FOR THE FIRST TIME in more than three decades, “Charles White: A Retrospective” offered a career-spanning overview of Charles White, whose powerful paintings and drawings capture the strength, beauty, and dignity of African Americans. While showcasing White’s artistic practice was the focus of the museum survey, his son, Ian White, realized the traveling exhibition presented an opportunity to bring forward another, vitally important, side of his father—his role as an instructor and mentor. A master draftsman, White was also an incredible teacher who had a lasting impact on many students including Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, Richard Wyatt Jr., and Alonzo Davis.

 


Installation view of “Charles White: Life Model,” Charles White Elementary School, Los Angeles, 2019. Shown, At left, KENT TWITCHELL, “Portrait of Charles White,” 1977 (pencil on Hypro paper, 335.28 × 121.92 cm / 132 × 48 inches / 11 ft. x 4 ft.). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Benjamin Horowitz. Courtesy LACMA

 

After opening at the Art Institute of Chicago, the White retrospective traveled to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and then concluded at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibition was presented in the three cities where White spent key periods of his life: Chicago where he was born and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago; New York where his practice matured and he connected with fellow African American artists and intellectuals; and Los Angeles where he thrived as a teacher and mentor, raised his family, and continued to make art, the best of his career, some critics say.

Although he had strong ties to Chicago and New York, White is regarded as a Los Angeles artist. He moved to the city, Pasadena specifically, in 1956 and, in 1965, began teaching at the Otis Art Institute, where he was the first African American on the faculty. He lived in Los Angeles for nearly 25 years and was an instructor at Otis until he died in 1979 at age 61.

“Charles White: A Retrospective” coincided with the centennial of White’s birth and when the exhibition traveled to Los Angeles its much-anticipated arrival was greeted like a homecoming celebration, particularly for his former students. In Los Angeles, the run of the retrospective at LACMA was complemented by a companion exhibition “Life Model: Charles White and His Students.”

Presented at Charles W. White Elementary, the original campus of the Otis Art Institute which is now a LACMA satellite site, the group show explores White’s influence as a teacher. He taught his students technical skills, but also emphasized the importance of expressing a point of view, understanding themselves as individuals, and continuing to learn about art, history, politics—a variety of subjects—and being engaged in the world.

Charles White taught his students technical skills, but also emphasized the importance of expressing a point of view, understanding themselves as individuals, and continuing to learn about art, history, politics—a variety of subjects—and being engaged in the world.

“Life Model” is co-curated by Ian White and Sarah Jesse and features works in a variety of mediums by White’s students, a racially diverse group, as well as ephemera that illuminates White’s pedagogy. A powerful portrait of White by Ken Twitchell is presented in the show. Works by Davis, Wyatt, Judithe Hernandez, Gary LLoyd, and Ulysses Jenkins are included. Among the works on display from LACMA’s collection are a body print by Hammons and “Cotton Pickers” (1949) by John Biggers.

 


KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” 1980 (egg tempera on paper). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Promised gift of Steven and Deborah Lebowitz, © Kerry James Marshall, Photo courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

In addition, Marshall’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980) is on view. The small 8 x 6.5 inch egg tempera painting has served as a guidepost for Marshall’s practice. He uses black paint to depict black subjects historically absent from the art history canon. Given Marshall’s goal is to diversify the canon, it is fitting this foundational work is on view in an exhibition paying homage to his mentor and then was acquired by LACMA. Marshall grew up in Los Angeles and LACMA is the first museum he ever visited. He was in the fifth grade at the time. The acquisition announcement was made at the opening of “Life Model” in February.

Mounting a complementary exhibition focused on White’s role as a teacher is not an original idea. “The Work of Charles White: An American Experience” was presented at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in September 1977. Works from the 1960s and 70s were featured along with the working drawings for White’s last mural “Mary McLeod Bethune,” which was commissioned for the city’s public library that bore her name. (The studies for the Bethune mural were shown for the first time since earlier this year in a selling exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York.)

The exhibition at the municipal gallery was accompanied by a parallel show. “The Artist as Teacher” focused on the work of White’s students, including Hammons, Wyatt, and Twitchell, whose “Portrait of Charles White” appeared in the 1977 exhibition and is on view in “Life Model.” His pencil drawing of White is a vertical image executed on a lengthy roll of paper that when not unfurled is stored in a wood box.

Esther Adler, co-curator of the retrospective and MoMA associate curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, wrote about White’s teaching, and his own education, in the exhibition catalog. In an essay titled, “Charles White, Artist and Teacher,” she wrote: “This juxtaposition of White’s work with that of his students in one of his final major exhibitions prior to his death in 1979 affirmed his legacy as a teacher and artist. It also reflected the inseparable ties between his art making and pedagogy. Shaped by his own struggles, his drive and ambition to learn led him to create powerful visual images that would, in turn, teach others.”

“Shaped by his own struggles, [Charles White’s] drive and ambition to learn led him to create powerful visual images that would, in turn, teach others.”
— Esther Adler, MoMA Co-Curator of “Charles White: A Retrospective”

Adler also makes the point that he taught throughout his life, not just at Otis. In Chicago, while White was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, he was a part-time art instructor at Saint Elizabeth Catholic High School. He also led life drawing classes at the South Side Community Art Center, which he helped establish. During a stint in New Orleans, he taught drawing for one semester at Dillard University. White was married to his first wife at the time, Elizabeth Catlett, who was serving as chair of the HBCU’s art department. (Catlett and White were married 1941-46.)

White later connected with HBCU students at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) where Biggers helped him with his mural “The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy” (1943), and Howard University, where he was an artist-in-residence (1945) and distinguished professor (1978).

When he was based in New York, White was an instructor at Workers Children’s Camp (Wo-Chi-Ca), a summer camp in New Jersey, beginning in 1942; the George Washington Carver School, a Harlem school for adults founded in in 1943; and in 1950, he began teaching at the Workshop School of Advertising and Editorial Art.

In Los Angeles (where he lived with his second wife Frances Barrett White, Ian and his sister Jessica), White taught at Otis and was also active elsewhere in the local community, participating in programs for middle-school and high school students.

 


Installation view of “Charles White: Life Model,” Charles White Elementary School, Los Angeles, 2019.

 

GIVEN THIS LEGACY, Ian wanted to reprise the idea of an exhibition shining a light on his father’s background as a teacher as well as the work of his students. Ian is an artist in his own right who oversees the Charles White Archive. He has existing relationships with some of his father’s former students, including Marshall, who he calls his fictive uncles. Organizing the new exhibition gave Ian a chance to connect with many more.

“I’ve been blessed by having my father’s former students around me. I have learned a tremendous amount from them.” Ian told me by phone. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount about my father vicariously through others, at times, because he had this immense kind of impact on their lives, especially for the former students.”

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount about my father vicariously through others, at times, because he had this immense kind of impact on their lives, especially for the former students.” — Ian White

Ian and his co-curator interviewed about 45 people who took classes with White at Otis, an undertaking that informed the exhibition and is documented in an insightful video that mixes archival footage with contemporary reflections from the students. White’s persona and philosophy as a teacher are brought to life as the students recount their experiences and interactions with him.

“I was stunned by the book “Images of Dignity” and I wanted to come and meet and work with and learn from Charles White,” Martin Payton says in the video.

Hammons says: “Just to have a teacher who looked like me. That, in itself, was probably more powerful than anything else.”

“Just to have a teacher who looked like me. That, in itself, was probably more powerful than anything else.” — David Hammons

“He had such a pleasant approachable persona. You know, you were never afraid to go and talk to him. Some professors were very intimidating, but not Charlie,” says Judithe Hernandez, a founder of the Chicano Art/Los Angeles Mural Movement and member of Los Four, the Chicano artist collective active in the 1970s and 80s.

The first time Marshall ever talked to White, he was incredibly generous. In the video, Marshall shares a story of sneaking into one of White’s life drawing courses and sitting in the back. White moved him to the front of the classroom so he could see better, gave Marshall some fundamental sketching tips, and invited him to come back anytime he wanted. According to Marshall, White said: “You don’t have to worry about paying.”

For another student, having a black teacher was a brand new experience. “I was shocked to see an African American teacher in that school. And I think it’s ’cause it was just the beginning of having to hire other than white people. Just the beginning,” says Gary Lloyd, a white student.

 


Installation view of “Charles White: Life Model,” Charles White Elementary School, Los Angeles, 2019. | Courtesy LACMA

 

For the few black students, having a black teacher was familiar. What was striking was having a black teacher who was actually a working artist. What was even more eye-opening was having a teacher who had been published in books such as “Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White” and “Great Negroes Past and Present” (1964) as White had been. The experience of seeing him at the front of the classroom was a revelation.

“Here in California, he’s, this presence for a young black artist,” Ian said. “He’s the one who’s has been in museum shows internationally, has gallery representation on both coasts. Makes it possible envision that they can be practitioners within that kind of construct.” White certainly provided that model for Marshall.

“Like me, all of the black students who matriculated through Otis were there primarily because of White. He was a kind of spiritual father for many of us.” — Kerry Jame Marshall

“A Black Artist Named White,” the opening essay in the catalog for “Charles White A Retrospective,” was written by Marshall, who earned a BFA from Otis (1978) and later received an honorary doctorate from the school in 1999.

Marshall begins the essay by declaring what he has said often. He is “a stalwart advocate for the legacy of Charles White” and that “his work should be seen wherever great pictures are collected and made available to art-loving audiences.” Marshall also wrote about White, the teacher. He said in part:

    Life drawing was a specialty at Otis and Charles White was the effective dean of figure drawing. His classes were the most popular, and always full to capacity. His Tuesday and Thursday evening class attracted students from other schools in town, as well. This is where I met artists like the late Houston Conwill, who was in the graduate program at the University of Southern California at the time, and Richard Wyatt Jr., who inherited the design of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company calendar after Charlie’s death.

    Like me, all of the black students who matriculated through Otis were there primarily because of White. He was a kind of spiritual father for many of us. To be sure, his reputation as a great draftsman and teacher was universally appealing, but when there were so few black artists of his stature to lean on it just meant more.

    It is important to mention here that of the four black students enrolled at Otis and circulating around him at the time—three graduates and myself, the lone undergraduate—I was the only one committed to drawing and painting. I am also the only one who has established a professional career built primarily on figuration, broadly speaking. Like David Hammons and Timothy Washington, who had their first major exhibition with Charlie at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971, most of the black artists who sought his advice went on to do other things.

Ian echoed what Marshall said. At one point in our conversation, he also noted that ultimately many of his father’s students did not become working artist, but nonetheless benefitted greatly from their interactions with White.

“With the former students, you find so many of them, some of them are practitioners, but some of them are amazing teachers, amazing designers. Even folks that run a construction firms. It’s a wide gamut,” Ian said. “But that discipline they learned at Otis carries, that’s kind of the thread that carries them through in terms of how they approach whatever project it is. So that’s really nice too, to see how they’re impacting communities.”

I asked if when he said the discipline they learned at Otis, he really meant, what they learned from his father. Ian replied, “Yep.” CT

 

“Charles White: Life Model,” Charles White Elementary School Gallery, 2401 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Feb. 16-Sept. 14, 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 consider “Charles White: Black Pope,” which was also published by the MoMA. Many of Charles White students saw his work in this early volume “Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White,” before they ever took a class with him. Part of the David C. Driskell Series of African American Art, “Charles White” documents the artist’s practice.

 


Co-curators Ian White and Sarah Jesse spoke to about 45 former students of Charles White for the exhibition “Life Model: Charles White and His Students.” They shared their memories, experiences, and lessons learned from White. | Video by LACMA

 


DAVID HAMMONS, “Untitled,” 1968 (Pencil and watercolor – Sheet: 15 1/2 × 10 3/8 inches / 39.37 × 26.35 cm; Image: 11 1/2 × 4 7/8 inches / 29.21 × 12.38 cm). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of George and Judith Sunga, © David Hammons, Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


Installation view of “Charles White: Life Model,” Charles White Elementary School, Los Angeles, 2019. | Courtesy LACMA

 


JUDITHE HERNANDEZ, “El Mar de Las Desconocidas,” 2017 (mixed media acrylic paint on canvas). | © Judithe Hernandez, Courtesy the artist and LACMA

 


Installation view of “Charles White: Life Model,” Charles White Elementary School, Los Angeles, 2019. | Courtesy LACMA

 


RICHARD WYATT JR., “Man Wearing Sunglasses,” 1981 (pencil on wove paper, 49 x 43 inches). | Mott Warsh Collection, © Richard Wyatt Jr., Photo courtesy the Mott-Warsh Collection, Muskegon Museum of Art

 


Charles W. White Elementary is a Los Angele County Unified School District magnet school on the campus of the original Otis Art Institute. Now called the Otis College of Art and Design, the art school relocated to Westchester, Los Angeles, in 1997. The campus became Charles White Elementary in 2004 and LACMA maintains the original exhibition space at Otis as a satellite gallery. | Photo courtesy LACMA

 

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