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Charles Alston (1907-1977)


3 of 8

Portrait of a Man, 1929
pastel and graphite on paper
24" x 19" sheet size / 21 1/2" x 16 3/4" sight size
signed and dated

 

Vaudeville, c.1930
watercolor on paper
20" x 14 1/2" (sheet size)
15 3/4" x 12 3/4" (sight size), signed

Magic in Medicine: Study for Harlem Hospital Mural, NYC, 1936
graphite on paper
16 3/4 x 13 1/2 inches (sheet size)
14 3/4 x 12 1/8 inches (sight size), signed

Modern Medicine: Study for Harlem Hospital Mural, NYC, 1936
graphite on paper
16 3/4 x 13 1/2 inches (sheet size)
14 3/4 x 12 1/8 inches (sight size), signed

Ruin, 1941
oil on canvas
20" x 25", signed and dated
 

Untitled, c.1952
oil on canvas
36" x 28", signed

Troubadour, c.1955
oil on canvas
40 x 30 inches, signed

 

Untitled, c.1959
oil on canvas
27 3/4" x 50"


Exhibitions


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Artist Information

“I’m intensely interested in space, form, color, the things that challenge all contemporary artists.  It would be wonderful if I could just sit back and do it esthetically.  But, I have to react to the other thing.  I’m part of it, I have no choice.  I think I’ve gotten to the point where it isn’t satisfying to do another handsome, decorative abstraction.  Painting has become so impersonal.  I have a need to relate to humanity in a more direct way.”[1]

Charles Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1907 to the Reverend Primus Priss Alston and Anna Elizabeth Miller Alston. Alston’s father, who nicknamed him Spinky, died when Alston was three. His mother subsequently married Harry Bearden, uncle of Romare Bearden. In 1915, the family moved to Harlem, but Alston continued to spend summers in North Carolina until he was fifteen. As a teenager, Alston painted and sculpted from life, mastering an academic-realist style, and in 1925, he was offered a scholarship to the Yale School of Fine Arts but decided to attend Columbia University instead. Alston received his BA with a concentration in fine arts in 1929 and continued on for a master’s degree at Columbia University Teachers College, where he became increasingly interested in African art and aesthetics. While in graduate school, Alston taught at the Utopia Children’s House, where he became mentor to a young Jacob Lawrence. He received his MA in 1931.

Having finished graduate school in the midst of the Great Depression, Alston remained in Harlem, one of the city’s hardest-hit communities. in 1934, he co-founded the Harlem Art Workshop. When the Workshop needed more space soon after, he found it at 306 West 141st Street. Aided by funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), “306” (as it was known) became a center for the most creative minds in Harlem. Regulars included Bearden, Lawrence, Augusta Savage, Richard Wright, Robert Blackburn, Countee Cullen, Ralph Ellison, and Gwendolyn Knight. In 1935, Alston became the first black supervisor in the Federal Art Project when he was assigned to direct the WPA’s Harlem Hospital murals. The paintings he designed—influenced by the work of Mexican muralists, jazz music, and the prevailing social realism of the 1930s—were approved by the Federal Art Project but rejected by the hospital’s administration for what they saw as an excess of subject matter relating to African Americans. After protests and extensive press coverage, the muralists were allowed to proceed. In 1936, two of the works were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). Two Rosenwald Fellowships at the end of the decade enabled Alston to travel throughout the south and to work with Hale Woodruff at Atlanta University. During World War II, Alston worked as an artist for the Office of War Information, served in the US Army, and was also a member of the board of directors for the National Mural Society. In 1944, he attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for a year, and in 1949, he and Woodruff created murals for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building in Los Angeles. Entitled Negro in California History, the project comprised two works—Exploration and Colonization (1537-1850) by Alston and Settlement and Development (1850-1949) by Woodruff.

 

Alston began creating abstract paintings in the 1950s, but he never abandoned figural representation. Instead, he would shift between the two modes of painting, depending on what he believed was best for a given subject. In 1950, he entered one of his new, abstract works in the competitive exhibition American Painting Today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It won the purchase prize, and the museum acquired it. Many of Alston’s abstract works from this decade were inspired by African art, but unlike several of his his abstract expressionist contemporaries whose passion for American Indian, Pacific, and African art was connected to a modernist search for an imagined “primitive” impulse, Alston’s paintings were created through an intimate knowledge of African aesthetics. In Alston’s work, the African influence is part of a dialogue between past and present, one that finds modernism in tradition and vice-versa.

From his early days at the Utopia Children’s House in 1930 until his death in 1977, Alston remained an influential teacher and a committed activist. He taught at the Art Students League, MoMA, and City College. In 1963, he co-founded the Spiral Group (along with Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff, and others), which sought to contribute to the Civil Rights movement through the visual arts in part by increasing gallery and museum representation for black artists. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Alston as a trustee of the Kennedy Center, and in 1970, Alston became a member of the New York City Arts Commission. In 1975, Columbia University Teacher’s College, which once barred Alston from a required life-drawing course because the models were white, honored him with its first Distinguished Alumni Award.



[1] Grace Glueck, “Art Notes: ‘The Best Painter I Can Possibly Be,’” New York Times, Dec. 8, 1968.

 

SELECTED MUSEUM COLLECTIONS

Butler Art Institute, Youngstown, OH
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Howard University, Washington, DC
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, NY
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Abraham Lincoln High School, New York, NY
City College, New York, NY
Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Corporation
Harriet Tubman Junior High School, NY
Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
Women’s Pavilion, Harlem Hospital, New York, NY

1953
John Heller Gallery, New York, NY;1955;1958

1960
Feingarten Gallery, New York, NY

1962
Dunbarten Gallery, Boston, MA

1968-69
Farleigh Dickinson Gallery of Modern Art, NY

1979
Randall Galleries,Ltd., New York, NY;1983

1990
Kenkeleba Gallery, New York, NY
 

1940
Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro (1851-1940), Tanner Art Galleries, Chicago, IL; traveled to Library of Congress, Washington, DC

1950
American Painting Today,1950, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

1968
Gallery of Modern Art, New York, NY

1972
Atlanta University Center, GA

1975
Art Students League, New York, NY

1978
New York/Chicago: WPA and the Black Artist, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY

1994 
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

1995
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, II, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA

1996
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, III, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

1997
Revisiting American Art: Works from the Collections of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, IV, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, TN

1998 
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, V, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; The Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA

1999
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VI, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI

2000 
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VII, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, FL

2001
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VIII, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Texas Southern University Museum, Houston, TX

2002 
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, IX, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

2003
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, X, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

2004
Embracing the Muse: Africa and African American Art, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

2005     
Syncopated Rhythms: 20th Century African American Art from the George and Joyce Wein Collection, Boston University Art Gallery, Boston, MA

2006
Building Community: The African American Scene, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY, January 13-March 11, 2006

2007
Decoding Myth:  African American Abstraction, 1945-1975, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY
For the People: American Mural Drawings of the 1930s and 1940s, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

2008
African American Art:  200 Years, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

2009
Harlem Renaissance, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK
A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, The Spertus Museum, Chicago, IL; Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, PA; Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ
Abstract Expressionism: Further Evidence (Part One: Painting), Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY
Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis, El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY
Highlights from John and Vivien Hewitt Collection of African American Art, Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture, Charlotte, NC

2010
Translating Revolution: U.S. Artists Interpret Mexican Muralism, National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL

2011
Abstract Expressionism: Reloading the Canon, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

2013
Abstract Expressionism / In Context: Seymour Lipton, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

2014
Witness:  Art and Civil Rights in The Sixties, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY,; Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH; The Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX
Beyond the Spectrum: Abstraction in African American Art, 1950-1975, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
RISING UP/UPRISING: Twentieth Century African American Art, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

2015
Collectors Legacy: Selections from the Sandra Lloyd Baccus Collection, The David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD

2017
Constructing Identity: Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art, Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR