It is not something we often see on Michigan Avenue.
Hanging over the entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago is a giant banner with a monumental image of Gideon, a Black portrait drawn in black and white, with glowing black skin, wide nose and wide lips.
It’s style is classical realism.
The banner announces the first Charles White retrospective in Chicago since 1982.
2018 is the centenary of White’s birth here in Chicago.
As a very young boy growing up I was familiar the names of any number of African American artists and performers.
Paul Robeson. Harry Belafonte. Ledbelly. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.
On our wall hung a reproduction of a Charles White print.
This one, if memory serves:
In the walls of the homes of the left-wing families, Black and white, that made up my parent’s circle of friends, we could always find a Charles White drawing. Maybe a framed copy of a torn off cover of Masses and Mainstream, if that’s all that their friends could afford.
White left Chicago for Los Angeles where he taught at the Otis Art Institute.
I took art classes there as a kid.
Unfortunately, not with Charles White.
White is quoted in the show as describing his work as having universal themes. It is so clearly and specifically about the African American experience, dark in more ways than just his color palette.
Yet you can find the influences of the Mexican muralists, Siqueiros and Rivera visible in the early work.
There are plenty of references to Socialist Realism too.
There are two Soviet farmers turned into Black Southern sharecroppers.
Then in the final ten years, his work is sharply influenced by the Black Power Movement of the sixties and seventies.
The exhibit will move on to New York and Los Angeles.