The chronological exhibition at MoMA is the first retrospective of White’s work in three decades. Containing about 100 paintings, drawings, prints, and ephemera, it collectively tells the story of how he used figurative art as a sociopolitical response to the tumultuous events and cultural episodes of twenty-first century America.

By the time White graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1939, he was active with a community of artists, writers, and poets devoted to improving the lives of African Americans. Recognizing the “function of art in advancing the cause of the Negro people,” White wanted to make his work available to the largest possible audience. He painted murals and interfaced with popular media, book and album covers, as well as television and film appearances. White’s biggest legacy is his reverence for learning and dedication to teaching. White joined the faculty at Otis College of Art in 1965 and remained until his death. Enormously influential there, he volunteered in a program for middle and high school students, through which he inspired a young Kerry James Marshall in his artistic enterprise. White described education as “a beautiful, reciprocal kind of relationship, one in which both teacher and student grow as a result of the mutual contact.” He challenged young artists to find their own voices and draw on their personal experiences while also taking risks and challenging the accepted idols. As a successful professional with a history of completed projects and exhibitions, White became a mentor figure for the relatively few students of color at Otis. He was proof that an artistic career was possible for them.  —David Molesky

Charles White: A Retrospective rurs through January 19, 2019.