Alston, Charles Henry 1907–1977
Charles Henry Alston 1907–1977
Fusing modern art styles with non-Western influences to create a new and distinctive African-American idiom, Charles Henry Alston was among the most important figures of the Harlem (New York) creative community in the field of the visual arts. Alston was also a pioneering educator whose students included several of the most prominent African-American artists of the twentieth century. All through his long career, Alston remained a student of art himself, responding to contemporary artistic and historical developments and incorporating new approaches into his work.
Alston, nicknamed “Spinky,” was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on November 28, 1907. His father, the Rev. Primus Priss Alston, was born into slavery and attended divinity school after emancipation; he died when Alston was three years old. Alston’s mother then married Harry Pierce Bearden, an uncle of the artist Romare Bearden—who later became one of Alston’s own students. The family moved to New York in 1913, but the five Alston children (of which Charles Henry was the youngest) often returned to North Carolina to visit relatives. Alston showed artistic ability from a young age, making sculptures out of the red clay found everywhere in North Carolina.
Attending New York’s DeWitt Clinton High School, Alston began to find recognition for his talents. He won a school art prize at age 14 and served as art editor of the school magazine. Thus encouraged to study art when he enrolled at Columbia University in New York, Alston graduated in 1929. During his student years he came under the influence of the black philosopher and cultural theorist Alain Locke, who had urged black artists to look to African forms for ways of expressing the African-American experience.
Alston stayed on at Columbia for graduate work and earned an M.A. in 1931. Working for a time with young people in various posts (where, during one stint with the Boys’ Clubs organization, he spotted the emerging talent of the later-famous African-American artist Jacob Lawrence), Alston earned a living mostly as an illustrator. Well-acquainted with such Harlem luminaries as poet Langston Hughes and bandleader Duke Ellington, he illustrated publications, record covers, and other items released by the foremost black creative figures of the day. Alston’s work was also featured in mainstream commercial publications such as Redbook and the New Yorker.
In the 1930s, as he worked to apply Locke’s ideas, Alston gained recognition as a serious artist. His work was first shown in museums in 1934, as part of a traveling exhibition organized by the Harmon Foundation, and his paintings and sculptures were shown around New York through the 1930s. Such works as the painting Two Sisters (1935) were influenced by African masks. Alston was not merely imitating African styles, however, but using their strong geometric orientation to create works that could stand with the latest developments in abstract modernism that were emanating from Europe.
At a Glance …
Born on November 28, 1907, in Charlotte, North Carolina; father Primus Priss Alston was a minister; married Myra Logan, a surgeon, died on April 27, 1977. Education: Graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, New York; Columbia College, New York, B.A., 1929; Teachers’s College, Columbia University, M.A., 1931; later studied at National Academy of Art, New York, and Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York.
Career: Painter, sculptor, and art educator. Worked as magazine illustrator, 1930s and early 1940s; painted major murals for Harlem Hospital, New York, 1936; staff artist, Office of War Information and Public Relations, World War II; became first black instructor, Art Students’ League, 1950, teaching there until 1971; became first black instructor, Museum of Modern Art, 1956; professor, City College of New York, 1970-77.
Awards: Arthur Wesley Dow Fellowship, Columbia University, 1929; Rosenwald Fellowships, 1939-40; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1958; named to American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1958.
Alston also came under another non-Western influence in the 1930s—that of Mexican muralists, including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, who painted enormous, dramatic works of public art that reflected the ferment of political changes that had occurred in their own country. Rivera had worked in the United States in the 1930s, and many art critics embraced his often radical-spirited works as part of a general artistic response to the problems of the Great Depression.
Alston, who also drew inspiration from the classical public art of Michelangelo and others, applied the ambitious dimensions of Mexican murals in a giant pair of murals installed at New York’s Harlem Hospital, Magic and Medicine and Modern Medicine. These works, depicting the whole span of medical practices in African America from African-derived conjure practices to the use of modern hospital technology, were pioneering examples of art works that drew on African-American history. They were funded by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) art project, for which Alston served as one of the first African-American supervisors, and were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art before their permanent installation. Alston married a Harlem Hospital surgeon, Myra Logan.
As World War II broke out, Alston continued to work in the arena of public art. He served in the U.S. Army and was appointed a staff artist for the Office of War Information and Public Relations. After the war, with a growing body of work that included a series of portraits of black southerners, again influenced by the geometric shapes of African art, Alston continued to gain wider recognition. He found his services in demand as a teacher, becoming the first African-American instructor at the Art Students’ League in 1950 and again at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956. Galleries in New York and elsewhere began to devote space to solo exhibitions of his work.
Alston continued to change with the times, inflecting his work to match contemporary trends in the art world but never abandoning his personal style. In the 1950s, at the height of the craze for modernist abstraction, he created paintings that contained very little representation of the human form or of recognizable scenes, concentrating on effects achieved by the use of closely related colors. In the 1960s, however, as the civil rights movement gained steam, Alston returned to more accessible styles. He produced startlingly close-up portraits of figures from black history such as Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (the latter was exhibited at Detroit’s Museum of African American History in 2002), as well as images of more general types (such as a series of blues singers) that used distortions of the face of the painted figure to illuminate or comment upon some aspect of the subject’s experience. Alston was a founding member of Spiral, a group of African-American artists who united to promote the cause of racial equality.
Active until the very end of his life, Alston was appointed to the art faculty of the City University of New York in 1970 and became a full professor in 1973. In later life he also coordinated a children’s art center at the World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium. Alston died in New York on April 27, 1977. His works are owned by such major institutions as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts; Rhapsodies in Black, a traveling exhibition of the 1990s that formed a major retrospective evaluation of art in Harlem between the world wars, included an overview of his career.
Magic and Medicine and Modern Medicine, murals, Harlem Hospital, New York, 1926.
Frederick Douglass, portrait, 1967.
Martin Luther King, Jr., portrait, 1967.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James, 1997.
Afro-American Cultural Center, Charlotte, North Carolina, http://www.aacc-charlotte.org
Inventory of Charles Henry Alston papers, University of North Carolina library, http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/htm/04931_m.htm
—James M. Manheim
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