Renowned American figurative painter Robert Colescott died on June 4, 2009 at his home in Tuscon, Arizona at the age of 83. The artist is best known for his garishly powerful canvases lampooning racial and sexual stereotypes with rakish imagery, lurid colors, and almost tangible glee, most notably his George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook. Colescott’s relatively early embrace of racial issues in his art paved the path for contemporary African-American artists such as Ellen Gallagher, Kara Walker and Kalup Linzy.
Robert Hutton Colescott was born in Oakland, Calif. on Aug. 26, 1925. His mother, a pianist, and his father, a jazz violinist who supported the family as a porter on the Southern Pacific Railroad, had moved to California from New Orleans in 1919 to improve their children’s chances for a good education. After serving in the army during World War II, Colescott majored in art at the University of California, Berkeley. He began to mature as an artist in 1949, when he lived in Paris for the year and studied with French cubist Fernand Léger. Colescott returned to Berkeley for a master’s and spent the next decade teaching in the Northwest. In 1964, a teaching residency took him to Cairo, where Egyptian art reiterated for him Léger’s ideas about narrative, but from outside the Western canon. After another stint in Paris he returned in 1967 to the Bay Area in California.
In 1997, at age 71, Colescott became the first African American to represent the United States in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition. He compared the event to the breaking of the baseball color line when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers. “It was a grand symbolic event,” Mr. Colescott told the Baltimore Sun at the time. “But like Jackie Robinson, I had to be good enough to be there. If I had dropped the ball too many times, I wouldn’t have got there.”
Robert Colescott’s work is in several major institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.