White’s black pope, drawn in the umber oil wash that became his signature medium in the late 1960s, is hardly a traditional papal figure, in his oversize coat, but he’s preaching nonetheless. His homemade hat bears a cross, his sandwich board proclaims the word “NOW,” and his left hand flashes a peace sign. He stands before the lower half of a hanging skeleton, the word “Chicago” stenciled above its pelvis. These symbols, some clear and some tantalizingly coded, add to the air of mystery surrounding this man and his message. Positioned within an indeterminate, shallow space created by a scrim of broken planes and shapes, the figure is easy to see but hard to read.
White came to prominence in the late 1930s for his murals and other representational images of African Americans, and he made history, politics, and the fight for equality his main subject matter over the course of four decades. But as the world changed, White’s responsive visual style evolved, becoming increasingly complex and nuanced. The artist’s black pope seems a likely protester of social injustice—someone calling for change “NOW”—but his exact demands remain as undefined as the space he occupies. He is a fitting representation of the complexity of discussions surrounding race in America, and dissatisfaction with the results, both in 1973 and today.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
The enigmatic “Pope” at the center of this oil-wash drawing flashes viewers a gesture that is both a papal blessing and a peace sign. Wearing a sandwich board that exclaims “NOW” but doesn’t list any specific demands, the heavily draped man moves through an undefined space, in front of a hanging banner that shows the lower half of a skeleton, but is trapped beneath ruled lines that recall a camera’s viewfinder. The word “CHICAGO,” at the top, suggests a link with the artist’s hometown, but little else about the meaning of this work can be definitively stated. The ambiguity at the center of Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man) is the key to its power.
Gallery label from from Charles White: A Retrospective, 2018