Wednesday, October 3, 2018


Attending the opening of the Charles White retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art last night, you could be forgiven for basking for a couple of hours in the pleasant illusion that we are living in a post-racial society. The ugly alternative of racial hatred and divide that is promoted by the current unworthy denizen of our White House and his band of noisy worshippers was replaced for this evening, at least, by the real-life experience of real people, "black" and "white," gathered to honor the work of a true American master. In his life Charles White was a black man who, with his wife Frances, pioneered and embodied the notion that our two races share but one humanity, and that we can live together in mutual respect and love.

It was Charlies White—everybody called him Charlie—who helped me discover my own racism, and the inherent racism of the "art world" in which I was engaged. Privileged to spend two years, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, on a Rockefeller Foundation supported research study of the life and work of this African American artist, I soon discovered that the traditional rules of academic research simply did not apply. There was little to be learned from libraries, prior research documents, or articles in art historical journals. To find out anything about Charles White, I discovered, I would need to travel the country—from the Chicago of his early years to Jackson, Mississippi, where a handful of fellow artists lived, who knew him well; from the African American museum in Harlem to the University of Washington in Seattle, where I enjoyed a long interview with Jacob Lawrence.

I acknowledge having experienced some trepidation—a white man venturing into the heart of black America—and an acute sense, for the first time in my life, of my own whiteness. And there were frequent questions—justified, I thought—about the propriety of a white man receiving funds from a foundation for the study of a black artist. And yet I was universally received with warmth and eagerness to help me with a project that was embraced with enthusiasm by those who understood even more than I about the importance of this man's work in the broad context of American culture. It was in many ways a humbling experience, and one that taught me more about the prejudice of academia and the art world than I would have dreamed possible before I started.

And here was Charlie, last night, in all his glory, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the mecca of the Western art world. I was astonished by the breadth and depth of the work that Esther Adler, the curator, had managed to assemble—I'm sure with the assistance of Charlie's son, Ian. The work filled several large galleries, and the sheer mastery of this artist, once side-lined by history, by racial prejudice, and even by an art scene that for many years shunned representation, was on full and indisputable display. I was reminded of the fact—I'm pretty sure that this is true—that Abraham Lincoln was the only white figure amongst White's many stunning portraits… and even he looks black!


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