The Careful Conservation of a Charles White Lithograph

Recently the West Town-based Conservation Center shared a story with its clients and CGN about some recent restoration efforts, one of which pertains the gorgeous exhibition on view now at the Art Institute of Chicago featuring the art of Charles White. Following is the post from the Conservation Center. 


"Charlie said to me, on more than one occasion, to focus on making the best drawing or painting you can. The ideas will take care of themselves. After all, you are making a picture. Its power has to be projected by its presence. This is clearly the case with just about every work he made." – Kerry James Marshall

Charles White, born and educated in Chicago, was one of the preeminent artists to emerge during the city’s Black Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s. This year, White’s hometown is recognizing his contribution to the portrayal of African American culture and history with a retrospective of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints at the Art Institute of Chicago. After being on display in Chicago from now until September, the exhibition will travel on to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Los Angeles’ County Museum of Art.

In correlation with the exhibition, we wanted to share our recent treatment of a 1965 Charles White lithograph that came to us from a private client who had concerns about framing damage. The lithograph on paper, titled “Juba”, had been passed down to our client Stacy Robinson by her father Louie Robinson, who was a journalist, one of the founders of Ebony Magazine, and a friend of Charles White. "My father's work put him in close contact with many prominent Black actors, sports figures, and influencers of the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s," Stacy shared with us.

Stacy's mother worked for a state college, and enjoyed collecting art by African American artists. "Her collection included works by Charles White, Ernie Barnes, Elizabeth Catlett, and a Chicago artist named Bob Lee. Most of them were artists she and my father knew personally, or met over the years," Stacy explained. When Stacy's father passed away in 2015, her mother moved to Chicago. It was at this time that Stacy and her sister began to adopt some of the collection. "My sister chose a very large portrait of Satchel Paige by Ernie Barnes. The Charles White was always my favorite so I brought it home and hung it in my living room."

"I just knew this artwork wasn’t being displayed to show it’s ultimate beauty and I was also worried about fading and deterioration over the years. I researched some options and found The Conservation Center. I liked The Center’s background and it seemed like the perfect fit for us," Stacy explained.

Upon unframing the piece, our conservators noticed the work was signed with a dedication to Louie Robinson. “To you, with warmest regards and many thanks,” was written carefully next to the title, signature, and blind stamp along the bottom edge of the lithograph.

"The added gift was when I saw the signature by Charles White and that it included an inscription to my father, Louie. It turns out that my father had written a series of articles on Charles White, and the most extensive was written for Ebony Magazine in the 1960s entitled, Charles White – Portrayer of Black Dignity. The piece was actually a gift from the artist to my father."

The piece exhibited mat burn and a light strike within the mat opening. One of our client’s concerns was the mat margin, as the large mat borders extended into the piece and hid some of exterior edges of the lithograph’s image.

The piece exhibited age-related discoloration and select handling dents throughout. There was also a layer of minimal surface soil, and residual pressure sensitive tape stains on the verso margin edges.

The frame itself exhibited a moderate layer of particulates, abrasions, and scratches. There were multiple dents throughout, and the glazing was not UV-filtering. The matting and backing board were non-archival and acidic. When we removed the piece from its frame, we discovered a 1968 Los Angeles Times newspaper between the backing board and the print. Our client, who was unaware of the clipping before bringing the work to The Center, was delighted to learn of the news. “It was dated 1968 with a picture of newlyweds Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis on the front page. It was kind of like finding a time capsule!” she told us.

Our Paper Conservators began their treatment by surface cleaning the lithograph on the recto and verso using dry methods. Next, the adhesive stains on the verso were mechanically reduced. The piece was then water bathed and light bleached to reduce discoloration and staining, to raise the pH neutrality, and to relax the overall sheet.

Our client elected to keep the original frame and have the piece reassembled with new matting. Our Framing Conservators began their treatment by cleaning the frame using the appropriate solvents. Next, scratches and abrasions in the frame were retouched as best as possible. The piece was float mounted on an archival 4-ply mat, to allow for the full image to be visible. The piece was then reassembled in the frame with a conservation grade glass that protects against UV light rays. An acid free coroplast backing board was attached to the reverse to provide additional protection, and the hanging hardware was replaced. The newspaper was retained separately from the piece, and returned to the client to live on as part of the work’s story.

When the piece was returned to Stacy, she was delighted with the treatment results. “I’m very excited with the results of the restoration. The work looks beautiful. The restoration team was able to not only restore the brilliance of the print, but reduce the discoloration caused by the haphazard mat and frame job we had before. The whole restoration process has really been an enjoyable experience of search and discovery.”

Luis Serrano, a renowned artist and professor, attended the Art Institute's opening gala for the exhibition on June 8th. After the event, Serrano was kind enough to share his reflection on the piece we treated in relation to White's work. 

"Charles White’s teachings and art transcend time, race, politics, and culture. His masterful use and distribution of tonal values, as well as the creation of harmonious atmospheric pictorial space create powerful poetic effects as evidenced in 'Juba.'" 

Heather Becker, The Center's CEO, was also present at the Art Institute opening. As a graduate of the School of the Art Institute and a large advocate of Charles White's work, Heather was eager to show her support.

Becker shared, "I highly recommend going to see this inspirational body of work by Charles White currently on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago if you have not already.”


Charles White: A Retrospective runs through September 3, 2018 at the Art Institute of Chicago.