Charles White: A Retrospective is a long overdue examination of the legacy of Charles White, a famous twentieth-century African American painter and teacher. Curated by Sarah Kelly Oehler of the The Art Institute of Chicago and Esther Adler of MoMA, the critically acclaimed exhibit has many strengths. However, the aspect of the exhibit that I found most intriguing was its use of place as a central interpretive framework.
The exhibit functions as a pilgrimage, traveling across the US to the three main America cities where White lived. It began its tour in my town, Chicago, at the Art Institute, where White attended school. It is currently in NYC, where White moved in 1941 after marrying his first wife, Elizabeth Catlett. In the spring of 2019, the exhibit will travel LACMA in L.A., where White lived from 1956 until his passing in 1979. As the exhibit travels the country, the art returns to its place of origin, like the prodigal son returning home. Furthermore, the exhibit acts as an evangelist for White’s message, the traveling missionary spreading his testimony.
White’s testimony is rooted in place – the place of America. Every piece in the exhibit breaks down the myth of the American community and examines the role of African Americans in American history, memory, and mythology. By dissecting and redefining what it means to be American, White’s work is quintessentially American. My favorite example of White’s engagement with U.S. mythology is his Wanted Poster Series #17. As Adler stated, above the two figures in the painting “you have this classic symbol for American freedom and the American way and what a contrast to the word ‘Sold’ at the top of this work. So in many ways, it’s an indictment of American history and the legacy of slavery.”
The exhibit also places White’s art in a local context. At the Art Institute, one of the first elements that visitors come across in the exhibit is a map of Chicago. The map points out locations around Chicago and explains White’s connection to each place. As a Chicagoan who was previously unfamiliar with White’s life and work, the map immediately gave me a concrete connection to him. I hope the MoMA version of the exhibit has a NYC map to provide New Yorkers with the same foundation.
In short, Charles White: A Retrospective showed me ways you can connect exhibit design and content to the location where an exhibit is shown. Also, it’s a beautifully curated exhibition. If you’re in NYC or L.A., you need to go see it!