CHARLES WHITE, “Love Letter,” 1971


SHORTLY AFTER ‘CHARLES WHITE: A RETROSPECTIVE’ opens at the Art Institute of Chicago, a 2019 wall calendar will be released featuring his work. Published by Pomegranate in collaboration with the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), the African American art calendar features Charles White‘s “Love Letter” (1971) on the cover. The new calendar will be available in July.

Works by 12 different artists are represented in the calendar, all drawn from SAAM’s collection, which includes more than 2,000 works by more than 200 African American artists. In addition to White, works by artists Edward Mitchell Bannister, Romare Bearden, David Driskell, Robert S. Duncanson, Joseph Holston, Malvin Gray Johnson, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, and James A. Porter are featured. The images include landscapes, depictions of African American families, and portraits.

Only two works by female artists are among the selections. Artist Alma Thomas is the subject of Laura Wheeling Waring‘s “Portrait of a Lady” (1947). “Coming Down the Road” (c. 1934) by Margaret N. Dodson, about whom I could find little information, depicts a succession of men pushing empty wheelbarrows down a country road.

A MASTER DRAFTSMAN, White is recognized for his dignified, social realist images of African American people. “Love Letter” is the only overtly political work featured in the calendar. He created it nearly five decades ago as part of a series and it is in the collections of both SAAM and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

A version of the image was on view in “The Work of Charles White: An American Experience” at The High Museum of Art in Atlanta (Sept. 4-Oct. 3, 1976) and also graced the cover of “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980,” the catalog that accompanied the traveling exhibition organized by the Hammer Museum and curated by Kellie Jones.

White made the work in response to the arrest of Angela Davis. The image was featured on the cover of a card created by The National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners requesting her release. (The mailer is illustrated in “Now Dig This!,” page 140.) Part of a letter-writing campaign, the card was sent to supporters with the following message:

    Dear Governor Reagan:

    Because we love Justice and Freedom;

    Because we truly believe that she is being
    denied the presumption of innocence and
    equal protection under the law, as guaranteed
    by the Constitution of these United States;

    Because we are alarmed by the effect this
    pre-trial, punitive imprisonment is having
    on her health and well-being,

    We ask you, as Governor, to intercede for
    the release of Angela Davis on reasonable bail.


    (Followed by fill-in spaces for Name, Address, City, State, and Zip)

Recipients were expected to endorse the demand for freedom by signing their name and address below the message and sending the card to then-Governor Ronald Reagan at the State Capitol in a pre-addressed envelope.

Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder because the crimes were committed with firearms registered in her name. After being held in the Women’s Detention Center in Davis, Calif., for 16 months, she was released Feb. 23, 1972, on $100,000 bail. The case went to trial and Davis was acquitted of all charges—kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy—by an all-white jury.

The campaign card included a citation of appreciation from the committee for the use of White’s work: “We acknowledge with deep gratitude, Charles White’s consent to the use of his magnificent new lithograph ‘Love Letter’. We also wish to thank the Heritage Gallery, Los Angeles, and its Director, Benjamin Horowitz for their generous cooperation.”

POMEGRANATE HAS PROMOTED the work of African American artists for years, producing and selling calendars, boxed cards, and other products. For 2018, the company published a one-artist calendar devoted to the work of Eldzier Cortor (1916–2015), the artist and printmaker whose stately and graceful images often celebrate the black female figure.

Last year, when I spoke to Katie Burke about the project, the publisher of Pomegranate Communications said it was the first in a new wave of products in the pipeline dedicated to the work of African American artists. In addition to the 2019 calendar featuring multiple African American artists, White among them, for the second year in a row, Pomegranate is releasing a calendar focused solely on Cortor. CT


TOP IMAGE: CHARLES WHITE, “Love Letter,” 1971 (color lithograph on paper). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1971, Heritage Gallery, Los Angeles, Gift of June Wayne, 1991.179.14, Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum


“Charles White: A Retrospective” opens at the Art Institute of Chicago (June 8-September 3, 2018), and then travels to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, where it will be on view from Oct. 7, 2018- Jan. 13, 2019. The exhibition concludes at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA) in Spring 2019.


The Museum of Modern Art and Art Institute of Chicago are co-publishing a fully illustrated exhibition catalog to accompany the Charles White retrospective. The June publication will feature contributions by Kellie Jones and Deborah Willis. Curated by David Hammons” exhibition. “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” features works by White and Hammons, offering “the first in-depth survey of the incredibly vital but often overlooked legacy of Los Angeles’s African American artists.” Part of the David C. Driskell Series of African American Art published by Pomegranate, “Charles White” documents the artist’s practice.


WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “Farm Family,” circa 1940-1944 (oil on paperboard). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.594, Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum


JAMES A. PORTER, “Still Life with Peonies,” 1949 (oil on canvas). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment and the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1994.59, Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum


LAURA WHEELER WARING, “Portrait of a Lady,” 1947 (oil on canvas). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1977.121, Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum


MALVIN GRAY JOHNSON, “Brothers,” 1934 (oil on canvas).| Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.57.29, Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum


JACOB LAWRENCE, “New Jersey, from the United States Series,” 1946 (watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Container Corporation of America, 1984.124.172, Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum


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