CHARLES WHITE (1918-79) is one of the few American artists who, during the last quarter century of experimentation in painting, has remained comfortable in the camp of realism. The result is a remarkable body of work that is timeless and universal in form and style, yet speaks directly to the black American experience. White is preoccupied with the African-American personality as a subject, and he made history come alive by showing its effects on the individual. But this does not limit his art to the black race. One time he was asked why he always painted black people, and he replied: ``I am a Negro in America. I relate to images that are meaningful to me, images that are closest to me. I use that as a springboard to deal with broader and more all-encompassing issues. I relate to images that have broader symbolic meaning, in spite of the fact that the image may be black.''
Thus, the people he portrays in black skin - for instance, the farmers and field hands of the Mississippi Delta - represent the workers of all races. Most important, his women represent the mothers of homeless children around the world, particularly those who are hungry for the loving comfort of the human spirit. Indeed, his images of children often evoke memories of his own relatively deprived childhood in the city of Chicago.
Despite the artist's interest in the dispossessed, these beautifully articulated graphic statements highlight the emotions and dignity of his subjects, rather than propagandizing their social plight. He felt a close relationship with black artists in other media: He felt that writers like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright were in many ways doing the same thing in their art as he was in his.
As late as the 1950s, there were times when, as a black man, he would not be permitted to enter a gallery where his works were being exhibited. Chicago was one of the few places where blacks had been able to attend art school since the early part of the century; still, twice as a young man he entered competitions for scholarships there, and won, only to be told when he arrived to receive the award that a mistake had been made.
He had a better experience in 1936-37, however, while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was befriended by a number of professors and students. In any case, he always said he couldn't allow prejudice to get in the way of his artistry, and that that was the language in which he had to speak, not through anger.
A stint as artist-in-residence at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1945 was followed by travel and study in Mexico in 1947. There, while studying lithography at the Taller de Gr'afica Popular in Mexico City, he met artists David Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. He admired the modern Mexican artists and felt a strong kinship with the people he met. In Mexico, after seeing the works of Rivera and Siqueiros, he decided to focus on the human figure, a theme that was to preoccupy him for the next 30 years.
Initially in his career, his work was rejected, but in 1952 the National Institute of Arts and Letters cited White as a major American artist, and international recognition followed. His art was then greatly sought after, and he was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, among others. He received many awards, including a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1955, an award and exhibit from the National Academy of Design in New York in 1971 and '72, and a Gold Medal from International Grafik, Berlin, in 1977.
White enjoyed the accolades of international art circles around the world, and was invited to exhibit by the International Buchkunst, Leipzig, 1959, and Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia in 1967. He was honored posthumously at the White House by Jimmy Carter in 1980. And his work is included in many collections, including the Whitney, the Library of Congress, the Hirshhorn, the Newark Museum, and the Oakland Art Museum, as well as in private collections.
BUT none of the accolades that White received overshadowed his concern for people around the world who are living in poverty. The 1968 suite of charcoal and mixed-media drawings called the ``Wanted Poster Series'' expressed his sensitivity to the misfortunes of others. The themes of this series of drawings are slavery, segregation, and man's inhumanity to man - subjects inspired by the struggle for black equality led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate this week. But White's frame of reference was almost always historical. In these posters, he was saying that segregation was the new form of slavery.
The ``Wanted Poster Series'' depicts black men, women, and children burst- ing from the American flag and the flag of the Confederacy. Words and phrases from the Constitution are printed and stenciled onto the background, as if these works were executed on old Civil War posters. The posters are named to echo the prophetic sermons of Dr. King, with titles such as ``I have a Dream: I Have Seen Black Hands.''
White always considered himself to be up front in the matter of civil rights. He was involved as a speaker at colleges and universities, and often made contributions of his art to civil rights causes.
In 1956, he relocated to California. When I visited him in 1969, he was living on a hill overlooking the city of Pasadena. He told me that when he had bought this property, he didn't know that it was the place where John Brown's son settled when he moved to California after his father's execution. He said, ``Driskell, this place is hallowed ground,'' adding that it was ironic that he was living on this property. He had done a lithograph of John Brown in 1947, and he saw his descendants as part of a continuum in the civil rights struggle.
HIS main concern was for man's inhumanity to man. On another visit, in the early '70s, he presented me with a book on the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. This book described the horror of that incident, and he said that our sufferings as a people were minimal in comparison with the sufferings of some other people, even in the modern world. Even in our suffering, he said, we had so much to be thankful for. That is the kind of man he was.
He had a great sense of humor and was always sending me little notes, often with something kind of comical he had clipped out of the paper. He believed in being able to laugh about things. Once he sent me a clipping about the riots in Detroit in 1967. The clipping told about one woman who had broken into a store and was carefully weighing beans to take home to her family. He thought this was funny, that she wanted to be exact. He liked little things like that.
An unusual work, for him, was this color lithograph entitled ``The Prophet, No. 1,'' done in 1975-76. There are no compelling symbols to move the viewer across the axis of the composition to ensure classical balance. The prophet, the dominant theme in the composition, is depicted as a common man clad in a simple robe. He gazes both upward and outward toward a red rose, which seems to be suspended in time and space. The fervent gaze says all that needs to be said about the quiet dignity of a prophet, the seer for his people. On the cross-hatched walls in the background, four eyes stare out at the viewer. Once, at one of his lectures, White was asked about the eyes; he said that they were there because the prophet sees more than the rest of us. I am convinced that this work, one of his last prints, had a special meaning for him. On a visit, he told me he especially wanted me to have this print. It is unusual for White in its mystical feel; it seems to me that this was another direction that he was just beginning to take.
White's intention in art was to portray the life style of his people with symbols that were both recognizable and visually relevant. Hence, his art is immediately understandable to all, even though his work centers on the black experience.
Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he recognized the goodness that lies within the reach of all people. His work continually asserts the dignity and humanity of man, even when the subject is our daily experiences.
David C. Driskell, a noted authority on black American art, is professor of art at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is known for his landmark exhibition and book, ``Two Centuries of Black American Art'' produced for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. He has organized numerous exhibitions since then.