A 40-year-old painting on gun violence takes on new meaning

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A 40-year-old painting on gun violence takes on new meaning
A photo provided by the Charles White Archives shows the artist Charles White in 1976. White, who died in 1979 at 61, is recognized widely for his draftsmanship and as an African-American artist who did not get his due during his lifetime. The Charles White Archives via The New York Times.

by Ted Loos

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The marquee evening sales at the big auction houses are exclusive clubs of a sort, filled with works by artists who have already proven their market clout.

Take, for example, the upcoming Nov. 13 evening sale of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s New York.

Francis Bacon’s “Study for Self Portrait” (1979) will be offered with an estimate of $8 million to $12 million right alongside Andy Warhol’s “Muhammad Ali” (1977), estimated at $4 million to $6 million, and Ed Ruscha’s “Hurting the Word Radio #2” (1964), with an eye-popping estimate of $30 million.

Rarefied air, indeed.

But there is also a new member of the club, an artist who has never been included in that evening sale company before: Charles White’s “Banner for Willie J” (1976) will be offered, too, with an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million.

Though painted more than 40 years ago, the picture has resonance today on a few levels — social, artistic and otherwise. White, who died in 1979 at 61 and is now recognized widely for his draftsmanship and as an African American artist who did not get his due during his lifetime, painted it as an ode to his cousin, an innocent bystander who was shot and killed during an armed robbery.

“It was a love letter,” said White’s son, C. Ian White, the director and chief executive of the Charles White Archives.

“Banner for Willie J” is a 1970s riff on portraits of old: Willie is clad in sunglasses and squatting casually, but against a more formal decorative background that includes a golden circle, giving him a saintly cast. A rose is depicted at the top of the painting, which may have symbolized innocence, and at the bottom, the word “BANG” in block letters.

The fact that the picture is in the sale in the first place says a lot about how far White’s reputation has come.

It got a serious boost from the largest-ever retrospective of his work, which began at the Art Institute of Chicago last year and then traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and finished its run over the summer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

White’s previous auction record was just over $500,000 for a charcoal drawing, “O Freedom” (1956), made in 2018 at Swann Auction Galleries in a sale dedicated to African-American art.

“The retrospective really helped put him on the map,” said Alexis Klein, a senior specialist in Christie’s postwar and contemporary department.

“It’s an important moment for him,” Klein said of his inclusion in the evening sale. “This elevates his work in terms of the market. Some of his works on paper have come up over the years, but there hasn’t been a painting of this quality at auction.”

She added, “He deserves to be shown alongside the best artists of the 20th century.”

Of course, White’s work has significance that transcends the marketplace.

Born and raised in Chicago, White was inspired at a young age by illustrators like N.C. Wyeth. He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a year on scholarship, and was then hired by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, as were many artists at the time. He lived in different cities as an adult before landing in Los Angeles later in life, where he taught at the Otis College of Art and Design. One of his students was Kerry James Marshall, now an acclaimed painter who happens to hold an auction record himself, for the most expensive work by a living African-American artist, just over $21 million for “Past Times” (1997).

Though best known for his drawings, White steadily worked on canvasses, too, and kept a separate studio for painting.

“‘Willie J.’ was one of the last paintings that he completed,” said Sarah Kelly Oehler, a curator and co-organizer of “Charles White: A Retrospective” last year at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“It’s a commemorative work, and stylistically it relates to other ’70s paintings like ‘Homage to Sterling Brown,’” Oehler said, referring to White’s 1972 work.

Style aside, the underlying themes resonate, she said.

“It’s very relevant to society today,” Oehler said. “White shows us the challenges we face in terms of social justice and racial equality. His work has a lot to say.”

Given that it honors a victim of gun violence who was related to the artist, she added, “I don’t think anyone can look at this and not be affected.”

That includes the artist’s son.

“I remember this picture being painted as a kid,” recalled C. Ian White, who is an artist himself. “It’s my favorite painting of his. I think it was the aviators,” he said, referring to the sunglasses worn by the figure in the painting. “It was ’70s cool. My father had aviators, too — my dad was a hip guy.”

Asked whether it made him sad as a child, White said, “I sensed seriousness, not sadness.”

In his role running the Charles White Archive, he has assisted and lent to shows like the retrospective as well as “Charles White: Monumental Practice” at David Zwirner Gallery earlier this year.

“The retrospective really reintroduced him to people,” White said, and he made the point that his father was only 61 when he died.

“The problem for all African American artists is longevity,” White said, noting that a long life span allows someone to be fully appreciated. “You have to make it through a certain time frame. He missed the ’80s and multiculturalism.”

He added, “James Baldwin said if you live long enough, they’ll build a sculpture of you.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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