NEW YORK, N.Y.—EIGHT-FEET-TALL DRAWINGS by Charles White (1918-1979) are on view in the light-filled, second-floor galleries of David Zwirner in New York. The selling exhibition is a rarity. The four drawings are studies for the figures in a Mary McLeod Bethune mural White completed in 1978 for a Los Angeles public library. The drawings are being displayed publicly for the first time in more than 40 years.

The mural studies are the largest drawings White ever made. Prior to being shown at David Zwirner in New York City, the studies were stored away in the Charles White Archive in Altadena, a Los Angeles suburb. Ian White presides over the collection and he doesn’t ordinarily sell his father’s work through galleries. All of these factors make the exhibition, “Charles White: Monumental Practice,” a bit of an event.

“Those drawings had never been framed,” Ian said by phone. “So to see them rolled out mounted and framed you can see the labor, the cross hatching, the use of the eraser, the give and take and just the physicality of the drawing. I said, ‘Folks need to see this and I can take advantage of this moment for Charles White.'”

When you see the mural studies “mounted and framed you can see the labor, the cross hatching, the use of the eraser, the give and take and just the physicality of the drawing.” — Ian White

The moment is one of nationwide attention on his father, a master draftsman recognized for his powerful, realist images of black people that capture their strength, dignity, and beauty. The David Zwirner show was mounted in the wake of “Charles White: A Retrospective,” which opened at the Art Institute of Chicago last summer, traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in October, and lands tomorrow at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The retrospective has been universally praised in critical reviews. Coinciding with the centennial of White’s birth, the exhibition features more than 100 works and is the first career-spanning examination of the artist’s work in about three decades.

Assessing the MoMA presentation, Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times: “What a beautiful artist Charles White was. Hand of an angel, eye of a sage. Although White, who died in 1979, is often mentioned today as a teacher and mentor of luminaries like David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall, his is no case of reflected glory. In ‘Charles White: A Retrospective’ at the Museum of Modern Art, from beginning to end, he shines.”

 


Installation view of “Charles White: Monumental Practice,” David Zwirner Gallery, 537 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. | © Charles White Archive. Courtesy David Zwirner

 

GIVEN THE MOMENT, when David Zwirner gallery reached out to Ian, he recognized an opportunity to share another facet of father’s practice with what he described as “a receptive audience, institutionally as well as publicly.

A so-called “mega” gallery, David Zwirner has five locations—three in New York City and one each in London and Hong Kong. Its roster of more than 60 artists includes Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Stan Douglas, Oscar Murillo, Chris Ofili, the Estate of Roy DeCarava, and Marshall.

The gallery’s connection to White, came courtesy of Marshall. The acclaimed painter, who wrote the opening essay for White’s retrospective catalog, is represented by David Zwirner in London.

“I first heard about Charles White from Kerry. Kerry often mentions the significant influence of White on both his life and art practice,” Robert Goff, a director at the gallery said in a statement to Culture Type. “But I didn’t see the work in person until I saw the ‘Soul of a Nation’ show (which featured White’s “Wanted Poster No.5,” 1969, and “Mississippi,” 1972), first at Tate London and then at Crystal Bridges. I couldn’t believe the quality of the work and subsequently asked Lauren Haynes, a curator at Crystal Bridges, to introduce me to Ian.”

Goff continued: “I went to Charles White’s home—and now Ian’s—in Altadena within weeks. While we were discussing what kind of show we could realistically do given the retrospective on the horizon, Ian mentioned a group of studies for White’s last major work, the Bethune mural, that were rolled up and there in the house. We unrolled them, one by one, on the living room floor and it became immediately clear that that would be the basis of our show.”

“Ian mentioned a group of studies for White’s last major work, the Bethune mural, that were rolled up and there in the house. We unrolled them, one by one, on the living room floor and it became immediately clear that that would be the basis of our show.” — Robert Goff, David Zwirner Gallery

IN 1977, THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES commissioned White to create the mural for a Los Angeles public library named for Bethune, an educator who founded the National Council of Negro Women. His concept centered education, learning, music, and family, themes represented by a trio of figures positioned around Bethune, who presides over the scene.

White worked on the mural for nine months, making various studies, including small-scale preparatory drawings of entire compositions and the large-scale ink and charcoal studies of the individual figures. The final mural was painted on canvas and installed in January 1978.

Produced a year before the artist died, David Zwirner describes the mural project as “White’s last major artistic endeavor during his lifetime.”

The gallery exhibition features the four mural studies, which Ian says have been exhibited only once before. A White retrospective at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (Sept. 14-Oct. 19, 1977) featured the large-scale drawings. Unframed, the works were pinned to the wall, he says.

In the current show, the large, figurative mural studies are displayed with related ephemera. A concurrent presentation is on view in an adjacent gallery, a selection of smaller drawings and paintings by White that date from 1935 to 1972. The sales goal for the son and the gallery is to place the mural studies with a museum or a collector willing to donate them to an institution.

While Ian emphasizes that he is not seeking gallery representation for the Charles White estate, he said he is sincerely grateful for the gallery’s interest in his father’s work and the platform it provided.

“Going to Zwirner didn’t surprise anybody,” said Ian, an artist in his own right, who is on the art department faculty at San Bernardino Valley College. “But they were a little like, ‘Wow, you decided to meet with a gallery.’ And I was like ‘Yeah, because of what it’s going to do for Charles White’s visibility.'” CT

 

This article was updated Feb. 17, 2019

 

TOP IMAGE: Charles White painting Mary McLeod Bethune mural, 1978. | © Estate of Charles White. Courtesy David Zwirner

 

“Charles White: Monumental Practice” is on view at David Zwirner gallery, 537 West 20th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, N.Y., from Jan. 8—Feb. 16, 2019

 

BOOKSHELF
The Museum of Modern Art and Art Institute of Chicago co-published a fully illustrated exhibition catalog to accompany “Charles White: A Retrospective.” The publication features contributions by Kerry James Marshall, Kellie Jones, and Deborah Willis. Also check out an early volume “Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White.” Part of the David C. Driskell Series of African American Art, “Charles White” documents the artist’s practice.

 


CHARLES WHITE, “Mary McLeod Bethune,” 1977-1978 (ink on charcoal in paper, 95 x 60 1/4 inches / 241.3 x 153 cm (Framed: 99 3/4 x 65 inches / 253.4 x 165.1 cm)). | © Charles White Archive. Courtesy David Zwirner

 


CHARLES WHITE, “Seated Child with Book,” 1977-1978 (ink on charcoal in paper, 87 3/4 x 60 1/4 inches / 222.9 x 153 cm (Framed: 92 1/2 x 65 inches / 235 x 165.1 cm)). | © Charles White Archive. Courtesy David Zwirner

 


CHARLES WHITE, “Seated Woman Facing Left,” 1977-1978 (ink on charcoal in paper, 90 3/4 x 60 1/4 inches / 230.5 x 153 cm (Framed: 95 1/2 x 65 1/2 inches / 242.6 x 166.4 cm)). | © Charles White Archive. Courtesy David Zwirner

 


CHARLES WHITE, “Guitar Player,” 1977-1978 (ink on charcoal in paper, 96 1/2 x 60 1/4 inches / 245.1 x 153 cm (Framed: 101 1/4 x 65 inches / 257.2 x 165.1 cm)). | © Charles White Archive. Courtesy David Zwirner

 


CHARLES WHITE, Installation view of “Studies for Mary McLeod Bethune Mural (Seated Child with Book, Guitar Player, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Seated Woman),” 1977-1978. | © Charles White Archive. Courtesy David Zwirner

 


CHARLES WHITE, “Mary McLeod Bethune Mural (Presentation Study),” 1977-1978 (acrylic on illustration board, 27 3/4 x 36 1/2 inches / 70.5 x 92.7 cm (Framed: 30 1/2 x 38 7/8 inches (77.5 x 98.7 cm). | © Charles White Archive. Courtesy David Zwirner

 

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