Charles White (1918–1979) powerfully interpreted African American history, culture, and lives over the course of his four-decade career. A superbly gifted draftsman and printmaker as well as a talented mural and easel painter, White portrayed the truth, beauty, and dignity of life and people through an accessible realism. His works focus on the struggle for equality and self-possession and the heroic actions of African Americans, while expressing the universality of the human spirit. This exhibition—the first major retrospective of White’s work in more than 35 years—showcases a gifted and influential artist whose work continues to resonate amid today’s national dialogues about race, work, equality, and history.
Born in Chicago and educated at the School of the Art Institute, White was part of the city’s flourishing black artistic community of the 1930s. He was determined to employ art in the struggle for social change, declaring, “Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent.” Influenced by Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera, White completed several important mural commissions in the city, including one for a branch of the Chicago Public Library.
White married sculptor Elizabeth Catlett in 1941, and the couple soon settled in New York. Together they traveled to Mexico City, where White honed his printmaking skills as part of the printmaking collective known as the Taller de Gráfica Popular. In New York in the 1940s and early 1950s, White showed his work at the progressive ACA Gallery and was a prominent member of African American and leftist artist communities. White moved to Southern California in 1956, and his career flourished as he embraced drawing and printmaking more fully, pushing at the boundaries of his media while continuing to engage with civil rights and equality. Despite his rejection of the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism and ongoing use of an expressive figuration, he found critical acclaim in the United States and abroad.
Charles White: A Retrospective unites a selection of White’s finest paintings, drawings, and prints, presenting the full breadth of his work and demonstrating his artistic development. The themes he explored—African American history and the fight for freedom, the nobility of black people, and the dignity of labor and human nature—reveal his talent and passion, and encourage viewers to consider current questions of history, politics, and identity in relation to the recent past.
Lead foundation support is generously provided by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Lead individual support is contributed by Denise and Gary Gardner.
Charles White: A Retrospective is part of Art Design Chicago, an exploration of Chicago's art and design legacy, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
This exhibition is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Annual support for Art Institute exhibitions is provided by the Exhibitions Trust: an anonymous donor; Neil Bluhm and the Bluhm Family Charitable Foundation; Jay Franke and David Herro; Kenneth Griffin; Caryn and King Harris, The Harris Family Foundation; Liz and Eric Lefkofsky; Robert M. and Diane v.S. Levy; Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff; Usha and Lakshmi N. Mittal; Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel; Thomas and Margot Pritzker; Anne and Chris Reyes; Betsy Bergman Rosenfield and Andrew M. Rosenfield; Cari and Michael J. Sacks; and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.