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

Ruben and Isabel Toledo: “Labor of Love” @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Ruben Toledo, “Broomstick Librarian Shirtwaist Dresses,” 2008, Designed by Isabel Toledo, Painted by Ruben Toledo, image by DIA – William Palmer.

We normally think of industry as the machinery of the production for making a particular thing, like the steel industry, or, especially in Detroit, the auto industry, but entering the current exhibition, “A Labor of Love,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, we are greeted by a magnificent image of twisted swirls of colors and pleats of seven dresses. This very energetic image was composed and painted by Ruben Toledo of his wife, Isabel Toledo’s dress designs for Anne Klein, one of the leaders in the Fashion Industry. It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to go from car design, with its annual turnover and retooling for the latest, sexiest, avatars of human desire, to the fashion industry and its latest adjustments of hem and neckline and introduction of the latest color to elaborate on the human body. That’s just what this famous New York husband and wife team of artist and designer did in “Labor of Love,” their investigative interventions in the encyclopedic collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Ruben and Isabel Toledo, “The Choreography of Labor,” 2018 Remaining images by DIA Eric Wheeler

Situated in the DIA’s Special Exhibitions galleries, the main thrust of their installation is an exploration of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals,” the heart and soul of the museum and, art lovers might say, Detroit itself. In her exploration of the collection, Isabel Toledo saw the connection in Rivera’s fresco murals between the fashion and auto industry immediately and brought them together in a large collage (Image #2) that depicts a flowing dance of her dress designs across silkscreened representation of Rivera’s painting of the factory with workers depicted engaged in car production. The darkened gallery, filled with sculpted manikins wearing formal gowns of various cultural origin, suggests a grand promenade celebrating immigration and integration of world cultures to Detroit.

Installation image of Special Exhibitions Gallery with Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine in foreground.

There is a haunting tableau composed of Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine wrapped in black taffeta, with ghostly gowns floating in the air above, with a quote on the wall from Isabel that offers the idea of the fashion industry and (by proximity) the auto industry, as a metaphor for the generational influence of migration and change, of death and rebirth: “The combination of ideas, time and imagination can all be triggered by fashion and how people dress, undress, expose, or cover their bodies, fashion offers the perpetual next—the never ending now, the reinvention of inventions.” It is a twist on Darwinian Evolution that goes back to LeCorbusier’s use of it to explain the evolution of design. (Incidentally Isabel’s sewing machine, in looking like a little animal, echoes Rivera’s drawing of an V-8 engine block that looks like a dog).

Diego Rivera drawing from DIA Collection

Throughout the exhibition the female body is explored as the medium of exchange for cultural expression and happily this exhibition gives us the opportunity of seeing four of Rivera’s breathtaking Detroit Industry preparatory cartoons, two of which are female figures representing the seed and fruit of the female body. Because of their fragile paper the cartoons are not displayed often.

Much of the “Labor of Love” exhibition becomes a treasure hunt. Spread throughout the museum are nine Isabel Toledo’s playful, sexy, even downright erotic designs for female adornment which are in response to particular themes and moments of the history of art arranged in the chronological galleries. It is intriguing to ferret out the connections to the specific art or gallery theme. A map is provided but, even for a seasoned museum visitor, it’s a joy to walk through the museum, with chance encounters of things that catch your eye, trying to find Isabel’s interventions. It is a clever way to break the museum’s “ideology” and cast a completely different agenda on its organization, and get the public into the galleries.

Isabel Toledo, “Synthetic Cloud,” 2018, Nylon

There are many intriguingly inventive responses and fashion interventions by the Toledos including Isabel Toledo’s design for Michele Obama’s inauguration outfit found in the American Colonial house and interesting twists on the shenanigans of the surrealists, and to Alison Saar’s “Blood/Sweat/Tears” sculpture, but the most engaging is “Synthetic Cloud.” Installed in the “minimalist” gallery and inspired, it appears mostly by Robert Irwin’s diaphanous acrylic disc, “Untitled, “ but as well by the hard-edged paintings and sculpture of Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse and Ellsworth Kelly.  Above Irwin’s chimerical disc, the most mysterious piece of art in the museum, hang eleven multicolored, nylon, tulle tutus that float like a formation of clouds high above our heads. Layer upon layer of pastel underskirts support the dancing figures that also support the rigid wire bodices of the imaginary ballerinas. Somehow echoing Irwin’s ineffable image of light and shadow, Toledo’s fantastic ballerina clouds are worth the trek.

Panoramic installation view of gallery

Isabel and Ruben Toledo: Labor of Love, Detroit Institute of Arts    –  Through July 7, 2019

 

W.C. Bevan @ Greenroom Gallery

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” partial installation view, All images – Ryan Standfest

Entering into the space of the new Greenroom Gallery for its second exhibition, “Contrast”, a collection of 24 black and white painted, printed and drawn works by W.C. Bevan, muralist, graffiti artist, printmaker and painter, one comes upon a seamless environment in which wall surface and the individual works presented on it, augment one another to resemble a brightly-lit cave covered with symbols and representations both prehistoric and futurist, of our time and outside of our time, vague and precise. There is a timeless music issuing forth from this chamber.

BLACK & WHITE

W.C. Bevan states that black and white is his “preferred mode of transport.” It’s usage suggest basic black ink on white paper, the foundation of a D.I.Y. print aesthetic cultivated in an underground Punk culture of fast and cheap photocopied zines, handbills and posters. But economic necessity also gives way to meaningful form, as high contrast lends itself to the graphically impactful, the immediate read from whatever distance. Color can carry with it nuance, emotional shading, a reading that depends upon one’s preconceived connection to a color. Whereas the simple combination of black plus white has no hidden agenda up its sleeve.

However, there is the presence of grey. When Bevan utilizes a can of black spray paint to adorn the walls of his exhibition space, he makes skilled use of the resulting overspray as a gradient, softening the image. He likens this to the mis-registration of a printed image, in which a layer of color slips outside of its intended target, accidentally lending further dimension. Indeed, there are also an abundant number of drips allowed to remain, unedited, that keep the space active, reminding the viewer of the performance required to manufacture marks.

Bevan’s methodology is a balancing act between exerting control and embracing chance. Upon an initial encounter with a space, a wall, a surface, a scenario must be devised in reaction to circumstance. Visual anchors are established using large scale icons. Connective threads between these anchors take the form of repeated visual motifs, adornments that form a flowing space to be read. Entering the Greenroom Gallery space, flashes of prehistoric cave art abound. As with the Paeolithic paintings found in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave, Bevan’s spray-painted marks respond to the various openings, contours and edges of the wall’s surface, making use of spatial shifts as an opportunity to animate his shapes and lines.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall, 2018

These adornments comprise a lexicon, assembled from typographic symbols. Bevan’s walls have a strong hieroglyphic character, suggesting black and white pictographic texts. It is no surprise then, that his practice of black and white mural painting began with the 2015 project “True Meridian,” which adorns a large wall on the former Eastern Market location of the letterpress shop Salt & Cedar, on the East Fisher Service Drive. Proprietor Megan O’Connell and Bevan had envisioned the mural as a black and white “cathedral of type” in response to the idea of letterpress. The resulting image retained its ecclesiastical architectonics, but letterforms gave way to a dizzying pattern of abbreviated characters.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall, 2018

Growing up in Cleveland, surrounded by examples of opulent turn of the 20thcentury architecture, much of Bevan’s wall-marking practice has been defined by a relationship with architectural ornamentation; the decorative repetitions that activate the façade of a building through the rhythmic accretion of detail. This visual language is on view in “Contrast.”  The Classical ornamental device known as “egg and dart,” which consists of an egg-shaped object alternating with another element shaped like an arrow or a dart, is echoed in the spray-painted embellishments on Bevan’s walls.

W.C. Bevan, “Contrast” installation detail, acrylic spray paint on wall with “Untitled” drawings and “Tire Poem” print, 2018

TIRES

The “contrast” of the title is not just black and white, but also the organic and the inorganic. One prominent text adorning a wall states “BIOILLOGICAL TIMES” (a kind of subtitle to the show) as a reminder of the uneasy relationship between the natural and the industrial.

The recurring motif of the exhibition is the automobile tire. It appears in a series of oversized visual anchors, in a smaller series of screen prints with poems scrawled in black oilstick, as piles in smaller acrylic paintings on canvas, and deconstructed as tread marks that reframe and elaborate a new, more playful architecture within the exhibition space.

W.C. Bevan, “Tires”, acrylic on canvas, 22 x 17.5 inches, 2018

In the series of small acrylic paintings depicting tire piles, the subject becomes a surrogate for bodies—slumped, disposed of. Bevan speaks of the tire as a thing that has gone places, that has been worn down while carrying us places, therefore having a history itself. The very idea of the tread has multiple meanings: to walk along, to press down onto the ground, to crush or flatten. In “Contrast,” tires themselves have been crushed and flattened, having carried themselves too far. The piles he depicts morph into less recognizable heaps and mounds, as they go treadless. Throughout the exhibition space, there is an unraveling of the tire, a peeling away of the tread—unspooled to become architectural pattern.

W.C. Bevan, “Wall Peeps”, acrylic on canvas, each 15.5 x 12.5 inches, 2018

Ultimately, the tire is not the subject. In fact, the tires are not just tires. For Bevan, the urban experience of the discarded tire, tossed into a field, piled, stacked, becomes an absurd totem. A deflated tragicomic sign of what has passed. Bevan’s tires are droopy, flaccid, out of shape. Having spent some time painting commercial signs populated by “hamburgers, liquor bottles and tires” for quick cash, Bevan has spoken of a fondness for hand-painted tire shop signage around the city of Detroit, that often represents the tire and or wheel as something misshapen. Unmoored by the refined craft of a trained artist, there is an clumsy earnestness to most of these signs with their straightforward deformation of what Bevan calls “the thing that keeps America moving.”

STREET

On screen printed works each titled “Tire Poem,” Bevan scrawls variant texts with a black oil stick, at the sides of each repeated, centrally printed tire image. The texts have a touch of the street to them, rough fragments drifting into the image nudging them toward something resembling a hand-painted sign:

LONG HISTORIC PIANO SONG

PIRATES MADE OF YOGA

GREAT FOR WALKIN’ MAN I’LL TELL YA

SUDAFED NAIL BED

MMAMA ALWAYS SAID LIFEE ISS GOOD THHEN YOUREEBORN A RAT

YOU’RE A PONYTAIL WOW

W.C. Bevan, “Tire Poem”, screen print with oil stick, 28 x 22 inches, 2018

The majority of the work in “Contrast” makes use of vernacular visual street language.  In conversation, Bevan points out a series of paintings depicting tires by the artist Art Green, who was a member of the Chicago-based Hairy Who—a group of artists producing work in the late 1960s to early 1970s that was a potent mélange of high and low tendencies culled from comic books, Art Brut, commercial advertising and popular illustration, resulting in fragmented and highly fluid, often sexually-charged work that was a deliriously absurd response to the times it was made in. Similarly, Bevan’s work constructs a “Rustbelt Absurd” with its own pictorial elasticity, erasing notions of high and low with a language both refined and unrefined, and a practice that bridges the street and the studio with mural painting and graffiti, printmaking and painting.

W.C. Bevan, “Hamtramck Memory Drawing”, acrylic on paper, 22.5 x 15 inches, 2018

There is a portrait, seemingly out of place in the exhibition, titled “Hamtramck Memory Drawing,” of a man, possibly of Eastern European extraction, partially cropped. Possibly working class. Possibly from the Poletown neighborhood Bevan has lived in since March of 2018. The drawing, executed with sprayed acrylic on paper, is a soft grey. It feels distant and contrasts with much of the hard-edged graphic work in the exhibition. In its quietness, it asserts itself as a reminder of the human dimension of Bevan’s work, the psychological lifeblood of a black and white Rustbelt vision, placing the everyday of the studio into the street, and vice versa, while summoning the abundant wall-painted symbols as dispatches from a landscape tread upon.

“Contrast: Black and White works by W.C. Bevan”
November 30, 2018-February 1, 2019
Greenroom Gallery Detroit
located within Emerson’s Haberdashery, 1234 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226
Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10-6pm
Closing reception on Feb. 1, 2019, 6-9pm

 

Bill Schwab @ Halsted Gallery

Detroit Photographer has a Survey Exhibition of Work at the Halsted Gallery

Installation, Bill Schwab talking at open, 2018

Photography celebrates its 180th anniversary in 2019. This art form has fascinated us from its early beginnings with its ability to record time and aide our memories of people, places and objects. Photographs are magical things, credited with the power to steal a person’s shadow and provide a mysterious interaction of silver and salt akin to alchemy. That was pre-digital era, of course.

If you are anywhere near my age (and studied art in the 1960s) you may have taken a class in photography in your college years. You may have purchased a Pentax, Cannon, or Nikon 35-millimeter single lens reflex (SLR) camera and exposed a series of rectangles that captured an image of your family, friends and possibly your pet. After loading the camera and recording images, you rolled your black-and-white Tri-X film back into its cannister, removed it in a darkroom under a mysterious red light, and developed the celluloid impressions, each producing a negative image. The negative was then placed into a photo enlarger which projected a lit image onto photo sensitive paper, usually Kodak or Afga, creating a sensation that when wiggled around in a developing solution, magically forms an image right before your eyes. Life’s moment became concentrated, condensed and captured in a split second of time.

Bill Schwab, Metropolitan, Gum over Platinum Print, Detroit 2012

The Halsted Gallery was the only photo gallery in the Detroit metro area back in the early 1970s and, as part of the gallery archive, there are letters from photographers whom Tom Halsted represented, including: Henri Cartier Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, and Imogen Cunningham to name only a few. In the year 2000, the Halsted Gallery had an opening for Bill Schwab, who was then a young and emerging photographer. The exhibit included small prints made from long exposures in the early morning fog of Belle Isle, Detroit. I bought his small, beautiful 36-page book and a limited-edition signed print.

Bill Schwab, House on Dearborn Street, 30 x 40″ Pigment Ink print, 2016

Fast forward to December 1, 2018, where the Halsted Gallery, now under the ownership of Wendy Halsted Beard, has reopened in a new location and mounted an exhibition, Relative Importance, of Bill Schwab’s photography that covers his work for the past two decades, including  his more recent digital, aerial and wet plate collodion photographs. As professional and artistic photography still exists in this world of “everyone is a photographer,” Bill Schwab has endured with a prodigious reputation that many admire and he rightly deserves. Just because we all have smart phone cameras doesn’t mean we can compose, acutely observe and most importantly understand light. Circumstantial light considers not only all the properties and behaviors of natural light, but also how that light interacts with the objects around (you), transforming those objects into light-shaping tools.

Bill Schwab, Van Road Stars, 30 x 40″, Pigment Ink print, 2017

The first digital camera was created by Steven Sasson of Eastman Kodak in 1975, but the first consumer products didn’t arrive until the late 1980s and early 1990s. It wasn’t until 2010 that digital cameras were integrated into smart phones and by 2003, digital cameras out-sold film cameras. According to Info Trends, 1.2 trillion photos were taken in 2017. The technological change has had a tremendous effect on photography and photographers, but that is not to say it hasn’t been a natural advancement of capturing an image. Schwab is a good example of how photographers have embraced the new technology and used its tools as leverage to produce new kinds work. The digital image Van Road Stars, is a good example of how the manipulation of light and exposure can produce a rather engaging image, in part due to scale and incredible detail.

Bill Schawb, Mack at Lennox, Pigmented Ink Print, Detroit, 2016

What makes this Mack at Lennox image interesting has nothing to do with the recording device, but rather the sensibility to light, color and thought. You end up asking yourself how odd is that? Was it an ice cream stand or a dairy shop?  But the cow has horns making it either a he, or a she. Formal in its composition, he makes the print large, 30 x 40 inches, which adds to its strength as a photograph. And then there is the light. Where is the light source coming from?  Did he set a light up high against the darkened sky? These considerations are what set an artist apart from your average snapshot taker..

Bill Schwab, Five Trees in a Field, Pigment Ink Print, Detroit, 2016

Bill Schwab was early to take an interest in drone technology, something that most professional photographers now consider a necessary tool.  He has a series called the Human Stain, largely made up of a decade of images taken of crumbling farm houses in rural areas, but this aerial image is of five trees with low light shadows and tractor trails that become the marks of visual artists with respect to placement and composition.  It provides the viewer with a different point of view of the landscape, something that painters have been doing for hundreds of years.

Bill Schwab, Tidal Flooding – Hofn, Silver Gelatin Print, Iceland, 2015

Photography captures reality in distinct ways that were rarely available to painters.  There once was debate over whether or not photography is fine art?  I am not sure when that got answered, but the answer is clear: yes and no. If you’re photographing a still life for a garden magazine or a car for a showroom brochure, it is commercial photography.  But when you are making abstractions, as Andre Kertesz or Ernst Haas did, or capturing precious moments in time based on light and composition as Henri Bresson did, it is fine art.  The difference might be analogous to the difference between illustration and painting, although in the case of Norman Rockwell, the debate drags on, at least in some critics’ minds.

Bill Schwab, Rouge Steel, Silver Gelatin Print, 1994

Beginning at an early age, Bill Schwab developed an interest in photography with his Kodak Brownie camera and a home darkroom kit he got from his father as a gift.  Like they say, give a person a fish and it’s a meal for that day, teach him how to fish, and it’s a lifetime of meals. Photography is Bill Schwab’s life, and great photography is about the depth of feeling, not the depth of field.

Bill Schwab earned his B.F.A in photography from Central Michigan University and worked for a short while in NYC assisting commercial photographer Alen MacWeeney before traveling the world as a commercial photographer.  He has taken students of photography on workshops to Iceland, founded the Northern Light Press and coordinates the Photostock Festival yearly each June, changing and influencing photographers in his path. He has published four books on his photography, and his work is part of many museum, corporate and personal collections.

Bill Schwab, Relative Importance, at the Halsted Gallery runs through   January 30, 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.