CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)
CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)
CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)
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Fragments of Life: Works by Charles White and Ernie Barnes from the Collection of Danny and Donna Arnold
CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)

Black Man

CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979)
Black Man
signed and dated 'CHARLES·WHITE '65' (lower right)
charcoal and crayon on illustration board
image: 19 x 34 in. (48.3 x 86.4 cm.)
board: 24 ¼ x 38 ½ in. (61.6 x 97.8 cm.)
Executed in 1965.
Acquired directly from the artist

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Lot Essay

“I have always believed that his work should be seen wherever great pictures are collected… He is a true master of pictorial art, and nobody else has drawn the black body with more elegance and authority” (K. J. Marshall, “A Black Artist Named White,” in S. K. Oehler & E. Adler, Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, p. 15).

Flicks of a wrist holding a nub of charcoal and all of a sudden a face takes shape. A face with gravity, with deep-set, heavy-lidded eyes, eyes that have seen too much. Lines etched into a brow drawn with worry but also drawn with care. A face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, indicative of time spent in the sun – a hot and angry sun at times, but a warming, restorative sun at others. This is the face of a life lived in two places, one man in dichotomous existence. This is the face of a Black man, writing his own story while simultaneously acting out the one proscribed to him, all in the hand of the master portraitist himself – Charles White (1918-1979).

At his most stunning when all other materials are stripped away, White defines his titular figure in Black Man (1965) against rubbings of charcoal, growing from richer to lighter back to deep velvety blacks as they drag their way across the picture plane. White’s figure emerges, as it were, from this unintelligible landscape, as an antidote to ambiguity. White asserts figuration in the face of abstraction, emphasizing tangible corporality against esoteric investigations of individual strokes. Above all, White prizes the person, gives life to otherwise static bodies, blows wind across otherwise dormant lapels, endows thought to otherwise quiet minds. White does all this in the service of dignity, an old friend for those familiar with White’s oeuvre, and a welcome companion for those just entering his visceral world. Only two years after the present work was created, White would publish his seminal volume of sketches, called Images of Dignity, which called attention to the overlooked and oppressed in a sobering way. Chief among White’s achievements was his mastery of the portrait genre, which he confronted and then overturned in one swift motion.

The portrait, a long-held tradition specifically for those who could afford it, inherently places man on a pedestal – where once the canvas was reserved for images of divinity, the base human creature is now invited into representation as well. The visual trappings of the past teem with famous portraits – prior to the advent of photography, a commissioned work was the only way to record one’s visage in the annals of history and ensure its passing down for posterity. While portrait artists battled over realistic representation versus allegorical, the mold was regrettably the same across the Western world: pictures of nobility, elevated to the status of gods.

In such a genre, White saw potential, not for the furthering of trite reminiscences, but for the expansion of elevation across race and class. White overlaid what he read in stoic textbooks with his own experience of the world, as a Black man, as an artist, as a professor, and thus resurrected the lineage of those never invited into the portraits of the past: “My work takes shape around images and ideas that are centered within the vortex of a black life experience, a nitty-gritty ghetto experience resulting in contradictory emotions: anguish, hope, love, despair, happiness, faith, lack of faith, dreams” (C. White, quoted in Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Los Angeles, 1972, p. 5). The present work captures its subject in a mundane moment fraught with the tension of the everyday – those feelings of anguish and hope warring beneath a weathered complexion – while setting apart this very subject for reverence and honor. As accomplished in its rendering of the human form as an earlier work like Preacher (1952), the present lot has White at his most contemplative – rather than an orator, White has laid down the thinker.

In the same way he was committed to inscribing these faces into the chapters of society, White was similarly devoted to imparting his unmatched wisdom to those who sought his tutelage at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he began teaching in 1965, the same year the present work was executed. “No account of the life and work of Charles White would be complete without noting his colossal role as a mentor to both his artistic contemporaries and to younger generations of African American artists, especially in the Los Angeles area. As an Otis faculty member, White heavily influenced his students technically, intellectually and politically. He took close personal interest in younger artists, providing them with guidance and encouragement in an art world that was indifferent, even hostile, to artists of African descent. His personal mentorship of many artists helped propel them to the artistic stature they have all earned and enjoyed. Some of them, such as David Hammons, Richard Wyatt (b 1956), Alonzo Davis (b 1942), Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), Ulysses Jenkins and Charles Dickson (b 1947), have gained major national and international acclaim” (J. M. Marter, The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, Volume 1, Oxford, 2011, p. 207).

“His art spoke to and about the black experience while demonstrating, promoting, and honoring African Americans’ dignity and history” (I. S. Fort, “Charles White’s Art and Activism in Southern California,” in S. K. Oehler & E. Adler, Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, p. 123).

From the collection of Danny and Donna Arnold, who were also early supporters of White’s student Ernie Barnes, the present work was rendered specifically for a television concept Arnold had in mind. Friendly with the artist after years of collecting had brought the two together in Los Angeles, Arnold approached White for his superior draughtsmanship and understanding of the human condition. While the final vision was never fully realized, Black Man now stands not only as a superb example of the artist’s mature style and control of his medium, but also as a testament to connection across creative disciplines and background.

About the Collector:

Establishing himself as a well-respected, accomplished Hollywood producer in the mid-20th century, Danny Arnold refined a keen eye for contemporary aesthetics, identifying artists of great talent across the creative disciplines with a prescient vision. Between Arnold and his wife Donna’s own cultural contributions and their personal friendships with both Charles White and Ernie Barnes, the Arnold family’s collection is rooted in a fascinating history of collecting and connoisseurship.

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