Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Number 45, November 2019, contained on pp. 140-149 a ‘Review Essay’ on the subject of Charles White: A Retrospective. It was written by Jody B. Cutler-Bittner, an art historian affiliated with St. John’s University in New York City.
The text, over its 10 pages, was extensively illustrated and was a substantial reflection on the major Charles White exhibition originated at the Art Institute of Chicago, and travelling to MoMA, NYC, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The text began,
Seeing the mural Five Great American Negroes (1939) at the entrance to the recent exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York was a bit jarring, given MoMA’s standing modus operandi, which was just settling in around the time White (1918–79) created the piece—namely, as global arbitrator of “Modern Art,” which, in tandem with all-too-well-known cognoscenti, boiled down to abstraction: the muddling, or dispensing with altogether, topical, historical, or conventional content beyond the material production. Indeed, I first saw this work, now in the collection of the Hampton University Art Gallery in Virginia, in the exhibition To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities at the Studio Museum of (sic) Harlem (1999, traveling), eye-opening for its exposure of little known art networks that have expanded considerably the scope of highly consequential American art—very much part of White’s world.
In recent decades, MoMA’s aesthetic orbit has been appropriately repositioned (somewhat) as a particular, rather than universal, expression of modernity through the course of the twentieth century—to which White’s mural is blatantly antithetical. As a resurrection rather than rejection of explicit representation, narrative, and detailed technique that characterized Western art for centuries, it was, nonetheless, especially timely in its inclusion of singer Marian Anderson, whose triumphant performance at the Lincoln Memorial (April 9, 1939), after being barred from singing at Constitution Hall, occurred shortly before the painting was begun (in October).3 In this sense, White’s milling of current events here and elsewhere, if sometimes through layered references, reinscribes artistic life with subjective modern experience, taking up the path of immediate predecessors such as his native Bronzeville neighborhood (Chicago) compatriot, Archibald Motley Jr., Hale Woodruff, and Charles Alston.