserted that there has not yet emerged a distinct style or form by which artwork by Blacks can be identified (as Porter indicates, the work of artists who are Black is quite varied). However, it is the Black Artist's search "for an appropriate dialect," those elements in his work which break with tradition and that content which is clearly Black which is often referred to as Black Art and is so often rejected as good art. It also happens that work may be snubbed solely because the artist is known to be Black. For example, the work produced by Norman Lewis in his later years was not ethnically distinguishable, but he and his career were limited by his identification as a Black person. It is important to be aware, then, that the racist tradition in U.S. society has fostered widespread resistance to accepting the validity of artwork by Blacks. Also important to recognize is that the controversy pertaining to Black Art involves, in one of its dimensions, the age-old confusion about what is "good" and "bad" art.
Art history reveals that throughout the ages, no matter in what country, each generation of artists has rebelled against some of the established rules of composition, subject matter and technique handed down from the previous generation in an effort to arrive at styles and techniques more appropriate to their own time and place in history. The 19th-century French Impressionists outraged their contemporaries with the bold colors and scenes of everyday life which they submitted in defiance against the stuffy classicism of the French Academy. Yet today the Impressionists are widely respected. The point is that to appreciate fully any work of art, one must clear the head of preconceived notions of what is "good" and "bad" and approach each work with an open mind and heart.
The general task of the artist is to solve problems of composition, technique, color and spatial relations in such a way as to express feeling and sometimes meaning. Even though a particular subject, sensation or theme may appear to the viewer to dominate the work, the artistic problems involve blending elements into a synergistic whole that serves the creative purpose of the artist. As can be expected, each artist goes about solving these problems in different ways. The sculptor Richard Hunt explores these problems by dealing with abstract and expressionistic three-dimensional forms, while painter Richard Mayhew renders landscapes through subtle color relationships. Lois Mailou Jones and Hale Woodruff favor colorful abstract compositions featuring African symbols and motifs. A more representational approach to subject matter is exemplified in the sculpture of Elizabeth Catlett and the paintings and drawings of Ernest Crichlow and Charles White. Much of Selma Burke's more recent sculpture, on the other hand, treats subject matter in an expressionistic manner.
Whatever the chosen style, each artist endows his or her works with a very personal interpretation of the subject matter that lifts them far beyond the realm of mere illustrations or copies of nature. An artist's interpretation is obviously linked to his/her experiences and may reflect his or her ethnic affiliation, political beliefs or social position. With some artists, this link may well be distinct and dominating and with others it may be difficult or even impossible to discern.
A great work of art often has many meanings and demands to be viewed again and again over a span of time. Sometimes an artist has expressed in a work feelings of which s/he is not aware and meanings that were not deliberately intended. These may add to the richness and complexity of the work. Some artists, such as Charles White, may impart social messages through their work while they also solve highly technical problems of art; yet they encourage viewers to exercise freedom and imagination in interpreting the work. The fact is, Charles White would never explain the meaning of any one of his works. Rather, he insisted that viewers find their own meanings and see in each picture what they would. In response to the question, "What do you paint?"
White answered, "I paint my folks. I paint about you. I paint about each and every one of you. You are truly beautiful.
I paint an image of man. Nothing that I see, but something I feel,something I relate to you about the spirit of man." And in Charles White's work, you can see something of yourself, something of your fellows, something of the abuse and aspiration, frustration and hope, but always the dignity and spirit of humankind. And if you are really looking, you may see a great deal more.
Edmund W. Gordon, a Contributing Editor of FREEDOMWAYS, is currently professor of Psychology and Afro-American Studies at Yale University.
1 Jeffery Elliot, "Charles White: Portrait of an Artist." Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1978
2 Carlton Moss, Drawings From Life/ Charles White. Artisan Productions, Box 1827, Hollywood, Ca 90028, 1979
3 Hale Woodruff, The American Negro Artist: Eight New York Painters, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1956
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