Exhibited at the recent major retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the Art Institute of Chicago (and which later traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Charles White’s Banner for Willie J is a painting by one of the most influential artists of his generation. Featuring a portrait of the artist’s cousin, who—as an innocent bystander—was killed during an armed robbery at a bar, the painting portrays the contemporary black experience through the lens of art history. Powerful and poignant, and painted with remarkable dexterity, White’s paintings give a voice to those often unheard. The artist explained of his artistic inspiration, “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, as quoted in Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Los Angeles, California, 1972, p. 5).
In contrast to his violent death, White chose to depict him in a casual pose, wearing a pair of sunglasses and resting on his haunches; with a quiet dignity, he stares into the middle distance. Above his head, White has painted a single red rose, the enduring symbol of innocence, love, and dignity. In Christian mythology, a single red rose was also said have grown at the sight of Jesus’s death. Below the figure of Willie J, White has paint the word ‘BANG’ in bold block capitals, referring to the violence that resulted in the senseless death. White encloses the image of his cousin within a circular portrait format that recalls art historical paintings of nobility; this distinctive way of painting was often reserved for significant figures, such as members of the Holy Family, nobility or other wealthy sitters; thus, in this painting White combines the noble traditions of art history, with a contemporary voice to create a positive image of his cousin, a young black man whose live was cut tragically short.
1976, the year in which Banner for Willie J was painted, was an important time for the artist. He was honored with a major retrospective at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and which later traveled to museums in Montgomery, AL; Chattanooga, TN; West Palm Beach, Florida; and Little Rock, Arkansas. In September that year, White’s work was also featured in the exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, described at the times as “the only historically comprehensive exhibition of art by Black Americans ever to be presented by a major American art museum” (B. R. Cooks, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, Amherst, 2011, p. 87). In addition to being featured in that exhibition, White was also commissioned to create the official poster for the show. The result was a lithograph I Have a Dream, which he specifically requested by shown at an affordable price, and also be distributed free of charge to schools in the L.A. area.
In addition to his role as a prominent artist, White was also hugely influential as an educator, teaching and mentoring a whole generation of artists. “White was an advocate for the people he depicted in his artwork,” writes Museum of Modern Art curator Esther Adler in the catalogue of the recent retrospective, “as for the generations of students he taught and mentored, many of whom continue to work as professional artists today” (E. Adler, “Charles White, Artist and Teacher,” in S. K. Oehler & E. Adler, Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, p. 141). During his life, the artist held a number of faculty positions, but it was at the Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) that he made his mark as an educator, joining the institution in 1965, and remaining until his death in 1979. David Hammons, who was a pupil of White at Otis, recalled the impact he had on him, and many of his contemporaries. “I never knew there were “black” painters, or artists, or anything until I found out about him… There was no way could have got information from my art history classes…. He’s the only artist that I really related to because he’s black and I am black, plus physically seeing him and knowing him. Like, he’s the first and only artist that I’ve ever really met who had any real stature. And just being in the same room with someone like that you’d have to be directly influenced” (D. Hammons, quoted by E. Adler, “Charles White, Artist and Teacher,” in S. K. Oehler & E. Adler, Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, p. 152). Another of White’s pupils, Kerry James Marshall, said, “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).
The care and precision with which Charles White painted Banner for Willie J. makes this an outstanding example that demonstrates the artist’s reputation as one of the most accomplished draughtsman and painters of his generation. In addition to his body of work, his legacy lives on the dozens of other artists he influenced, like David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall. The dignity with which he lived his life can clearly be seen in his canvases, a quality that remains as important today as they were during much of the history of the 20th century. Writing in the catalogue for his 2018 retrospective, Ilene Fort, Curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art succinctly summed up the magic of White’s art, “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).