“Renowned UA artist’s offbeat works skewered convention,” The Arizona Daily Star

Renowned UA artist’s offbeat works skewered convention

Robert Colescott: 1925-2009

With a cartoonist’s colorful flair and a cutting irony, Robert Colescott created a world filled with inverted stereotypes that challenged long-held conventions about race, sexuality and even art itself.

In massive paintings, the Tucson resident and former University of Arizona art professor would evoke European artistic conventions and meld them with stereotypes about blacks, slaves and women.

The combinations — which elicited both praise and derision from critics — were largely responsible for the distinctive style that earned Colescott international recognition.

The artist, whose work once appeared in the international art festival Venice Biennale, died last week after suffering for years from Parkinson’s syndrome, a condition in which people exhibit symptoms of the disease, according to The New York Times. He was 83.

A generous man who a longtime colleague said was always interested in learning more about the world and people around him, Colescott was born in Oakland, Calif., after his parents moved from New Orleans.

He spent most of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area, teaching and producing art between stints in Europe and Egypt.

“He loved San Francisco,” said Barbara Rogers, a Tucson artist who taught with Colescott in the Bay Area and at the UA. “He loved human beings from all over the world and was especially interested in the ones who were not born with the silver spoon in their mouths.

While classically trained — including studying with French painter Fernand Léger — Colescott’s style was based on his incredible drawing ability and biting humor, Rogers said.

“They were painted cartoons,” she said, describing his art. “They always had that quality, and he wasn’t trying to imitate a Rembrandt.”

He taught at the UA from 1983 to1995, retiring as an emeritus professor of art, according to Star archives. He kept a studio in Tucson with his wife, Jandava Cattron, up until his death.

Robert Colescott created works that had classical elements from his training and were then turned on their head to convey a social message.

A famous example of Colescott’s style was the work “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook.” In the painting, the famous Emmanuel Leutze depiction of a key moment in the Revolutionary War is reimagined to include an all-black crew.

While Carver and a flag-bearer are dressed in Continental Army uniforms, the remaining crew is a cast of black stereotypes such as a cook, a maid with a striking resemblance to Aunt Jemima and a shoeless man fishing from the front of the boat.

The goal, according the Times, was to use European artistic conventions to point out the dichotomy of American history and the present state of race relations.

But Colescott’s work, intended also to skewer supposedly high art forms by reducing such classics to gross relief, earned him criticism as well as praise. Some objected that his use of stereotypes condoned racism and sexism, archives show.

Even the color of Colescott’s own skin was debated.

Rogers said she once taught a class in which Colescott came in and lectured about his art. The class, unaware that Colescott was black but had a lighter skin tone, was not pleased with his depictions of blacks.

“When he left, the students said to me, ‘Why would you invite a white person to talk about his work when his work was about black people?’ ” Rogers said. “They didn’t believe that he was African-American.

“He was always dealing with that.”

For Rogers, there never was any controversy about Colescott’s own views. He was kind and exceedingly respectful of women, she said.

“He was a character,” she said. “He was interesting from the standpoint of being a complex human being and also an artist who was classically trained and who developed such a distinctive way of drawing.”

Attempts to reach Colescott’s wife were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Colescott’s first four marriages ended in divorce, the Times said. In addition to Cattron, he is survived by his brother, Warrington Colescott Jr., of Hollandale, Wis.; five sons from previous marriages — Alexander, of Napa, Calif.; Nicolas, of Portland, Ore.; Dennett, of San Rafael, Calif.; Daniel, of Modesto, Calif.; and Cooper, of Tucson — and one grandson.