ESTHER ADLER: Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man) is a tremendous combination of ideas, visual techniques, and questions. You have a mobile preacher with a sandwich board with this cross hat on his head and he's extending two fingers out in kind of a peace sign. And then it starts to get a little tricky. At this moment in the 70s, people would have been very familiar with civil rights protesters wearing sandwich boards that said things like Freedom Now, Justice Now. But sandwich boards are used in a lot of different ways, not just for protest but also frankly as advertisements. You know, toasters now on sale. So there's this kind of double edge.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: I mean by definition the street corner preacher is apocalyptic.
ESTHER ADLER: I spent some time looking at this work with the artist Kerry James Marshall, who was a student of Charles White, and who had an entirely different set of interpretations than I did.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: You know, it's like the urgency, they feel they have to tell everybody right now because the end is near. I can't ignore the fact that this strip of cloth that the skeleton is on reads a lot like the Shroud of Turin. You could probably make the case that the reference to Chicago may in fact have something to do with Emmet Till's murder. Obviously the skeleton there has something to do with death.
ESTHER ADLER: I just think it's one of those works that you could spend a lifetime trying to figure out and still have more questions.
Another thing that plays into the ambiguity of this image is the way that White applied the paint to the paper. To hear about it, enter 3321 or moma.org/a3321 on your phone.