The reclamation of an image

Charles White (1918-1979), Portrait 1967, lithograph. Purchased 1973. Acc: 1973.1202. Created at Gemini Limited, Los Angeles, California with master printer Kenneth Tyler.

by David Greenhalgh, Curatorial Assistant, Kenneth Tyler Collection

What would happen, what would life be like, what would America be like, if suddenly you woke up one morning and there was no art… Could we call ourselves civilised?[1]

So reflected the artist Charles White during his lecture for the Graphic Arts Council in 1971. He went on to examine the relationship between images, dignity and empathy: ‘there’s a need to establish a repour… [the work of art] says I’ve got to grab you and let you understand what’s in my heart[2]. This idea echoes through an interview he gave six years earlier when he reflected on the role art had in his early schooling:

I think if it hadn’t been for [my art teachers] I wouldn’t have survived… this terrible handicap that sometimes a teenager will have when he isn’t equipped verbally or any other way to fight and express the things he feels inside[3]

Born in 1918, White reflected in this interview on the deeply institutionalised racism he encountered as an African American, as he began to rally in early high school against the erasure of black historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass, wondering ‘why these names weren’t mentioned in the standard U.S. history which we all studied’[4]. Such acts of erasure were to have a profound effect on his artistic practice, which sought to make visible the achievements and dignity of black America.

Reflecting on this, it is interesting to note that the two works by Charles White in the Kenneth Tyler Collection have received little attention or study since they were acquired in 2001. These lithographs, Portrait (1966) and Exodus II (1967) are some of the earliest works produced at Gemini Limited, Kenneth Tyler’s first print workshop, and are the only works by an African American artist in this extensive collection.

Charles White (1918-1979), Exodus II 1966, lithograph. Gift of Kenneth Tyler 2001. Acc: 2002.1.1538. Created at Gemini Limited, Los Angeles, California with master printer Kenneth Tyler.

Introductions and evidence

In 1965 Kenneth Tyler’s first independent print workshop, Gemini Limited, was established in the rear space of a framing workshop in Los Angeles. The printing presses were not yet busy and Tyler, having established his reputation at Tamarind lithography, was looking to attract talented artists to produce editions in this fledgling space. Close friends, such as William Crutchfield were among the first artists to work in the space, along with artists that Tyler had established a bond with from Tamarind Lithography, such as Josef and Anni Albers. To augment this, he set about contacting artists from the Los Angeles scene.

Robert Isaac ‘Beto’ De La Rocha (seated) in a staff photo for Gemini GEL, c. 1968.
Photo by Malcolm Lubliner

It is not clear how the artist Charles White was first invited to work at Gemini. It is possible, however, that in the lead up to opening the print workshop, that Tyler encountered the 1964 exhibition The Art of Charles White: Lithographs, Linocuts and Drawings at Occidental College in Los Angeles. It is also worth speculating that another possible introduction to White’s work may have come from the radical young printing assistant Tyler had hired, Robert Isaac ‘Beto’ De La Rocha. Robert, a talented lithographer and graphic artist, had a ground-breaking artistic practice that sought to reclaim Indigenous cultural traditions in Los Angeles. De La Rocha was soon to become a founding member of ‘Los Four’, a group of Xicano artists known for their murals. He was likely familiar with Charles White, whose own mural practice was informed by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who he lived with in 1946. While there is no evidence that De La Rocha suggested White, the proximity of the two artists and their shared concerns merits attention.

The first years of Gemini Limited have scant documentation, and the two works Charles White produced, Portrait and Exodus II, have limited edition information, and until recently it was not known if any photographs of the artist in the Gemini studio existed. Despite these absences, the two works White produced between May 1966 and May 1967, have a powerful presence. They are simple and refined, drawing on White’s incredible draughtsmanship to present singular figures in moments of contemplation. These two little known works of the Tyler Collection deserve our attention, because despite their simplicity, they reflect significant ideas.

Portrait

The subject for this work has previously been identified as male. It is interesting to note the clearly resolved features of the face dissolve away when the ear and hair are reached. The body and shoulders are not included in this work, with the figure suspended above a dark void that reaches into the lower half of image. This restrained portrait resembles the faces of his 1965 charcoal work Rights Marchers, whose closely cropped faces and anonymity indicate faces pulled at random from a protest crowd. But Portrait is anonymous for different reasons: An examination of Charles White’s artistic output reveals that the subject for this work occurs in his work as early as 1956in Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep, and then is restaged in 1966 for J’Accuse #10 (Negro woman). This portrait is drawn from a photograph. In 1955, Erica Anderson, an Austrian American photographer published a photo essay titled The World of Albert Schweitzer. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York,this book documents the work of German physician and philosopher Albert Schweitzer and his hospital on the banks of the Ogooue River, near Lambaréné, Gabon. On page 38, there is a photo of a woman, presumably a patient of Schweitzer’s hospital, with her hair wrapped in cloth and a beaded necklace around her neck. The identification of this photograph as source material in the recently published Charles White: A retrospective[5] gives us an insight into White’s working methods. Whereas he was certainly familiar working from models as a professor of drawing at Otis University, for his personal practice, he drew on photographs, adapting and reconfiguring them to suit each work of art.

Its use in both Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep (1956) and J’Accuse #10 (Negro woman) (1966), see White adjust the figure’s gaze, drawing her eyes upwards to meet the viewer, and, in a clear sign of White’s mastery of illustration, in Oh, Mary… this portrait is affixed to a body that is presumably drawn from an entirely different photograph, yet has been seamlessly integrated. In continually reusing this photograph, White was clearly drawn to examining a quality this image possessed.  

The front cover of Erica Anderson’s photo essay publication The World of Albert Schweitzer. Published 1955.

From colonial subject to living portrait

Erica Anderson’s original photograph of the unidentified woman is powerful yet problematic. Photography’s close relationship to colonialism, as a tool of documenting, knowing and ‘owning’ the subjects of its intrusive lens has been studied by many contemporary writers. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, in the recently published Potential history: unlearning imperialism, sees the camera as a materialisation of imperialism and colonialism: ‘The pervasiveness of imperial shutters blurs direct responsibility. A woman can be made objectless, undocumented… the shutter commands zero degrees of neutrality’[6]. The woman of Anderson’s photograph is subject to our scrutiny, removed from her context and culture and objectified by the caption written by Eugene Exman: BEAUTY IS SELF-EVIDENT.

Schweitzer’s hospital, where this photograph was taken, was established as a demonstration of his Christian philosophy and despite Schweizer’s many expressions of empathy, this hospital was part of a colonial missionary project. Other photographs in The World of Albert Schweitzer clearly illustrate this. Schweitzer leads a nativity performance with the locals in later pages and his weekly sermons, translated into local languages, are highlighted. Littered throughout the pages of this book are captions by Eugene Exman that make clear the colonial position of the book, with passages that draw up a civilised vs primitive binary between the white hospital staff and the Gabonese patients.

Charles White would have certainly been aware of the dynamics behind this photograph of the unidentified woman. Her refusal to engage with Anderson’s lens, as she casts her eyes downwards gives us a sense of both her strength and vulnerability. Charles White may have been drawn to the fact that her name was omitted, just like the erasure of so many African American historical figures in his early schooling.

In 1965, the year before working at Gemini Limited, Charles White was interviewed by Betty Hoag. He posited that his work boiled down to three primary aims – depicting truth, beauty and dignity. He professed: ‘I can’t do satirical things… I think I have a sense of humour but can’t use this media to do these kinds of things. I have to paint the things I love and respect’[7]. This thought is reflected in the recent observation of Esther Adler, the associate curator of the recent Charles White Retrospective at MoMA, when she observed ‘White’s very real commitment to creating images that were a forceful and visual corrective to centuries of caricature and stereotypes of the black figure’[8] This reverence for the unidentified woman in Erica Anderson’s photograph clearly shows us this artistic philosophy: White, by lovingly depicting her image again and again, adjusting her gaze and putting her into new contexts, brings a new life to her, freeing her from the frozen moment she was subject to Anderson’s interrogating lens.


[1] Charles White Graphic Arts Council lecture. (1971, May 19). Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 12m00s. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/clcmar_000085/clcmar_000085_a_access.mp3

[2] Ibid. 17m25s

[3] Hoag, B. (1965). oral history interview with Charles W. White 1965 March 9. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, New York. Retrieved from https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-charles-w-white-11484#transcript

[4] Ibid. p. 4

[5] Oehler, S. K. & Adler, E. (2018). Charles White: A retrospective. Yale University Press. p. 213

[6] Azoulay, A. (2019). Potential history: unlearning imperialism. Verso books, p. 5

[7] Hoag, B. (1965). oral history interview with Charles W. White 1965 March 9. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, New York. Retrieved from https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-charles-w-white-11484#transcript

[8] Adler, E. (2018). Charles White: Beyond images of dignity. [Conference]. 07m6s. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aSgT3tpMVw

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