The Painter Who Wouldn’t Be Pigeonholed

Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Emily Genauer once remarked that a certain artist refused to be pigeonholed. “I don’t know whether she meant it as a criticism,” responded Charles Alston CC 1929, TC’31 — the artist in question and a player in the Harlem Renaissance — “but I always thought it hit it right on the head.”

black and white photo of a man in a bow tie

Charles Alston CC 1929, TC’31

Andrew Herman

Across more than 40 years, Alston indeed wouldn’t be pigeonholed. “I’ll do very realistic things,” he said, “and very far-out avant garde things.” But in general his milieu was the black experience, drawn from many walks of life. Alston painted and sculpted for individuals and institutions, illustrated for newspapers and magazines, pursued his own keenly felt projects and conveyed his expertise in the classroom. He exuded, said Robert Beverly Hale CC 1923, former curator of American art and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “imagination, zest and enchantment, sensitivity and grace, reverence, wonder and awe.”

Alston was more modest: “I think primarily I’m a figure painter and I’m concerned about people.”

The son of a reverend in Charlotte, N.C., “Spinky” Alston moved with his family to New York City during WWI. At Columbia, he joined Alpha Phi Alpha and drew for Spectator and Jester. But Alston’s real extracurricular life was conducted north of campus. “The 135th Street corner was our meeting place,” he remembered. “You’d go into Hotcha and Bobby Henderson was playing the piano, Billie Holiday was singing. You’d go across Lenox Avenue to the little bar across from Harlem Hospital and Art Tatum was playing the piano. Ethel Waters was there. The place just jumped.”

During the 1930s and ’40s, Alston contributed to Fortune, Mademoiselle, Collier’s and other major magazines. His October 6, 1934, cover of The New Yorker depicts a janitor conducting a stage full of empty chairs and deserted music stands. He designed a Duke Ellington album cover and book jackets for Eudora Welty and Langston Hughes CC 1925. During WWII, he drew inspirational cartoons for the Office of War Information that appeared in more than 200 black newspapers. Alston made as much as $25,000 annually in commercial art. But he yearned for greater self-expression.

“Finally,” he recalled, “I said to my wife, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” His first year after abandoning the commercial world, around 1947, was “pretty tough,” he admitted. “If I made two thousand bucks I did well.” Still, Alston stuck with it, taking commissions both private and public.


Midnight Vigil, 1936

Throughout his professional life, he conveyed many forms of black identity. Midnight Vigil vividly features a dozen gatherers at a deathbed in a cabin with a potbellied stove; some are mourning, others are exhorting. His mural The Negro in California History: Exploration and Colonization depicts events ranging from 1527 to 1850. Among the subjects are ex-slaves; Biddy Mason, a pioneering businesswoman and philanthropist; and explorer James Beckwourth, who discovered a crucial path through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Alston’s 1970 bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was the first image of an African American displayed at the White House.

Alston did not shirk from bold statements. In 1936 he composed Magic in Medicine and Modern Medicine for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project (he also was the project’s first African-American supervisor). These two murals, for Harlem Hospital, compared and contrasted holistic curing in Africa with black physicians being trained in new Western methods — but they were initially rejected for “too much Negro subject matter.”

In 1933, Alston executed a charcoal sketch of a black man, noose around his neck, lying helpless before an exultant white lyncher holding his bloody, severed penis. “We stared at the powerful image in a shared silence,” recalled educator and mediator Lemoine D. Pierce upon seeing it with Alston more than 35 years later.

However, Alston rejected artistic distinctions based on race. “I would hate to think that I was in an exhibition because I’m black, rather than because I am a good painter,” he told Robert Doty, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1971. “Separate exhibitions lead to separate standards, and separate is by nature unequal in a democratic society.” Alston’s palette was color-blind: “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?”

Alston’s most enduring achievement might have been his years of instruction at the Art Students League, City College, Utopia Children’s House and other institutions — including a WPA-funded workshop at his studio at 306 W. 141st St. Known simply as “306,” it was a hothouse for budding Harlem artists. Among his students was 10-year-old Jacob Lawrence. “I am glad I had the sense at the time to realize that this kid had a very unusual, unique kind of talent,” he said. Lawrence became one of the best-known African-American painters of the 20th century.


Girl in a Red Dress, 1934

Currently at the University’s Wallach Art Gallery is the exhibition “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” (closing February 10). It includes Alston’s 1934 oil Girl in a Red Dress. The title subject, wrote Alvia J. Wardlaw of Texas Southern University, conveys such “engaging intellect,” “serious self-confidence” and “thoughtful maturity” that she constitutes “a symbol of the Harlem Renaissance.” She reflects Alston’s aesthetic.

“Before you’re a painter,” he said nine years prior to his death in 1977, “you’re a human being and you’re involved in what happens.”