In May, “Past Times” — a painting by Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall that had hung in a hallway at McCormick Place for nearly 20 years — was sold at a New York auction for a dazzling $21.1 million, a record for a living African-American artist.

It’s against this backdrop of surging — some would say overdue — attention to African-American art that the Art Institute of Chicago is presenting a touring retrospective devoted to artist Charles White (1918-1979), which opened Friday and runs through Sept. 3.

‘Charles White: A Retrospective’
When: June 8-Sept. 3
Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan
Tickets: Free with regular admission
Info: artic.edu

White was a Chicago native who was part of the city’s Black Renaissance of the 1930s and ‘40s and later lived in New York and Los Angeles. His work was exhibited extensively during his lifetime. But he has remained under-recognized, not receiving the wide acclaim given fellow black artists such as Aaron Douglas or Jacob Lawrence.

Artist Charles White in 1976.

Artist Charles White in 1976. | Sun-Times files

“There’s never been a point when there has not been appreciation for Charles White, but it’s only been recently that there has been a broadening mainstream appreciation of him,” says the Art Institute’s Sarah Kelly Oehler, one of the exhibition’s co-curators. “I think he was, by far, one of the most talented artists of the 20th century. Period.”

Oehler cites several reasons for White’s under-recognition, starting with his skin color. At the same time, he was a figurative artist even after the stylistic tide in the art world in the 1950s had turned toward abstraction.

“For much of the 20th century,” Oehler says, “there has been an emphasis on abstraction, on works of art that do not carry a social message. And his always carry a social message.”

"Our Land" by Charles White, 1951.

“Our Land” by Charles White, 1951. | Private collection. © The Charles White Archives Inc.

It also didn’t help that White spent much of his career outside of New York City, which dominated American art in the 20th century, or that he was a committed leftist, contributing illustrations to socialist and Marxist publications beginning in the mid-1940s and traveling to the Soviet Union in 1951.

But enough time has passed for a fresh reassessment. This exhibition, which marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, is the first major retrospective of his work since 1982 and by far the most comprehensive.

“His art is tremendous,” Oehler says, “and it is clearly just an oversight that such a show had never been done before by any institution.”

She classifies White among the social realists — artists in the 1930s and ‘40s who were intent on offering critiques of the American scene, especially economic inequalities. He later turned to other causes, like the Civil Rights Movement.

“There is always this message about the representation of African-American history and African-American people as full citizens in a United States that was still very much not willing to cede that full citizenship to black people,” Oehler says.

Influenced by cubism and Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, White’s early figurative style of the 1930s and ‘40s was angular and stylized like some other artists in Chicago at the time.

“He’s never an abstract artist, but he’s thinking about a modernist vocabulary,” Oehler says.

Around 1950, he switched to a more naturalistic approach.

White was best known as a draftsman, but this show also includes 18 of his photographs and 17 paintings. The Art Institute has more than 50 of White’s works in its collection, including a recent acquisition of original prints, and 15 of these are on view. The rest of the approximately 100 pieces are from collections across the country.

Oehler points to three selections she thinks are especially significant:

• “There Were No Crops This Year” (1940), graphite on paper. “From the Chicago period, this key work won him awards at the time and brought him to national prominence. This is a great example of his successful abilities as a draftsman to convey meaning and emotion.”

• “Soldier” (1944), tempera on Masonite (part of a series on the participation of African-Americans in the war effort). “This really does show his ‘angular,’ stylized style. It also shows that he was a painter, too.”

• “Trenton Six” (1949), ink over graphite on paperboard (a widely reproduced depiction of six African-American defendants who many believed were wrongly convicted of killing a white shopkeeper in Trenton, N.J.) “It’s a major political work and demonstrates how he thought his art could function in these public, very visible ways. It’s very current.”

In an essay in the show’s catalogue, Marshall writes passionately of White, who was an important mentor to him.

“He is a true master of pictorial art,” he writes, “and no one else has drawn the black body with more elegance and authority.”

Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.

"Trenton Six" by Charles White, 1949.

“Trenton Six” by Charles White, 1949. | Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. © The Charles White Archives Inc.