Charles White: Some Material

Monday, February 25, 2019
Charles White retrospective book

This essay, written by Professor Eddie Chambers of the Department of Art and Art History, explains the current display of work by the renowned and legendary American artist, Charles White, on view in the Fine Arts library. The display has been assembled from materials Professor Chambers has collected over many years.

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Work by the renowned and legendary American artist Charles White is, it seems, becoming ever more celebrated. Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1918, White, who died at the relatively young age of 61 in 1979, was a highly skilled and accomplished draughtsman, painter, printmaker and muralist. He dedicated his life to his art, which was characterized by his commitment to depict African-Americans as dignified, resilient survivors. His drawings of Black Americans resonated with hope, fortitude, humanity and culture. With a highly distinctive drawing style, White established himself as one of the most respected, admired and appreciated African-American artists of the 20th century. His drawings, though in some respects hugely accessible, were nuanced creations embodying many layers of meaning, history and culture. White’s work readily lent itself to wider dissemination and to this end was extensively used to illustrate book jackets, record sleeves and other printed materials. A significant number of White’s drawings are hidden in plain sight on the covers of books, a number of which are aimed at juvenile readers. Those familiar with White’s drawing style might well recognize his work as an illustrator of book jackets and other published/printed material. However, it is White’s prolific work as an illustrator of record covers that is perhaps the least remembered or appreciated aspect of his work.

images of record albums

This display in the Fine Arts Library (FAL) brings together various items – book jackets, magazine covers and record sleeves, all with illustrations provided by Charles White. Poet Nikki Giovanni perfectly expressed the love many people have for Charles White's images, in her poem Charles White: “Charles White and his art were introduced to me through magazines and books—that’s why I love them.” It can be asserted, with much confidence and certainty, that no artist in the U.S. or in the world lent more reproductions of her or his work to book jackets, magazine covers and record sleeves than White. With White’s work over the four decades since his death in 1979, losing none of its potency, articulation and awesome visual beauty, his lending of images to book jackets continues to the present day. This dedication to what can be regarded as a wider dissemination of his work, outside or beyond the confines of the art world, speaks to White’s commitment to seeing his work brought to the attention of wider and perhaps unsuspecting audiences.

Several of the items included in the FAL display relate to two folios of White’s work, one of which was Six Drawings, a set of lithographs issued by Masses & Mainstream, New York, 1952. The folio contained 13” x 19” reproductions of what were already regarded as classic works by White. The two prints pulled from the folio and shown in the FAL display are #3 “Let’s Walk Together” and #5 “Harvest Talk.” The latter work, a majestic representation of two agrarian workers somewhat relaxed as they take a break (on account of the task of sharpening the scythe held by one man), amply demonstrates White’s distinct and profound embrace of social realism aesthetics. The scythe was unmistakably evocative of the sickle, as in the symbol of the hammer and sickle as a symbol of proletarian solidarity that was first adopted during the Russian Revolution, which took place around the time of White’s birth in 1918. Symbolically, the hammer stood for the proletariat and the sickle for the peasantry, combining to represent the alliance of the workers and the peasants, necessary for the pursuance of socialism. Other readings flowed from White’s sickle/scythe associations. The sickle/scythe was of course the indispensable farm tool used for the harvesting of grain crops, and the hammer (when used in conjunction with an anvil) was the tool with which the sickle/scythe was regularly sharpened, in order to preserve its effectiveness. Further, the hammer represented industry, the sickle agriculture – the two means by which an independent socialist country would economically advance and feed itself. Within White’s Harvest Talk, put-upon and much-exploited African-American sharecroppers are reborn as noble, majestic farm workers. Such are some of the nuances that flowed from White’s uncommon, but on occasion, widely circulated images.

Charles White drawing

During the course of his working lifetime, White produced at least five folios of prints of his work, attesting to his determination to see his work brought within reach of those who could ill afford gallery prices and may well have been somewhat alienated from the world of art galleries and museums. Another such folio utilised in this FAL display was produced in 1969, in honour of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, slain the previous year. This latest folio from White was titled I have a dream, and again, two prints pulled from the folio are shown in the FAL display – “I Have Seen Black Hands” and “’Vision’, Study for ‘Silent Song’”. The I have a dream set of six reproductions of his drawings cost (in 1969) $15.00 including postage. Being keen to bring his art within reach of less well-resourced people, White's portfolio was modestly priced, equating to just over $100 in 2019’s value.

An early lending of White’s work to the cover of a left-leaning journal (included in this FAL display) was “Dawn of Life,” which graced La Nouvelle Critique (translated as The New Critic), a French language magazine, carrying the subtitle, “Review of Militant Marxism”. This issue - Number 48 – dated from September-October 1953 and came out in the 5th year of the journal. Possibly on account of a French to English translation, the drawing was represented in the magazine as “NOTRE COUVERTURE: A l’aube d’un nouveau lendemain, par Charles White [OUR COVER: The dawn of a new day, by Charles White]. Within the FAL display, La Nouvelle Critique appears alongside “Dawn of Life,” as used on the cover of the left-leaning journal Masses & Mainstream (February, 1953, Vol. 6, No. 2).

If ever an artist was international in their orientation, glorying in opportunities to work and exhibit beyond the U.S., it was White. From his time in Mexico City in the mid 20th century to his time in communist locales such as East Berlin, The FAL display contains several items pointing to this internationalism, including the catalogue Charles White: ein Künstler Amerikas [Charles White: an American Artist], 1956, and the catalogue Anton Refregier - Tecla Selnick – Charles White, Fernsehturm Berlin/Television Tower, East Berlin, 1974.

Beyond the 1950s, “Dawn of Life” continued to be a work favoured by those seeking to use an image that spoke of hope, peace, and an affirmation of humanity’s cause. With its rendering of an African-American woman setting free the winged creature regarded as a universal symbol of peace, (or about to receive into her outstretched hands, a descending dove) “Dawn of Life” effortlessly functioned as a life-affirming image. Nearly two decades after Charles White’s distinctive, near spiritual drawing was used on the cover of left-leaning journal Masses & Mainstream, February, 1953, Vol. 6, No. 2, (included in the FAL display), the evocative, poetic drawing was used on the cover of Great Negro Americans Volume One, a spoken word record issued in 1970. [Not included in this FAL display, but in my collection]. With its seemingly unfixed nomenclature, “Dawn of Life” appeared as “Dawn of a New Tomorrow,” within the publication Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, Ward Ritchie Press, 1967. On the cover of Great Negro Americans Volume One, the 1952 work appeared as “Hope.”

sketch of woman with a dove

As mentioned earlier, no artist in the US or in the world lent more reproductions of their work to book jackets, magazine covers and record sleeves. THE FAL display contains a number of examples of this, including the books Black History: A Reappraisal, edited with commentary by Melvin Drimmer - Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, New York, 1968 (which featured on its cover a reproduction of White's "Uhuru,” from 1964); Philip Sterling and Rayford Logan’s Four Took Freedom: The Lives of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Robert Smalls, and Blanche K. Bruce, published by Zenith Books in 1967; and A Layman's Guide to Negro History, compiled and edited by Erwin A. Salk, published in 1966 by Quadrangle Books, Chicago (which featured on its cover White’s “General Moses,” a singular study of 19th century American heroine Harriet Tubman). Such were the book jackets graced by White’s art.

One of my personal favourite book jackets included in the FAL display is the cover of John Oliver Killens’ book A Man Ain't Nothing But a Man: The Adventures of John Henry. The book was published by Little, Brown, Boston, 1975. John Henry, the American super hero who was said to have engaged in a victorious struggle with a new-fangled steam drill, a struggle in which though victorious, cost John Henry his life. The book was a colourful retelling of the story of John Henry, who was said to have worked as a steel-driving man — a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered hammer, a race that he won only to die in victory, with hammer in hand as his heart gave out. The story of John Henry is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books and novels. This book by John Oliver Killens was one such work.

John Henry sketch

For his drawing, White rendered John Henry as a giant of man, full of determination, quiet confidence, strength and resolve. There was something of the heavyweight boxer about White's depiction. Here was a man of destiny, who when called on, would, with efficiency, get the job done and bring down an adversary, at any cost. Arms folded, bare-chested, relaxed, pensive, this was truly a magnificent rendering of John Henry. Within his drawing, White utilised the distinctive, partially obscured snatches of text that were such a feature of his work for a period of time. There was in White's drawing an evocation of the sledgehammer, looming large over the formidable physique of this historic folk hero.

Looking at the range of White’s art, a clear, strong and profound interplay with the music of Black America is ever-present. Indeed, this may well have been a contributory factor to the consistent ways in which White’s illustrations were used on record sleeves, throughout his career and after his passing. White’s record sleeve illustrations were every bit as committed to portraying African-Americans as dignified, resilient survivors, with his images resonating with hope, fortitude, humanity and culture. During the 1950s White began an uncommonly fertile period as an artist whose work appeared on records of the Vanguard label. Vanguard was a particularly innovative record label, founded in 1949 by Seymour Solomon and his younger brother Maynard Solomon in New York City, at a time when jazz music was entering a dynamic period of becoming as much a form of music listened to through recordings and on the radio, as a form of music performed live in clubs and other venues. The Vanguard label grew to become one of America's leading independent labels. White supplied drawings and illustrations for a number of Vanguard records, for the most part with 10 inch sleeves. Many of these were jazz recordings, but in one or two instances his illustrations were used for other types of recordings, such as opera. 

White’s drawings for record sleeves were, with limited exception, of African-Americans. This might not be surprising, given that many of the musicians and all of the singers creating these recordings were themselves African-American. But in his renderings of African-Americans, White chose, in a great many instances, not to depict faithful likenesses of these musicians, but to create generic images that thereby had a wider and much more profound engagement with the audiences who took the form of record buyers. A number of White’s record sleeves are included in this FAL display.

From the period in which White’s work emerged into wider visibility and appreciation, he was intent on countering the images of African-Americans that were favored and indeed, generated, by the dominant culture. These images insisted on depicting African-Americans as either comical and obsessed with the consumption of watermelons, or as sinister, delinquent and criminal-minded. The time in which White was born and raised saw a continued manifestation of blackface, and the seemingly endemic culture of minstrelsy. To these humiliations and abuses could be added the widespread criminalization and incarceration of large numbers of African-Americans, particularly males. The most visible aspect of this criminalization and incarceration was the chain gang, a group of convicts chained together while working outside the prison, in agriculture, railroad construction, road building and so on, the prisoners frequently obliged to wear distinctive horizontally striped clothing.

In time, White would seek to draw the sting from this particularly degrading manifestation of American racism, in his album sleeve depiction of Huddie William Ledbetter (the legendary American folk and blues musician better known as Lead Belly, the name commonly rendered as Leadbelly.) The sleeve in question is included in this FAL display. In his renderings of African-Americans, White sought not only to challenge the dominant society’s visualizing of Black people, but also, along with countless other people, sought to challenge and resist the lack of civil rights, the dominance of Jim Crow throughout the South and beyond, and other manifestations of American racism. A measure of the challenging times in which White and other African-American artists worked was the ongoing problem of lynching, which continued for all but the last decade or so of White’s life.

cover of Ebony magazine

Also included in this FAL display are several relevant copies of Ebony magazine. The Black-interest magazine established itself as a great supporter and admirer of Charles White and he had been included in “Leading Negro Artists,” Ebony magazine, Volume XVIII, No. 11 September 1963, 131 – 140. Some four or so years later, another issue of the magazine included a major eight-page feature on the artist. White’s book, Images of Dignity (included in the FAL display) had recently been published by Ward Ritchie, and it was this important book that Louie Robinson, the writer of this Ebony magazine feature, used to introduce his text: “The publication of [White’s] Images of Dignity alone is a singular achievement. No other living Negro artist has ever had a book of his works published (a collection of the art of the late Horace Pippin appeared in print after his death).”

Over its eight pages, Robinson offered a substantial appraisal of White’s life and art, and the feature included many reproductions of White’s drawings: a detail of one of his murals, the artist in his studio, in the classroom, relaxing with friends, and so on. Extract from the text as follows: “White feels that white Americans can eventually relate to this universality even though it be depicted through black images, just as he has been able to relate to white symbols of universality, ‘like the Statue of Liberty.’ Says he: ‘When I do a mother and child, it's a mother and child. It's got to be the personification of all I see in mother and child.’ White feels that the universality he seeks to project is still better understood among Europeans than among white Americans." (30) A copy of Louie Robinson, “Charles White: Portrayer of Black Dignity. Artist achieves fame with works on Negro themes,” Ebony magazine, 22/9, (July 1967): 25 – 36 is included in this display.

Vic Dickenson album sketch

I would like to end this brief introduction to Charles White: Some Material with a fascinating mentioning of the perhaps unexpected nod to Pop Art reflected in one of White’s drawings, as used on the cover of Vic Dickenson Septet, a four-volume set of records recorded and released in the mid 1950s. Charles White provided an illustration of an African-American trombone player (the trombone being Dickenson’s instrument) that was used on the four covers. Each of the four records used the same illustration, but crucially, in an alternating design utilising rectangular background shapes and equally as visually interesting, different colours. My research on White threw up four such sleeves (Volumes 1 and 4, and two different versions of Volume 3). Respectively, the sleeves went from yellow to green to orange to blue. When put alongside each other, the sleeves created a definite Pop Art sensibility, which saw a fetching rendering of a musician appear as a repeated image, each one differentiated by its colour coding and its oscillating use of rectangular background blocks: Warhol-esque art, years before Warhol came to be synonymous with such visual tactics. The FAL display includes Volumes 1 and 4.

White took time to make drawings for Vanguard record sleeves at a time when his career was starting to boom and be recognised. This is pointed to in the notes that appeared on the back of a number of these sleeves:

The drawing on the cover is one of a series commissioned by Vanguard Recording Society, Inc., from the distinguished artist, Charles White. Mr. White won an Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1952, and, that same year, a National Prize of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His work is represented in the Whitney Museum, Library of Congress, and other famous collections.

A version of this text was reproduced on a number of the Vanguard sleeves that Charles White illustrated. 

It is perhaps extraordinary that such a dynamic aspect of White’s practice has received relatively little scholarship (though important mentions are made in Andrea Barnwell’s monograph of 2002 and the much more recent catalogue to accompany White’s current major retrospective touring to Chicago, New York and Los Angeles). Later in 2019 the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art and the Christian-Green Gallery at the University of Texas at Austin will hold exhibitions of work by this renowned and legendary artist. This Fine Arts Library display, of material relating to Charles White's extraordinary practices, anticipates these exhibitions.

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Eddie Chambers, Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin

*View Chambers' full collection on display in the Doty Fine Arts Library, DFA 3.2