Charles White - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • A manifestation of Charles White’s lifelong commitment to the visual representation of Black history and life, Roots, 1963, is a poignant meditation on the African American experience and represents the same core principles that underscored White’s public art projects. Indelibly influenced by the work of the Mexican muralists—both formally and in their exploitation of art’s capability to communicate political injustices—the artist famously painted several Works Progress Administration (WPA)-sponsored murals across the nation portraying both the inhumane struggles and invaluable societal contributions of African Americans. While aspects of his visual language evolved over his lifetime, his career-long commitment to figurative renderings of Black existence was celebrated in a major travelling retrospective last year at the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

    "He is a true master of pictorial art, and nobody else has drawn the black body with more elegance and authority. No other artist has inspired my own devotion to a career in image making more than he did."
    — Kerry James Marshall

    The Founding Father of Post-War Figuration


    Executed during a decade defined by the civil rights movement and national unrest, Roots is imbued with not only struggle but also hope. A woman is depicted holding a large bale of hay above her head, a physical hardship that she carries with remarkable dignity and strength. During the same year of the work’s creation, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington D.C.; later that year, White and his wife adopted their first child and immediately fell in love with parenthood. 



    The resilience that the subject of Roots embodies is a product of both White’s life and the historical moment in which it was executed as well as the influence of his artistic forebearers. White’s representation of the Black struggle coalesces his scholarly comprehension of Western art history—he most frequently spoke of his study of El Greco—with his dedication to the majestic representation of African Americans. Indeed, the work shares a formal affinity with the Old Master’s The Vision of Saint John, 1608-1614, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in which the souls of martyrs call out to God, asking for justice for the persecution they have survived on Earth and receiving the white robes of salvation. 


    El Greco, The Vision of Saint John, circa 1608-1614. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, mage copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
    El Greco, The Vision of Saint John, circa 1608-1614. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, mage copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

    This socially-committed appropriation of Renaissance imagery for his time impacted the work of one of his students to such a degree that is impossible to overstate: that of Kerry James Marshall, whose depictions of black life are replete with references to the Old Masters. “Charles White kept common cause with the great masters of art history,” Marshall espoused, “holding up his end and passing the torch to the generations that followed him.”i 


    Leading in a New Era


    The present lot installed in Three Graphic Artists, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, January 26, 1971 – March 7, 1971.
    The present lot installed in Three Graphic Artists, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, January 26, 1971 – March 7, 1971.

    Through his relentless dedication to figurative depictions of African Americans during the height of apolitical post-war abstraction, White acted as a sort of paternal figure to the next generation of black artists, many of whom were his students. He was a devoted instructor throughout his entire life, but his longest tenure was at the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), where he taught drawing and was an invaluable mentor to numerous leading contemporary artists, such as Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons, both of which have repeatedly acknowledged White’s formidable influence on their oeuvres. The founding father of post-war Black figuration, White championed African American history and life and inspired entire generations to fearlessly explore their pasts, identities, and experiences.


    In fact, White has been institutionally recognized as a veteran leader of Black representation for a half-century: in 1968, two art handlers at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art founded the Black Arts Council (BAC) and campaigned for the museum’s deeper engagement with both African American artists and Black visitors. In 1971, their early efforts culminated in the landmark exhibition Three Graphic Artists, which installed some of White’s highly influential drawings—including Roots—alongside the work of younger artists Hammons and Timothy Washington. Receiving a full-room exploration in the Los Angeles leg of the 2019 exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 at the Broad, this show is today considered to be one of the most pivotal moments in Black representation in American institutions of the 20th century.


    The Temple to Charles White


    Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, circa 1510-1511. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, [right] Detail of the present lot.
    [left] Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, circa 1510-1511. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, [right] Detail of the present lot.

    Roots arrives at auction from the prestigious collection of Payson and Helen Wolff in Los Angeles. After Payson Wolff finished law school at Yale in 1954, he clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren of the US Supreme Court.  Wolff worked on the opinion for what is known as Brown vs. Board of Education II, the decision that ordered enforcement of the first Brown vs. Board of Education decision from a year earlier.  Because states were slow to enforce the landmark decision outlawing segregation, the Warren opinion in the second case ordered states to begin the process of desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”  


    Both Payson and Helen remained champions of the civil rights movement for the rest of their lives.  Payson Wolff then spent the rest of his career at Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown in Los Angeles, representing clients such as Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe, as well as Motown Records.  His wife Helen went to medical school in the 1940s, as one of only two women in her class, and after struggling to be accepted as a female doctor, went on to a long career as a psychiatrist. 


    Over a period of 15-20 years, starting in the 1960s, the couple bought over a dozen works by Charles White, likely all from the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles who represented the artist and later his estate.  All of these works had pride of place in the family home and one of their children describes it as a “temple to Charles White.” They acquired Roots around the time it was included in his 1965 solo exhibition at ACA Gallery, many works from which are now held in notable museum collections, such as Birmingham Totem, 1964, High Museum of Art, Atlanta and In Memorium, 1965, Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles. The family understood Roots to be the great work in the collection, and the family loaned the work to several subsequent exhibitions, recognizing the importance the work plays in White’s oeuvre.


    Cut from the Archives



    i Kerry James Marshall, “A Black Artist Named White,” Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, pp. 15-19.

    • Provenance

      Heritage Gallery, Los Angeles
      Payson and Helen Wolff, Los Angeles (acquired from the above circa 1965)
      Thence by descent to the present owners

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, University of Judaism, The Art of Charles White: Lithographs, Linocuts and Drawings, March 22 - April 3, 1964
      New York, American Contemporary Art Gallery, Charles White, May 17 - June 5, 1965, n.p.
      Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington, January 26 - April 18, 1971, no. 1, p. 14
      Atlanta, High Museum of Art; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts; Chattanooga, Hunter Museum of Art; West Palm Beach, Art Museum of the Palm Beaches, Inc.; Little Rock, Arkansas Arts Center, The Work of Charles White: An American Experience, September 4, 1976 - August 14, 1977, p. 21 (illustrated, p. 20)
      Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, NCA Honors Ten African American Artists, March 14 - April 6, 1980

    • Artist Biography

      Charles White

      Charles White’s aspirational artworks chronicled the African American experience during the 20th century. White’s work depicted American American life during the Civil Rights Struggle; he believed that art occupied a central position in the movement and worked to advance its ideals. He was particularly renowned for his use of printmaking and murals to reach a wider audience. White created what he called “images of dignity,” uplifting the African American community and making its history and struggles visible. 

      White was born in Chicago in 1918 and attended the Art Institute of Chicago despite being rejected from several other art schools on the basis of his race. In addition to his work as a painter, White was also a gifted teacher and a leader in his community. After moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, he took up a position teaching at the Otis Art Institute, where David Hammons, and Kerry James Marshall were among his students. Considered one of the leading figures of post-war black figuration, his oeuvre was celebrated in a major travelling retrospective in 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and The Art Institute of Chicago. 

      View More Works

Property from the Family Collection of Payson and Helen Wolff



signed and dated "CHARLES WHITE '63" lower right
ink on board
37 x 54 in. (94 x 137.2 cm)
Executed in 1963.

Full Cataloguing

$500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for $877,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278 


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020