Charles Alston - Modern & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, May 15, 2024 | Phillips
  • Rendered in swirling shades of black and white, Charles Alston’s Black and White #7, 1961, showcases Alston’s signature mode of gestural abstraction. Inspired by the social justice murals of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, and having gotten his start as one of the only African American supervisors of a WPA project at Harlem Hospital in the 1930s, Alston was deeply rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, exploring themes of inequality and race relations in a variety of ways throughout his works.  One of a series of eight paintings created between 1959 and 1961, the present work has been exhibited in numerous major exhibitions, the first of which was the historic, first and only documented show put on by the Spiral group in May 1964. One of the first Black artists to have work exhibited in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Alston has works today in the prominent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., and the Detroit Institute of Art.

    “I don’t think the standards are black, white, green or whatnot. The thing that makes an African mask great is the thing that makes a great painting by Rembrandt great, really essentially, you know?”
    —Charles Alston

    Born in Charlotte and educated at Columbia University, Alston formed Spiral with artists such as Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, and his cousin Romare Bearden. Their aim was simple: to form a collective for African American artists to discuss the Civil Rights Movement and how they fit in as artists to the shifting political and cultural landscape of mid-century America. Described by Bearden, Alston was “one of the most versatile artists whose enormous skill led him to a diversity of styles… and a voice in the development of African American art who never doubted the excellence of all people's sensitivity and creative ability. During his long professional career, Alston significantly enriched the cultural life of Harlem. In a profound sense, he was a man who built bridges between Black artists in varying fields, and between other Americans.”i  For the collective’s single documented show at the Christopher Street Gallery in New York in 1964, in which the present work was included, there was just one guiding principle: submitted works were restricted to a palette of black and white.


    Using a muted, color-blind palette with limited tones of blacks, whites and grays, Black and White #7, like many of Alston’s works, is racially charged, intended to provide a social commentary on the tumultuous moment in which he lived. Hinting at the tension of 1960s America, the black and white tones of the present work struggle around one another, twisting to get out of the other’s reach. Blurring the ends of each hue, each color melts into one another, lacking a distinction between beginning and end. As such, Black and White #7 transposes the inner turmoil felt by Alston and other African Americans during this period onto the canvas, creating a painting which is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.


    i  Romare Bearden, quoted in Pierce Lemoine, “Charles Alston – An Appreciation,” The International Review of African American Art, Santa Monica, 2004, pp. 33–38.

    • Provenance

      Estate of the Artist
      Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Christopher Street Gallery, Spiral, First Group Showing, May 14–June 4, 1964
      New York, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, African American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, November 18, 1993–February 12, 1994, p. 32
      New York, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery; Long Beach Museum of Art, Exultations: 20th Century Masterworks by African-American Artists, February 1–August 20, 1995
      New York, The Studio Museum, Spiral: Perspectives on an African-American Art Collective, July 14–October 23, 2011, pp. 8, 19 (illustrated, p. 8)
      New York, Brooklyn Museum; Hanover, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College; Austin, The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, March 7, 2014–May 10, 2015, fig. 4, pp. 13, 16–17, 141 (illustrated, p. 16)
      Detroit Institute of Arts, Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement, July 23–October 22, 2017, pp. 33, 71 (illustrated, p. 33)
      San Francisco, de Young Museum; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963–1983, November 9, 2019–August 30, 2020

    • Literature

      Martha Schwendener, “Spiral and the ‘60s,” Village Voice, July 27, 2011, online
      Paul Mullan, “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties,” Red Wedge Magazine, April 24, 2015, online (illustrated)
      Valerie J. Mercer, "Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement," CAA Reviews, October 10, 2018, online

    • Artist Biography

      Charles Alston

      American • 1907 - 1977

      Harlem Renaissance artist Charles Alston has become known as a trailblazing artist who defied conventions and paved the way for greater recognition of African American artists. In 1935, having founded the Harlem Artist's Guild, he became the first African-American supervisor to work for the WPA's Federal Art Project (FAP) in New York. He was the first black instructor at both the Arts Student League and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1959 and 1956 respectively. In 1968, he received a presidential appointment from Lyndon Johnson to the National Council of Culture and the Arts. A year later, he was appointed to the New York City Art Commission. In 1990, Alston's portrait sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. became the first image of an African American displayed at the White House.

      Alston left an important mark on art history, equally as artist, arts educator and activist who notably served as a central influence on Jacob Lawrence. Refusing to adhere to any stylistic conventions, Alston pursued both figurative and abstract painting simultaneously. After making a name for himself with his portraits and large-scale murals in the 1940s, Alston became known for his socio-politically charged artworks responding to the Civil Rights era that explored themes such as inequality and race relations in the United States. Along with Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff, Alston co-founded the collective Spiral in 1963 for artists "who addressed how Black artists should relate to American society in time of segregation."

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Black and White #7

signed "Alston" upper right
oil on canvas
45 x 54 in. (114.3 x 137.2 cm)
Painted in 1961.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for $215,900

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan
NY Head of Auctions and Specialist, Head of Sale, Morning Session
212 940 1288

Modern & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 15 May 2024