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Sale 2503 Lot 124
"I NEVER FELT SO EXCITED AND ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT JUST BEING ALIVE" (ART.) White, Charles W.; and Frances White. An important archive of letters by the famed artist and his wife. 28 letters, 15 of them Autograph Letters Signed by Charles White, plus 65 photographs and slides; condition generally very strong, with occasional toning and a closed tear in one letter. Pasadena, CA, 1956-60
Estimate $4,000 - 6,000
The renowned artist Charles Wilbert White (1918-1979) was known for murals and large drawings inspired by African-American history and culture. These remarkable letters were written by White and his wife Frances Barrett White (1926-2000) to Melvin and Lorraine Williamson, who like the Whites were an interracial couple. Mel Williamson (1923-1995) was an art director for Viking Press who shared Charles White's Chicago background. The letters begin in October 1956, shortly after the Whites arrived in California, and continue with regular letters through June 1960. Most of the letters are signed "Charles & Fran"; 13 are penned entirely by Charles, 11 by Fran, 2 written jointly, and 2 typed but signed by Fran.
Almost all of the letters discuss Charles's art, from the moment they agreed to buy a house in Pasadena, which has "a large dormer type room which we are going to use as studio till the garage can be done over" (29 October 1956). Many of the early letters seek assistance in getting a shipment of White's prints shipped out from ACA Galleries in New York: "I beg of him, to run as many as he can and send them as fast as possible. I could have sold a couple hundred by now" (3 February 1957). The 5 May 1957 letter tells the harrowing saga of transporting a 40 x 60-inch drawing on the roof of their compact car in a rainstorm. Fran notes on 24 July 1959 that "Charles has been working on several new projects a la Calif. culture--one with an outstanding landscape artist, designing patio and pool designs, actually screen dividers . . . experimenting with brightly colored African folk art themes." She also announces his upcoming "one man show at the Pacific Town Club, leading men 'folks' private club in LA." On 17 September, Charles reported on this show, which was "sponsored by and presented by 'folks.' And man, it was a real gasser. A real high-light in my career."
Even if in some alternate universe White was completely forgotten as an artist today, these letters would still be an important and interesting--for White's leftist politics, their documentation of an interracial marriage, and for their first-name-basis discussion of White's many famous friends, such as Sidney (Poitier), Lorraine (Hansberry), Harry (Belafonte), Sammy (Davis), and Langston (Hughes). In keeping with the spirit of the 1950s, mind-boggling numbers of martinis are consumed. On 18 January 1959, Charles discusses a new play in production, having possibly never seen its name in writing: "Sidney bought one of my drawings. . . Sidney is doing, as you probably know, Lorraine Hansberry's play Rising in the Sun. I truly hope it's a smash hit because of the people involved" (18 January 1959). He added on 29 April 1959 that "It must all seem a little unreal and fantastic to Lorraine to be almost overnight thrown into the glamorous spotlight of a national celebrity. We sent a letter of congratulations to her and Sidney." The rest of the letter is quite a masterpiece, not only for its early "Black Panther" sighting: "When the academy chickened out on giving the acting award to Sidney, I immediately secured a black hair from a monkey tail, a black snake's left eye tooth, and the juice of a black gaiter breast, wrapped in the skin of a black goat that had been soaked for 40 days and 40 nights in the urine of a three-toed cross-eyed black panther, then chanted the sacred words known only to the seventh son of a seventh son of a black-blooded descendant of a Waturi chief, and rushed over to the academy and buried it under their front door step. The Black Pox is on them, their days are numbered. And come 1963 the black folks of the world will bestow on Sidney & Ruby Dee the Black Oscars."
More seriously, the Whites were deeply interested in American and world politics. On 25 February 1957 he wrote: "Well, folks are still moving with the power of de Lord. How about So. Africa putting down a fine bus strike? And Rev. King on the cover of Time Magazine. . . . I never felt so excited and enthusiastic about just being alive. And I think this feeling is being carried over into my work." He expressed delight with "The Book of Negro Folklore" by Langston Hughes, ranking it as among "my most cherished books" alongside "the volumes of Fred Douglas, Mao Se Tung, and the letters of Kathe Kolwitz" (18 January 1959). The 15 February 1959 letter is headed "HAPPY NEGRO HISTORY WEEK, FOLKS." On 25 March 1960, ten days after the Atlanta Student Movement launched its sit-in campaign, he writes sarcastically "Mister Charlie is much perplexed and vexed, trying to find some way to deal with these 'crazy' Negroes. They don't seem to be afraid of jail, clubs, guns, or nothing. They must be crazy to face all this just for civil rights, freedom, and human dignity."
Giving visual focus to this collection are 53 snapshot photographs sent by the Whites, 1957-61 and undated, along with 3 sleeves of negatives. Several show White's studio, or his most recent works in progress; many are captioned on verso with notes such as "Drawing on the board is part of three I'm doing for Max Youngstein." Others simply document their new suburban life in Pasadena. Also included are 4 brochures for White's 1958 ACA Gallery exhibition, and a box of 12 color slides dated December 1960. One of the slides shows White on his knees in his home studio, inking the linoleum block for his print "Solid as a Rock"--see Swann's 4 October 2018 African-American Fine Art catalogue, lot 46, for an image from the slide and the resulting print. More notes on the remarkable correspondence are available upon request.