Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions @ GRAM 

The Grand Rapids Art Museum Showcases Five Years of Acquisitions

Adonna Khare (American, b. 1980) Elephant Whirlpool, 2014, carbon pencil on paper, 96 x 72 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Museum Purchase, with funds from Bill and Marilyn Crawford and the Artist, 2014.10 copyright: Adonna Khare

In 2007, the Grand Rapids Art Museum opened the doors to its newly-completed, ultra-modern exhibition space in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids.  Rounding out a year of celebratory programming commemorating the GRAM’s first decade in its new location, the show A Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions brought together over a hundred works acquired by the museum over the past five years.  It was an eclectic but strong ensemble of works spanning a diverse array of media across both the fine and applied arts.

As an introspective exhibition which took the GRAM’s collection itself as its subject matter, A Decade at the Center was necessarily a bit of a mish-mash—these works came from all over the world, and were created by artists ranging from Rembrandt to the Apple Design Team.  But the explanatory wall-text curated and structured the experience, lending insight into what exactly goes into building an art collection, helpfully addressing questions like “How does a collection grow,” “who decides what’s acquired?” and “how permanent is a permanent collection?”

The significant presence of applied arts and design resonated nicely with Grand Rapids’ historic contribution to 20thcentury furniture manufacturing—the city is famously home to such design powerhouses as Hermon Miller and Steelcase.  Among the acquisitions on view included examples of design that fudge the porous boundary between functionality and art. A zany bench and table set designed by the Danish-born Nanna Ditzel seemed more like sculpture than interior design, as did the radiating  Metal Spokes Wall Clock by George Nelson and Associates, which helped define the American interior aesthetic of the 1950s.  While most of these examples of applied design pointed to the recent past, a set of dinner cutlery by Iraqi-born megastar architect Zaha Hadid seemed decidedly from the future—no surprise given the other-worldly appearance of her architectural output, which includes Michigan’s very own Broad Art Museum in Lansing.

Also on view were examples of design which illustrated the rapidly changing shape and form of technological devices, including an original Walkman cassette player, an early handheld Kodak camera, and a rotary telephone.   There’s even a first-generation iPod Shuffle, which, though not even fifteen years old, is a relic rendered just as archaic as the Walkman by the ubiquitous iPhone.  Given the rapidity of technological change, one can’t help but reflect that fifteen years from now the iPhone itself may very well be added to this pantheon of the obsolete.

William E. Gundelfinger (1900–1976) KM ‘Flatwork Ironern’ Iron, Model no 444, 1939. Chromium-plated steel, Bakelite. Made by Knapp-Monarch Co., 5 x 7 3/8 x 7 3/4 inches. Photo by Shane Culpepper, Tulsa OK.

 

 

Some of the more traditional works on view also had regional significance, like the paintings of Carl Hoerman, Matthias Altan, and Reynold Weidenaar, the latter of whom was featured in a massive retrospective here in 2015, occasioned by the centennial of his birth.  All three artists lived and worked in West Michigan, and their work, which took Michigan’s landscape as its subject matter, reflects their affection for the natural beauty of the state.

Mathias J. Alten (American, 1871–1938) The Gravel Pit, 1909. Oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gift of the Estate of Peter M. Wege, in memory of Peter and Louise Wege, 2016.14

Historically, the strong suite of the GRAM’s permanent collection has always been its holdings of European and American art post-1800, and many works have been added to this number. These include offerings by such recognizable names as William Blake, Audubon, Picasso, Marsden Hartley, Emil Nolde, Warhol, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Calder, de Kooning, Dubuffet, Chuck Close, Kara Walker, and Louise Bourgeois.  Among the oldest works acquired include a pair of 15thcentury engravings by Martin Schongaur and a small nude figure study by Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669). Nude Man Seated on the Ground with One Leg Extended, 1646. Etching on paper, 3.88 x 6.63 inches. Grand Raids Art Museum. Gift of Margaret Goebel, 2017.27.

 

Kara Walker (American, b. 1969), Boo-hoo, 2000, linocut, 40 x 20 ½ inches. Promised Gift of Martin and Enid Packard © Kara Walker and Parkett Publishers, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

While European and American works make up the majority of the GRAM’s new acquisitions, there’s nevertheless a robust international presence, and these works hail from all six inhabited continents.  These include a large, reflective, geometric glass sculpture by Monir Farmanfarmaian, the Iranian superstar artist who enjoyed a handsome retrospective in this same gallery suite last summer.  Inspired by Sufi geometry, her composite sculpture throws reflected light across the floor of the gallery space like a stationary disco ball, and echoes the geometric tessellations of an untitled pen and ink drawing, also by Farmanfarmaian, included elsewhere in the show.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (Iranian, b. 1924) Untitled, 1980, ink and pen on paper, 18 x 25 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gift of the Artist and Haines Gallery, 2018.12 ©Monir Farmanfarmaian

This exhibition serves as a veritable who’s who in art and design– all the more impressive given that it comprised just five years’ worth of acquisitions and promised gifts.  Furthermore, in addition to established masters, the show included works by emerging talent, such as Elephant Whirlpoola massive graphite drawing by Addona Kharre, who in 2012 was the winner of Art Prize, the city’s celebrated annual art festival.  Recent Gifts and Acquisitions is an exhibition that will live on in perpetuity as these works join the 6,000 other artifacts that form the museum’s permanent collection, ever on rotating view in the GRAM’s gallery spaces. 

Grand Rapids Museum of Art 

Katherine Gray: (Being) in a Hotshop @ Toledo Museum of Art

Katherine Gray, Installation image, Toledo Museum of Art, 2019, all images courtesy of TMA

There’s more than meets the eye in the exhibition Katherine Gray: (Being) in a Hot Shop, hosted by the Toledo Museum of Art.  This intimate exhibition of glass art and glass-inspired art by Canadian-born artist Katherine Gray is a conceptual and immersive show that aspires to give visitors a sense of what it’s like to be in a glass studio, and it does this through touch, sight, sound, and smell.  It’s a multimedia show, but most of the works are glass, and for this exhibition the medium is the message.

Glassblowing is a multisensory experience for both artists and spectators alike, so this exhibition incorporates nearly all the senses.  Upon entering the space, viewers are welcome to touch the various glassblowing tools used by Joseph Rosenberger, a longtime veteran of Toledo’s iconic Libby Glass Company back in the 19thcentury when it was in its first iteration as New England Glass.

Nancy Callan, Paper, Sleeve, Wax, Block. Blown glass, diffusers, motion sensors, 2015. Courtesy of the Heller Gallery.

Nearby, a sculptural ensemble of four monumental glass vessels playfully subvert the nature of the bottle as a vessel of containment, and they disperse the distinct hotshop smells of steaming wood, beeswax, wet newspaper, and Kevlar, each material of which plays a small but essential role in the glassblowing process—for example, Kevlar gloves are used to transfer the completed work from the blowpipe to a special oven, which safely allows the glass to gradually cool to room temperature over the course of many days (or, depending on the size of the form, sometimes weeks and even months).  For this work, Gray collaborated with master-perfumer Kendra Hart.

Katherine Gray (Canadian, born 1965), Irridescent Aura Diptych. Iridized blown glass, 2017. Courtesy of the Heller Gallery.

Central to the glassblowing process of course is the furnace, which Gray represents in several minimalist sculptures mounted on the wall. Her Iridescent Aura Diptych comprises two squares of iridized blown glass in which viewers see a radiating sunburst of color.  The colors subtly change and pulsate as we move around the diptych, and in this work Gray abstractly visualizes the tactile sensation of working so close to blinding heat.  Similarly, the two works which comprise the ensemble This Makes Me Think of That also subtly change color when we approach.  Here, Gray takes the furnace and the glory hole (from which glassblowers collect molten glass onto their blowpipes) and reduces them into the elemental shapes of the circle and the square.

Katherine Gray, This Makes Me Think of That. Iridized blown glass, steel, 2015. Courtesy of the Heller Gallery.

This exhibition’s pièce de résistance is Gray’s glass and light installation A Rainbow Like You.  Here, Gray illuminates a glass table from below, upon which rest a veritable rainbow of glass goblets, cups, and saucers.  Their luminous reflections are cast onto the wall, where the colors merge and mingle in surprising ways, creating a brilliant and immensely satisfying symphony of color.  The glass vessels themselves are created in various historical styles, so the work is a kind of introduction to the history of glassmaking.  The magic of the installation is in Gray’s ability to take common, domestic glass forms and with them create a work of arresting beauty which even evokes the shafts of light and color we might expect to see in grand spaces like Chartres Cathedral.

Kathrine Grey, Installation image, 2019, image courtesy of TMA

After viewing this exhibit, viewers should complete the experience by wandering over to the TMA’s Glass Pavilion to actually watch glassblowers at work.  (Being) in a Hotshop can ultimately only go so far to convey the sights and smells of the real thing, after all. But Gray’s intention was certainly not to replicate hotshop in the first place, and we should be glad—the  glass furnaces blaze at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, after all.  In this exhibition, Gray celebrates glassmaking itself with palpable affection, and it’s abundantly clear that for her the glassmaking process is a labor of love.

Katherine Gray: (Being) in a Hotshop is on view at the Toledo Art Museum through May 12

 

 

 

Oscar Tuazon: Water School @ MSU Broad Museum

Rural Rockets and Rainbenders

In 1972, the pioneering architect and inventor Steve Baer created the “Zome Home,” a passive solar-powered house that allowed him to live completely off the grid.  Wildly inventive, the angular, dome-shaped structure looks like something that might exist in the Star Wars universe.  Dispersing his ideas through publications like Dome Cookbook, Baer garnered a small but devoted cult following of environmentally conscientious do-it-yourself amateur architects. Breathing fresh life into Baer’s ideas, California-based artist Oscar Tuazon represents the next generation of zero-waste domestic architecture.  Water School, on view at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, brings together a cross-section of Tuazon’s experimental works which collectively suggest practical possibilities for more environmentally sustainable living.

Tuazon’s work has appeared in a host of major venues in America and abroad, including Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Whitney, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Art Basel, and the Venice Biennale.  His interactive Water Schoolat the Broad complements two other similar “schools” Tuazon created in California and Minnesota (both locations that experienced moments of water crisis: drought in California, and the Dakoda Access Pipeline in Minnesota).   The schools serve as spaces that cultivate discussion about sustainability.

Oscar Tuazon, Zome Alloy, Plywood, aluminum sheeting, and hardware, 171 x 826 1/4 x 768 7/8″ , 2016 – Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Tuazon’s Zome Alloy (2016), a full-scale plywood prototype of several rooms inspired by Baer’s signature polygonal “Zome Home” (a term coined by Baer’s friendSteve Durkee, referencing the dome shape of each module).  Here, Tuazon erected three interconnected rooms taken from the complete structure which was originally displayed at Art Basel, 2016 (the other rooms are on view in his other Water Schools).  Zome Alloy isn’t functional as an actual home, but serves as interactive sculpture/architecture.  Its rooms contain a library of books selected by Tuazon from the MSU library because, as Tuazon says, “ever school begins with a library.”  The subjects range from art and architecture to science and activism.  For the duration of the exhibition, the space will host interactive sessions, variously termed read-ins, write-ins, and speak-ins.  So while Zome Alloyis displayed as sculpture, it will also quite literally serve as an interdisciplinary school, creating space for conservation conversations to occur.

Oscar Tuazon,  Rainbender (E 3rd) Velux skylight, aluminum, steel, borosilicate glass, vinyl, Sharpie, enamel, and water – 41 x 61 x 35″, 2018  – Image Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Unlike conventional solar-powered homes, Baer’s Zomes applied passive solar power, meaning that the architectural elements of the home harness solar energy without the aid of any electronics or waste-producing fuel.   For example, the south face of Baer’s home (which faced the sun most of the time) contained large window bays which held dozens of large drums filled with water, serving to cool the house by day and insulate the house at night.    Working in the same spirit, Tuazon created experimental prototypes for architectural elements that serve as examples of how we might live more efficiently.  His Rocket-Stoveis a highly efficient heating system that produces almost no smoke, and his Rainbendersare designed to capture water in regions that receive less than 15 inches of water per year.  Perhaps the most inventive architectural element is his Curtain Wall, a window comprised of two large panes of glass set within a frame (imagine a glass shadowbox); during the day, it functions as a window and lets in sunlight, but at night the space between the panes can be filled with polystyrene beads, which serve as highly effective insulation.

Oscar Tuazon, Curtain Wall, Steel, acrylic, electrical components, steel drum, loose polysterene beads, and tinted Plexiglas – 91 3/8 x 67 7/8 x 46 7/8″, 2013, Courtesy The Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut

A final room in the exhibition displays selected ephemera and publications produced by the first-generation environmentalists (Steve Baer, Buckminster Fuller, and Stewart Brand) which inspired Tuazon’s own work.  These writings include Baer’s Dome Cookbook (1969), which disseminated Baer’s ideas and encouraged a movement of do-it-yourself sustainable architecture.

The works on view in Water School might admittedly be disappointing if approached purely as aesthetic objects, though the unabashed zaniness of the Zome is undeniably visually satisfying.   But more importantly, Tuazon’s practical experimentation makes the point that zero-waste living is a real possibility.  Furthermore, his work carries an enduring relevance.  After all, in Michigan we have over 3,000 miles of freshwater coastline (more than any other state except Alaska), but issues like the Kalamazoo Oil Spill and the Flint water crisis demonstrate that water, though necessary to sustain life, is hardly something we can take for granted.

Oscar Tuazo, Water School will be at the MSU Broad Museum through August 26, 2019.

Art in the Age of the Internet @ UMMA

University of Michigan Museum of Art brings the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art exhibition to its audience.

Penelope Umbrico, 33,930,694 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 9/05/17, 2006-ongoing, chromogenic machine prints. Courtesy of the artist. ©Penelope Umbrico.

In 1969, the United States Department of Defense harnessed groundbreaking technology to relay a message from a computer at UCLA to a computer at Stanford University; it simply read “Login,” but even that was enough to overload and crash the system.  For twenty more years, rudimentary Internet technology remained exclusively in the hands of scientists and government agencies until the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989, which radically democratized the Internet, making it accessible, comprehensible, and useable to anyone. It also irrevocably changed the way we experience the world.  Responding to the thirtieth anniversary of the World Wide Web, the University of Michigan is hosting “Art in the Age of the Internet,” a massive multimedia show which, like the Internet itself, is visually eclectic, immersive, and loud.

Three years in the making, this show first launched in 2018 at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, garnering substantial critical acclaim.  As one would expect given the subject, the show liberally makes use of video-art displayed on screens and monitors, but it also includes media ranging from painting, drawing, and photography to emerging technologies such as 3D printing.  The forty works that comprise the show are categorized in five sections: Networks of Circulation, Hybrid Bodies, Virtual Worlds, States of Surveillance, and Performing the Self.  Together they form an impressive ensemble of work by both emerging and established artists, including a few surprise-appearances by artists one might not immediately associate with the Internet, such as Cindy Sherman, but whose inclusion in the show makes perfect sense.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #463, 2007—08. Cindy Sherman, Chromogenic color print. Collection of John and Amy Phelan, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. © Cindy Sherman

Many works explore the increasingly reality-altering nature of the Web.  A large photograph of the perennially shape-shifting Cindy Sherman seems an apt metaphor for the way many of us might use social media to fabricate idealized narratives about our better selves via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat (pick your platform) at the expense of authenticity.  Commenting on this photograph of women at a social gathering of some kind, Sherman states that the image “was inspired by the idea of party photos seen so often where people, desperate to show off their status and connections, excitedly pose have their picture taken with larger-than-life-sized smiles and personalities.”  The photograph was taken in 2007, the infant years of social-media, but Sherman’s collective body of work, decades in the making,  prophetically anticipates the way many of us (including presidents and world leaders) painstakingly curate our own images, ideas, and personalities on social media as we present our digital personas to the digital world.

An entirely different commentary on the blurring of digital and actual realities comes from Harun Farocki’s two-channel video Serious Games IV: A Sun with No Shadow, which explores how the US military uses virtual reality technology to prepare soldiers for combat and to treat soldiers who experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  One screen shows soldiers interacting with the technology as another screen relays to us the same simulated combat scenarios the soldiers see.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Surface Tension”, 2007. ”Trackers”, La Gaïté Lyrique, Paris, 2011. Photo by: Maxime Dufour

The most compelling works in the exhibition are those that address government surveillance technologies; the disclosures in 2013 by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden lend these works considerable weight.  Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer’s Surface Tension is a deceptively playful interactive screen with an eyeball that follows viewers who come within a certain distance; one can’t resist the game of pacing back and forth in front of it, testing its speed and unerring accuracy.  But to work, this installation applies the same military camera used by American smart bombs to pinpoint targets during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The original iteration of this work was created in 1992, well before the creation of the NSA and the “surveillance state” as it exists today.

Trevor Paglen, “Autonomy Cube”, 2015. Plexiglas box with computer components. (MP# TP—95). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. @ Trevor Paglen

With just under a billion users, more people access the Internet in China than in any other country, but users in China can’t access sites like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times, or thousands of other websites.  Addressing the Great Firewall of China, the country’s censorious implementation of Internet restrictions, artist and activist Xu Wenkai’s Gfwlist is a black, rectilinear monolith which, for the duration of the exhibition, will print out, in encrypted form, a lengthy sheet of  Web addresses blocked by the Chinese government.  In addition to raising awareness of the problem, the artist’s use of encryption suggests a potential way for activists to hack their way towards a solution.  On a similar note, American artist Trevor Paglen’s Autonomity Cube, straddling the boundary between sculpture, technology, and activism, is a functional Wi-fi hub that anonymizes user Internet activity and hides it from surveillance systems.  Though perhaps this work bends more toward pure technology than traditional art, it admittedly recalls some of the work of Bauhaus superstar Maholy Nagy.

Art in the Age of the Internet certainly doesn’t dispiritingly present the Internet as a negative phenomenon, inevitably ushering in a Big Brother State.  Today, anyone with an I-Phone is a potential news-reporter, and social media has been the impetus that has propelled movements ranging from the Arab Spring to #blm.  Driving the point home, a wall of monitors reminiscent of the electronic sculptures of Nam Jun Paik relays algorithmically-sourced footage from the Internet showing police brutality against people of color.  On the one hand, it champions the Internet as a medium that exposes and heightens awareness of the problem, though it also painfully suggests that things haven’t changed much during the interval between the pre-social-media days of Rodney King in 1991 and Tamir Rice in 2014.

A show like this could easily veer toward envisioning a bleakly Orwellian vision of the future. But Art in the Age of the Internet wisely refrains from suggesting that the Internet has been bad for humanity– to do so would be equivalent to railing against the printing press on the grounds that there’s been much bad literature.  After all, while the term “fake news” has only recently gained currency in modern political discourse, propelled largely by the ease with which (dis)information transmits over the Internet, readers can easily find rollickingly laughable gaffs without much difficulty in the Historiesof Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.   Rather, this exhibition dispassionately presents the Internet as an irrevocable facet of modern life, and, for better or for worse, the medium though which we increasingly look, learn, love, and live.

 

Art in the Age of the Internet is currently on exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through April 17, 2019

Charles White @ MoMA, NYC

Charles White: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY

Charles White (American, 1918–1979). General Moses (Harriet Tubman). 1965. Ink on paper, 47 × 68″ (119.4 × 172.7 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

If there’s a fearsome female gaze that can make Manet’s icy Olympia seem coy and puerile by comparison, it’s that of the determined Harriet Tubman, rendered in ink by Charles White during the height of the Civil Rights movement.  Famous for liberating hundreds of slaves during the Civil War, here she becomes a contemporary symbol for racial equality, and could, with little imagination, plausibly be seen among those marching on the front lines across Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  She’s emblematic of White’s work, which unfailingly depicted black America with strength, regality, and dignity.

Born in 1918 on Chicago’s South Side, African-American artist Charles White began his career inauspiciously as a sign painter; he would later become one of the most accomplished draftsmen of his generation.  His style had extraordinary reach, ranging from the gently abstracted figures that peopled his WPA mural paintings of the late 1930s to his tight and refined graphite and ink drawings of the 1960s.  Charles White: A Retrospectiveis a muscular show that snugly fills half of the MoMA’s third floor with over 100 drawings, paintings, and other ephemera.  White’s first major show in 30 years, this traveling exhibition champions the enduring appeal of figurative drawing, and his socially-conscious subject matter keeps his work uncannily relevant.

Arranged chronologically, the retrospective begins with his early paintings, produced when White was a freshly minted graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. His early mural Five Great American Negros is an early tour de forcethat established several of the tropes that defined much of White’s subsequent career. Painted when he was just 21 for a fundraiser for Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, the painting celebrates Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Sojourner Truth.   The mural’s heaving landscape and figural distortions rhyme with the regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, but, as ever, White’s work also spoke to contemporary social injustices.  He painted the mural in 1939, the same year that gospel singer Marian Anderson was refused permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race, and her inclusion in the work freights the painting with timely relevance and political weight.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Five Great American Negroes. 1939. Oil on canvas, 60 x 155″ (152.4 x 393.7 cm). From the Collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.© The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

Charles White believed that artists had a moral obligation to contribute to social discourse, and to this end his work aggressively addressed racial injustice and economic disparity in America.  In the 1940s and 50s White produced soulful and moving works like There were no Crops This Year, a Steinbeckian depiction of a visibly distraught husband and wife; an empty sack which the woman holds is the only prop in the drawing, but it’s enough to tell their story.  And his poignant and incriminating proto-cubist Headlinesdepicts a visibly distraught woman flanked by a veritable blizzard of news headlines that reveal instances of racial inequality in America.  His use of collage and text mirrors the synthetic cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque, but here White masterfully harnesses the vocabulary of cubism and channels it toward social protest.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Headlines. 1944. Ink, gouache, and newspaper on board, 20 x 16″ (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Collection of William M. and Elisabeth M. Landes. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

But while his works frequently addressed racial and economic inequality, White managed to avoid producing an oeuvre drearily burdened by politics.  His brightly painted Gospel Singers radiates joy, and the strong, pitchfork-wielding woman in Our Land (White’s witty response to Grant Wood’s American Gothic) radiates confidence, determination, and, above all, dignity.  

Music also played a significant role in his output, and he produced affectionate drawings of gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robertson, and Bessie Smith.  White created cover designs for a series of jazz albums by Vanguard Records, and in 1965 his illustration for Gould: Spirituals for Orchestra received a Grammy nomination for best album cover.  But the musical collaboration this show especially highlights is that of Charles White and Harry Bellefonte, whose recorded voice croons uninterruptedly throughout the exhibition space.  Bellefonte commissioned works by White, often including them on his television show, and White responded with several portraits of the singer, head thrown back, utterly abandoned in music.  Fittingly, because of the close relationship White had with so many musicians, the MoMA has thoughtfully assembled a Spotify playlist of music inspired by the show—there’s everything from old spirituals to gospel music and James Brown.

In the 60s and 70s, White’s work continued to address social justice and civil rights, but his style became increasingly crisp, a marked departure from his previous abstracted depictions of the figure.  It’s a stylistic shift made apparent in his 12-part series J’Accuse (“I accuse”), a series of confrontationally large ink drawings collectively named after Emile Zola’s open letter to the French government in which Zola famously defended Richard Dreyfus, a Jew wrongfully convicted of murder.  The series’ title equated American racial inequality with European Antisemitism, but the drawings themselves refrain from directly referencing any instances of injustice.  Rather, White gives viewers affectionate and sensitively rendered portraits of black Americans, often set against a stark white background, and allows for their innate dignity to speak for itself.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). J’Accuse #7. 1966. Charcoal on paper, 39 1/4 × 51 1/2″ (99.7 × 130.8 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

The final room in the retrospective includes several works from his acclaimed Wanted Posterseries, a cycle of 21 monochromatic oil-wash and lithograph works which emerged from White’s frustration at the slow pace of the implementation of civil rights in America.  Appropriating the imagery of old wanted posters for runaway slaves, all the works in this series mimic the texture of crumpled newsprint in arresting tompe l’oeil.  Barely-discernable stenciled-in words help the viewer navigate the meaning behind these ambiguous works; in one especially poignant image, a mother stands behind her son, both their faces registering utter sorrow; above her head hovers the form of an eagle and the word “sold.”

One of the final images viewers encounter is White’s iconic Black Pope. Closely resembling the Wanted Posterseries in its color and texture, the painting depicts a man wearing clothing reminiscent of priestly vestments, flashing what could be interpreted both as the peace symbol, or the sign Christ makes in icons while bestowing a blessing.  Barely discernable, “Chicago” is stenciled atop the image, and the figure wears a sandwich board which proclaims with calculated ambiguity: “NOW”– an all-encompassing call to action.

Installation view of the exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective.October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Robert Gerhardt.

Charles White: A Retrospective is a massive show made even more impressive when we consider that the overwhelming majority of these works are fastidiously rendered figurative drawings—there are no easy shortcuts to quickly fill wall space.  Furthermore, while his drawings are impressively large, they always reward close inspection with their varied stippled and hatched-in textures.  Today, his work hangs in many of America’s great museums—the Metropolitan, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Smithsonian, to name a few. But his legacy isn’t just the art he created, but the many students who emerged under his shadow, such as Kerry James Martial, who stated that Charles White believed that one’s work “should be in the service of helping dignify people.”  His work did exactly that, and this retrospective triumphantly speaks to White’s unflagging and determined mission to portray black America with the dignity it deserved.

Charles White: A Retrospective, through January 13, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, NY.