“Black to front: Michael Lobel on Robert Colescott”, Artforum

Black to front: Michael Lobel on Robert Colescott

by Michael Lobel, ARTFORUM

Robert Colescott’s Interior I, 1991, is a spot-on pastiche of one of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Interiors” paintings: Here are the sterile modern furnishings, the stark outlines, the repeating dot patterns. Yet someone has shuffled in to disturb the otherwise pristine scene–a dark-skinned figure sits on the white couch, his stockinged foot plunked unceremoniously on the gleaming coffee table. Considering the man’s relaxed posture and garb, could that open can he grasps be anything but a beer? Colescott disarranges Lichtenstein’s distinctive interior through more than just the introduction of that figure, however; the painter has also deliberately sullied the Pop artist’s clean-edged forms with his rough facture in order to challenge the cool, distanced approach that is central to Lichtenstein’s art, and to Pop in general. Colescott’s painting suggests that Pop’s customary distance and neutrality may also function as a refusal of difference, racial and otherwise. Through his alterations to the image, Colescott forces us to see the literal but also figurative (read: racialized) whiteness on which the coolness and detachment of Lichtenstein’s image–and, by extension, that of Pop in general–depends.

Interior I is a useful image through which to understand Colescott’s work, because it points to a simultaneous proximity to and distance from Pop. On the one hand, some of the artist”s central strategies–the reuse of preexisting imagery, the reliance on popular and vernacular culture–derive from those developed by the Pop artists in the early ”60s. Yet his work also bears profound differences from classic Pop, and not only in its focus on racial themes. For one, as evidenced by Interior I, Colescott rejects the mechanical surfaces of Pop art. His pictures exult in the materiality of paint, a tendency that has become more pronounced over the years: His recent canvases are veritable explosions of bravura handling and riotous color. Further, Colescott is a committed storyteller, and his paintings invariably contain some narrative component. Sometimes it is a tragic narrative of racial discord, at others, a comedic tale of the entanglements of love or sexual desire–and often it is a combination of the two. Moreover, this emphasis on storytelling often opens up into a consideration of history–another thing that separates Colescott from the Pop artists. Pop tends to focus on the qualities of newness so essential to the mechanisms of advertising and mass culture; if any sense of temporality is brought into the picture, it is usually that of consumption, as when James Rosenquist used slightly outdated imagery in his work of the early ’60s to call attention to the unending cycles of novelty and obsolescence that register the passage of time in consumer culture. For his part, Colescott has always been concerned with a much broader swath of human history, and he has depicted scenes ranging from ancient times to the present moment.

It is precisely for his focus on historical narratives that Colescott is known to most viewers. Although he has almost five decades of varied work behind him, including a stint representing the United States at the 1997 Venice Biennale, he is indelibly identified with the racially charged transformations of appropriated masterworks he produced in the mid-’70s–paintings that laid the groundwork for such pictures as Interior I. The best known of that group is undoubtedly George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975, in which Colescott transformed the major players in Emmanuel Leutze’s kitschy, overblown history painting, replacing the father of our country with the peanut scientist of the title (a persistent though arguably token figure of black history). Carver in turn shares a boat with a checklist of racist caricatures, including a shoeshine boy, a banjo player, and a bare-bottomed mammy. Over several years Colescott produced a number of variations on this theme, including Eat Dem Taters, 1975 (a riff on van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters of 1885), and Natural Rhythm: Thank You Jan Van Eyck, 1976, in which the female figure in Van Eyck’s 1434 The Arnolfini Portrait is rendered in crude blackface, her swollen belly now alluding to the history of cultural attitudes toward miscegenation. Although Colescott has remarked, “I never wanted to be known as “the guy who painted the Old Masters in blackface,” there are many reasons why the artist has become irrevocably identified with this small group of works. (1) For one, the images are unforgettable; their blunt use of caricature and coarse humor sear the brain, so much so that it is now difficult to see Leutze’s original without thinking of Colescott’s pastiche. In retrospect the ’70s pictures can also be seen as pointing the way toward any number of later tendencies, from appropriation in the early ’80s to the identity-based art that became prevalent later that decade. By focusing on the racialized codes of popular imagery, Colescott opened up Pop’s more limited subject matter to a broader set of artistic concerns. Hence he seems a fitting precursor for numerous younger artists working with stereotype and caricature today, from Gary Simmons and Kara Walker to Michael Ray Charles and Ellen Gallagher. Yet if we are to see him as a sort of bridge figure–bringing Pop irony and appropriationist strategies together with social commentary–it would be useful to ask the question: Where did these paintings come from? After all, Colescott turned fifty in the year he painted George Washington Carver–hardly an age at which most artists “emerge.” In fact, he had spent years working up to that point, exploring the possibilities of a narrative approach to figurative painting that employed social satire and often-coarse humor to confront troubling questions of sexual politics, racial identity, and historical representation. A consideration of this earlier body of work helps broaden our understanding of Colescott’s project, for it shows us an artist who, influenced both by personal and historical circumstances, incorporated charged social and political themes into his work by drawing on an array of popular sources.

Now based in Tucson, Arizona, Colescott was a West Coast artist for much of his career: He was born in Oakland, California, and trained at Berkeley (also studying with Fernand Leger in postwar Paris). Through much of the ’50s and early ’60s he lived and worked in Seattle and Portland. Although this period found him producing fairly conventional landscapes, still lifes, and figure studies, inklings of a racial consciousness occasionally bubble to the surface. For instance, in a still-life painting dated around 1960, a cut watermelon sits (one wants to say forlornly) on a table that is otherwise empty, save for a length of striped cloth. If the choice of fruit is already suggestive, the title of the work, Dixie Belle–which conjures images of a Scarlett O’Hara version of white Southern femininity–only confirms that there may be satirical intent underlying an otherwise deadpan presentation. Nevertheless, that irony remains, at this point, coded and allusive.

A central factor in the development of Colescott’s work was the time he spent away from the United States in the mid- to late ’60s. The first stop on his itinerary was Egypt, where in 1964 he accepted a fellowship to study at the American Research Center in Cairo. He once described the effect of that period on his work: “I spent a couple of years in Egypt and was influenced by the narrative form of Egyptian art, by 3,000 years of a ”non-white” art tradition, and by living in a culture that is strictly ”non-white.” I think that excited me about some other things, some of the ideas about race and culture in our own country; I wanted to say something about it.” (2)

In the years that followed, narrative and racial identity would become central concerns of his work. His burgeoning political consciousness may have been further energized on the next leg of his travels, when he left Egypt in 1967 to teach art in Paris. This would have placed him in the French capital in 1968, where he would have witnessed the revolutionary activities that spring. Of course, America was far from untouched by the unrest of the period, and in this respect we need also take note of the artist’s homecoming in about 1970, in particular his return to Oakland. (3) Nearby Berkeley, of course, had become a symbol for the rise of a culture of protest, while just a few years prior to Colescott’s arrival, Oakland had become the birthplace of the Black Panthers.

In short, if Colescott’s time in Egypt and France helped shape his political consciousness and contributed to his racial awareness, his return to America must only have intensified this experience for him. Racial politics had shifted during his time abroad: The integrationist tendencies of the civil rights era had been joined or supplanted by the defiant rhetoric of Black Power. And after his homecoming Colescott’s work began to shift as well, as it moved from painterly concerns such as composition and color to an embrace of narrative and social critique. Just before this Colescott had produced a body of vibrantly colored canvases, characterized by exuberant paint handling, which featured swarms of interlocked, ethereal figures. But in paintings from around 1969 and 1970, including Nam Boogie, Miss Oakland, and Colored TV, things began to change. The palette is still colorful, yet nowhere near as intense. The depicted scenes are still populated with multiple figures, yet space has been opened up between them, making them less like vehicles for decorative patterning. This also creates space for narrative and, with it, social and political subject matter: American militarism in Vietnam; racialized conceptions of beauty (embodied by a sash-draped contestant in a “Miss Oakland” beauty contest); the representation of blacks on television. Colescott’s approach to narrative would evolve during this period, as is evident in a comparison between Nam Boogie, from about 1969, and the slightly later Bye Bye Miss American Pie. The relationship between the figures in Nam Boogie is far more allusive: What is the connection between the central female figure, the sylph-like form to the left, and the menacing soldier at right? And what of the coffin-like capsule floating above? Contrast this with Bye Bye Miss American Pie. The simplification of the image and the introduction of text make the work seem closer to a poster than a painting. In the foreground a black soldier fires a rifle; above him, a pin-up blonde stands naked, her sex covered not by the proverbial fig leaf but by a slice of pie. Above her are emblazoned the words BYE BYE. On the one hand, the painting offers up the white ideal of feminine beauty as an unattainable lure for the African American male; on the other, it conjures the image of the rifle-toting black man who may pose a threat to white womanhood. Although the image offers multiple readings, it is clear that Colescott wanted to put forward a blunt social message.

Already we are seeing the changes that began to occur in Colescott’s work soon after his return to the United States. In certain ways we might compare him to Peter Saul, who also returned to the Bay Area from an extended sojourn abroad and embraced contemporary social concerns in his work. These two emerge from a similar admixture of influences: Take a big dose of Pop sensibility; add a dash of California’s figurative painting tradition (and in Saul”s case, a touch of Surrealism); mix with biting political commentary. (Don”t forget a little bit of that Northern California funk as well.) Although Saul came back from Europe to the Bay Area a little earlier (1962), his work shares a lot in common with Colescott’s: Both are masters of the absurd and grotesque; both have embraced social comment seen by some as offensive or politically incorrect; both are unabashed painters. As with Colescott, Saul’s work jumps off from Pop–although he has at times been included in that category, he has never fit into it comfortably–into a realm all its own.

As a painting like Miss American Pie in the Sky demonstrates, racial identity wasn’t the only thing on Colescott’s mind during this period; sex was as consistent a subject matter in his paintings as race, with the two often combined in troubling permutations. Many of these works employ raunchy jokes and double entendres. (In several, women are reduced to sexual objects and even Colescott’s staunchest apologists have struggled to defend them.) As noted, Colescott relies heavily on popular cultural forms, although not the ones traditionally associated with first-generation Pop art. Some of his paintings contain background panels depicting pornographic scenarios apparently derived either from early stag films or Tijuana bibles; others pair single, emblematic figures with textual legends, a format perhaps modeled on circus posters or labels of antique produce crates. Still others present sexualized scenarios based on such characters as Tarzan and Little Red Riding Hood. To reduce Colescott’s project to pure satire would be to ignore the fact that he has often tackled serious related issues in his work, including violence. There are a number of paintings from this period that depict bloody encounters between European colonizers and native peoples: turbaned Arabs fighting men dressed in the style of the French Foreign Legion; a group on safari encountering members of an African tribe wielding shields and spears; Western settlers engaged in combat with a group of Native Americans. These paintings are concerned with history but are not “history paintings.” They do not appear to depict specific events but rather offer generalized scenes of the violence done to colonized peoples in the course of European (and Euro-American) colonization.

More recent acts of politically motivated bloodshed were the explicit subjects of a number of works by Colescott from this time, including paintings of Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald and of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan. Though these are rendered in Colescott’s almost cartoonish painterly idiom, they function as straightforward (if schematized) representations of these events: Ruby fires his pistol at a handcuffed Oswald; Sirhan shoots Kennedy across a vividly patterned tile floor, the senator”s entourage looking on in horror. These paintings point the way toward Colescott’s later work inasmuch as each contains a quasi-caricatural black figure–dark skin, wide eyes, thick pink lips–looking on from the literal margins of the picture: In the Ruby/Oswald painting he stands at far right, holding a broom; in the RFK painting Kitchen Assassination, ca. 1971, he is the cook at the apex of the composition who has turned from his stove to become a witness to history.

On one hand, these pictures seem easy to read, particularly in light of Colescott’s later work: They address the tendency for blacks to be pushed to the margins of history and also suggest that when they are included, the only roles available to them are secondary. Hence Kitchen Assassination looks forward not only to George Washington Carver (in fact an almost identical figure to the cook appears at Carver’s feet rowing the boat), but also to later pictures like Knowledge of the Past Is the Key to the Future: Matthew Henson and the Quest for the North Pole, 1986, which focuses on Henson, a black explorer. Nevertheless, although it is tempting to reduce the question of race in Colescott’s work to a simple matter of black and white, Kitchen Assassination points to a deeper complexity. A panoply of racial groups is represented: There is Sirhan, who was Palestinian; the two white figures (male and female) who flank Kennedy; and the waiter with the overturned tray, whose skin tone suggests that he is Latino but whose racial identification remains unclear. The two black figures at the bottom and far right of the picture may represent a bow to historical accuracy on Colescott’s part, for it was widely known that two African-American men–the football player Roosevelt (“Rosey”) Grier and the Olympic athlete Rafer Johnson–were in Kennedy’s entourage on that fateful day. Hence the conventional reading of Colescott’s work as a simple commentary on the writing of African Americans out of history requires adjustment, as this painting depicts their active participation in a major historical event. Yet if this is the case, the image still confounds. For it does seem that Colescott exaggerated the features of the bottommost figure, while the vibrant patterning of his jacket only emphasizes his clownishness. Of course it”s difficult to say with certainty that the figure was intended as a caricature, particularly since Colescott’s style already hewed so close to the cartoonish; yet none of the figures caught in action in the midground seem treated to nearly the same degree of exaggeration.

If Colescott used a scene from contemporary history to raise thorny issues of race and representation, in several paintings he did much the same thing using familiar advertising icons with troubling histories of their own. One of these works, Aunt Jemima’s Pancakes, is also set in a kitchen. To the left of the canvas, Colonel Sanders cops a feel from Aunt Jemima, in the process pulling down her dress and exposing her breasts. She protests, AH CAN’T DANCE COLONEL, to which he replies, DON’T HURT NONE. The overturned stool at his side evinces a struggle. They are watched from the right by three pickaninny children, who encircle a table holding plates of pancakes and fried chicken–and a box of Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix. Not only is the use of racial caricature more self-evident here than in Kitchen Assassination, but it is literally labeled as such through text stenciled directly onto the painting”s surface. Moreover, the presence of the Colonel–whose distinctive grooming and dress epitomize that of the white southern gentleman–more pointedly connects such imagery back to the antebellum South. And by calling attention to the pernicious roots of such beloved advertising icons, Colescott was flagging his connection to, yet simultaneous distance from, Pop art. An artist like Andy Warhol embraced the flatness and sheen of the mechanically reproduced image; hence his Marilyn paintings, which knowingly reduce the star to an endlessly reproducible, affectless, and masklike icon. Colescott does something much different, in a sense reversing this process: He takes two corporate icons and strips off their masks. In his painting, Aunt Jemima and the Colonel become fully embodied characters that are not only sexualized but also marked by their own particular, and not very pleasant, history in which the slave owner’s power granted him unimpeded sexual access to the bodies of his female servants.

Colescott was not alone in exploring such imagery. In fact, more than a few African American artists had used the figure of Aunt Jemima as a symbol of black cultural resistance. As early as 1964, in a distinctively post-Pop turn, Joe Overstreet concocted a rifle-toting New Jemima; his version was followed by Murry N. De Pillars’s Aunt Jemima of 1968 (in which the title character bursts through a box of pancake mix wielding a menacing spatula), and Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972, a mixed-media construction that also transformed the beloved trade character into a symbol of social critique. These various efforts, in turn, paralleled protests spearheaded by the NAACP, beginning in the early ’60s, against the practice of black actresses appearing as Aunt Jemima at local supermarkets and the like. In addition, according to the writer M.M. Manring, “protests and boycotts by black Americans led Quaker Oats to drop the bandanna in 1968 and give Aunt Jemima a headband, in addition to slimming her down and making her look somewhat younger.” (4) Nevertheless, if Colescott’s interest in the figure of Aunt Jemima was shared by others at the same time, his approach was radically different. Overstreet, De Pillars, and Saar recast her as a symbol of violent dissent: They invariably outfitted her with a gun or other weapon as a way to link her with Black Power imagery more generally as well as to challenge those qualities–nurturing, compliance–with which she was conventionally associated.

They sought to free her from her history, as the title of Saar’s assemblage suggests. Unlike these other artists–and the NAACP–Colescott refused this inclination to recast Aunt Jemima, to somehow “empower” her. As in George Washington Carver, he declines to offer an antidote to such poisonous imagery, aware that its history is still playing out.


1. Robert Colescott, quoted in “Excerpts from a Conversation with Robert Colescott,” from a pamphlet issued by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, in conjunction with the exhibition “Robert Colescott: A Retrospective,” February 23-April 16, 1989, unpaginated.

2. Robert Colescott, quoted in “Conversation with Robert Colescott” by Ann Shengold, in Robert Colescott: Another Judgment (exh. cat.); Charlotte, North Carolina: Knight Gallery/Spirit Square Arts Center, 1985), unpaginated.

3. For the sake of the historical record, two things should be noted here. Published accounts differ on the timing of Colescott”s return to the United States; he may have been back in the States as early as 1968 and as late as 1970. This ambiguity itself may be due to the fact that during this period he seems to have spent part of each year in France, teaching in a study abroad program.

4. M.M. Manring, Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 169.

Michael Lobel is assistant professor of art history and director of the MA Program in Modern and Contemporary Art, Theory, and Criticism at Purchase College, State University of New York. He is also the author of Image Duplicator: Roy Lichtenstein and the Emergence of Pop Art, (Yale University Press, 2002).