“I like to think my work has a universality to it,” the artist Charles White once insisted. “When I work, though, I think of my own people … their history, their culture, their struggle to survive in this racist country.”
In his 40-year career, White, born to a railroad worker and domestic on the South Side in 1918, made art that reformed the cultural image of black Americans. He used his mastery in painting, drawing, and draftsmanship to depict African American history in the United States and the human struggle at large. And although White's style and approach varied over time, he remained steadfast in his commitment to social justice. His work has been featured in more than 100 museums, universities, and institutions worldwide, and continues to inspire young artists, particularly of color. Now, White gets a well-deserved hometown survey, Charles White: A Retrospective, opening at the Art Institute this weekend.
Growing up east of Wentworth on the segregated South Side, White began making art at the age of seven, when his mother gave him an oil-painting set to keep him out of trouble. The medium grabbed him immediately.
As White grew into his practice, the Chicago Black Renaissance, a creative movement on the South Side in the 1930s, was blossoming around him. Consequently, he was exposed to Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright, legendary artists who influenced White. He began to think critically about his experiences growing up black in the United States, and the violence his family had endured due to their race. He strove to weaponize painting: “Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent,” he once said.
After his early days in Chicago, where he graduated from Englewood High School and attended the Art Institute of Chicago for painting, White moved throughout the world, from New York to New Orleans to Mexico to California, making artwork that rewrote the narrative of black America.
In his first mural, Five Great American Negros, commissioned through a WPA grant during the Great Depression, White depicted Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver. The work served as a direct affront to the erasure of African American people from history and paved the way for the remainder of his career.
By the 1950s, after a stint in Mexico working with the muralist Diego Rivera, White was drawing critical acclaim from around the country. He hosted his first solo exhibition in New York, a culmination of all that he'd learned in Chicago and Mexico. He showed in museums throughout the country, including the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art.
White's recognition among young artists grew. His expansive reach and commitment to justice attracted socially minded young artists from across the country, including the likes of Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall. “No other artist has inspired my own devotion to a career in image making more than [Charles White] did,” Marshall once said. “I saw in his example a way to greatness … and because he looked like my uncles and my neighbors, his achievements seemed within my reach.”
By the time of his death in 1979, of complications due to pleurisy and tuberculosis contracted during World War II, White had exerted a profound effect on American art. His work opened a window to a world that had been forgotten to history and honored those who spent their lives fighting for recognition. “These people, who have never been defeated,” he once said, “they have maintained a strength. They have maintained moral course. They have a beautiful spirit that has caused them to survive. This has been the basic source of my inspiration. Not only for my work, but for my being, my sense of pride.”
Charles White: A Retrospective, the first major survey of White’s career in nearly 40 years since his death, encompasses more than 100 photographs, paintings, drawings, and prints. The exhibition opens this evening and runs through September 3 at the Art Institute.