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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Charles Alston

Golden State Mural, Exploration and Colonization,
late 1940s, Charles Alston
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
ca. 1963, Charles Alston
If you could somehow gain entrance to visit the Oval Office of the President of the United States today, you would see two bronze busts, each about a foot tall, sitting atop pedestals on either side of the fireplace. They are on loan from the Smithsonian Institute. The one on the right is of Abraham Lincoln. The one on the left bears the likeness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. cast sometime around 1963 (left). In 1990 it became the first image of an African-American to be displayed in the White House. President Obama had it moved to his office in 2009. The sculptor was Charles Henry Alston.

Romare Bearden
Charles Alston was born in 1907. His father was a Charlotte, North Carolina, minister born in slavery in 1851. Charles was the youngest of four surviving children (a brother having died in child-hood). His father called him "Spinky," as a toddler--a nickname he retained all his life. In 1910, his father died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Charles was three years old at the time. Three years later, Anna Alston married Harry Bearden. Through their marriage, the future artist, Romare Bearden (right), became Charles’ cousin. The two families lived across the street from each other. Alston claims to have taught his cousin to paint. Whether true or not, the friendship between the two boys would last a lifetime. As a child Alston was inspired by his older brother's drawings, which young Charles copied. He also played with clay. The White House sculpture, done first in clay, was the artist's favorite medium of expression. As an adult, Charles recalled getting whole bucketsful with which to make things. One could hardly imagine a less expensive art medium. His mother was a skilled embroiderer who later took up painting at the age of 75. His new stepfather was also good at drawing.

Charles Henry Alston--painter, sculptor, social activist.
In 1915 Henry Bearden moved his family to New York, as many African-American families did during the Great Migration. Alston's stepfather, was able to secure a job overseeing elevator operations and the newsstand at the Bretton Hotel in Manhattan's Upper West Side. The family lived in Harlem and were considered middle-class. During the Great Depression, the people of Harlem suffered economically, whereby the "stoic strength" seen within the community was later expressed in Charles’ art. In school, the boy's talent was recognized as he was asked to draw all the school posters. In High school, he was the art editor of the school's magazine, The Magpie.

Stud Poker, 1935-43, Charles Alston
Alston began college studying to be an architect, but lost enthusiasm for the career in seeing how few black men were able to work successfully in the field. After also experimenting with pre-med, Alston decided that math, physics, and chemistry were likewise not his "bag." As something of a last resort, Alston entered the fine arts program at Columbia University where he worked on the university's Columbia Daily Spectator and drew cartoons for Jester, the school's humor magazine. He also hung out in Harlem nightclubs, where his love for jazz and black music came to light. In 1929 Charles Alston graduated and received a scholarship to study at Teachers College. There he obtained his Master's Degree in 1931. While obtaining his master's degree, Alston was the boys’ work director at the Utopia Children's House. Around the same time, he also began teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center. While there, Alston began to teach the 10-year-old Jacob Lawrence, whom he strongly influenced. Like Romare Bearden, Lawrence became an important second generation African-American artist rising from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and 40s.

Fostering black pride to help win the war.
During the 1930s and early 1940s, Alston created illustrations for magazines such as Fortune, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, Melody Maker, and others. He also designed album covers for artists such as Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. Alston became staff artist at the Office of War Information and Public Relations in 1940, creating drawings of notable African Americans (above). These images were used in over 200 black newspapers across the country by the government to "foster goodwill with the black citizenry. Eventually Alston left commercial work to focus on painting. In 1950, he became the first African-American instructor at the Art Students League, where he remained on faculty until 1971. In 1950, his painting titled Painting was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and his artwork was one of few purchased by the museum. He landed his first solo exhibition in 1953 at the John Heller Gallery.

The Harlem Hospital murals are often considered
Alston's most important works.
Charles Alston's mural work was inspired by the work of Aaron Douglas, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, the latter, he met when they did mural work in New York. Alston created murals for the Harlem Hospital, Golden State Mutual, American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Family and Criminal Court, and Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Although originally hired as an easel painter, in 1935 Alston became the first African-American supervisor to work for the WPA's Federal Art Project in New York, which would also serve as his first mural work. At this time he was given an opportunity to oversee a group of artists creating murals and to supervise their painting for the Harlem Hospital. The first government commission ever awarded to African American artists also included Beauford Delaney, Seabrook Powell and Vertis Hayes. Alston also had the chance to create and paint his own contribution to the collection: Magic in Medicine and Modern Medicine (above). It was there Alston met his future wife, Dr. Myra Adele Logan, a surgical intern at the hospital. Despite some opposition to the murals because of the numbers of African-Americans prominent in the design sketches, the Harlem Hospital project moved forward, with the financial support of Dr. Louis T. Wright, the first African-American physician to serve on the hospital's staff.

Cityscape at Night, 1950-55, Charles Alston
In the late 1940s Alston became involved in a mural project commissioned by Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company which asked artists to create work involving African American contributions to the settling of California. Alston worked with Hale Woodruff on the murals in a large studio space in New York where they utilized ladders to reach the upper parts of their canvas. The artworks, consists of two panels: Exploration and Colonization (top) by Alston and Settlement and Development by Woodruff. Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and the civil rights movement of the 60s were major influences on Alston. He worked with oil-on-Masonite during this period utilizing impasto, cream and ochre to create a moody cave-like works. His Cityscape at Night is one of Alston's more "monumental" works. Colors come together to fight for space on an abstract canvas, in a softer form than the harsher work of Franz Kline. Alston continued to explore the relationship between monochromatic hues throughout the series which A critic described his paintings as "...some of the most profoundly beautiful works of twentieth-century American art. His final work of the 1950s, Walking (below) serves as a precursor to the 1960s civil rights movement. The painting was inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which came to represent the surging energy among African-Americans in their struggle for full equality. Alston is quoted, "The idea of a march was growing....It was in the air...and this painting just came. I called it Walking on purpose. It wasn't the militancy that you saw later. It was a very definite walk, not going back, no hesitation." In January, 1977, Alston's wife, Dr. Myra Logan died. Just three months later, on April 27, 1977, Charles "Spinky" Alston also died following a long bout with cancer.

Walking, 1958, Charles Alston, inspired by the early civil rights marches.


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