Robert Colescott (1925 – 2009)
“Self-censorship is a cop-out”
– Robert Colescott (1990)
BY: JODY B. CUTLER, PhD
Robert Colescott—who was born in Oakland on August 26, 1925 and died June 4, 2009 in Tucson, AZ—was an energetic painter who pushed his presence into the history of American art completely on his own terms. His fifty-some-year oeuvre, featuring crude figuration, splashy, garish color, and blunt racial and sexual themes, was generated by a spirited mix of deep ties to past art, immersion in popular culture, committed social topics and uncompromising self-expression.
Colescott was involved with art and music from a young age. (He was a serious jazz drummer, performing in local venues intermittently through the early 1990s.) With undergraduate and graduate art degrees from UC Berkeley pursued on the GI Bill after serving in a segregated army, he emerged as an abstract painter and soon began exhibiting in the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. Following a sojourn in Egypt in the mid-1960s, Colescott began injecting subject matter indicating race into his work, as both an exploration of his own artistic tendencies and aspirations, and an investigation of racial and national identity from beyond the Western paradigm. His experiences in the Mideast also precipitated an aggressive interest in politics; by the time he returned to the United States in 1970 his artistic direction had changed dramatically. A 1975 solo show at San Francisco’s John Berggruen Gallery marked the debut of a painting to which his posterity remains closely linked, titled purposefully, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1974-75). Since then, this bawdy “blackface” parody of a famous patriotic 19th-century painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emmanuel Leutze (1851) has appeared in countless group exhibitions throughout the country, several survey textbooks on 20th century art, and dozens of exhibition catalogues, articles and reviews.
Colescott’s appropriation of racist stereotypes for his version of the scientist, Carver,
presiding over a partying crew of servants—an unprecedented affront to the mainstream (mainly white) art cognoscenti—nonetheless drew their immediate attention in the climate of the late-Vietnam era counterculture, the pending American Bicentennial, and the current cross-over success of profane comedians like Richard Pryor. Only much later was the iconography of Colescott’s painting entirely fleshed out, by which time broad interest in “race and representation” had become de rigueur the arts and beyond. Today the painting’s messages of exclusion, invisibility, tokenism, overlooked histories (such as that of African American patriotism), and freedom (including artistic) are immediately accessible; the inauguration of President Obama expands further its visionary scope in retrospect.
Colescott developed the succinct visual and verbal punning in the Carver painting as an aesthetic hook to bait viewers into facing the uncomfortable content of his art, which he described as a “one-two punch.” Through the 1970s he milked it with wacky take-offs on a roll call of ubiquitous masterpieces, inserting race-changes and low-brow clichés to unravel hidden meaning in his sources and create new ones. So Van Eyck’s merchant, Arnolfini, has a very black, surely pregnant wife; De Kooning’s ghastly “woman” model is Aunt Jemima; Picasso’s “demoiselles” are decked out for a picnic. At the same time, many of Colescott’s peers on both coasts were also mining art history in late Pop gestures that would become associated with postmodernism; Colescott brought race matters literally into the big picture. Race-mixing, especially intertwined with musings on the female body, was a consistent painterly obsession for the artist (who was married five times). He revealed his romantic vulnerabilities in many works, including The Three Graces: Art, Sex, and Death (1981), in which female personifications gather at a herm—or memorial—topped with Colescott’s self-portrait. From buxom blond grotesques to lumpy dark US beauties in primordial paradises and parti-colored, cubistic creatures, the oeuvre is filled with scantily clad femmes fatales that collectively document his fantasies and involvements, as well as the feminist revolution.
Colescott relocated to Tucson in 1984 to accept a teaching position at the University of Arizona. Although he taught for many years previously in the California State University system and elsewhere, he maintained that the endeavor was strictly a practicality. His pedagogy was through his art directly. In the mid-’80s, Lowery Sims, then a curator at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized a ten-year retrospective of his work. Opening at the San Jose Museum in 1987, the show solidified his “upstart” role on the contemporary American scene. By then, partly in response to the cultural and topographic environment of the Southwest, Colescott was creating ever more complex visual commentaries on the
history and after-effects of colonialism and other global issues.
His late paintings reintroduced lyrical abstract passages in swirling vignettes that retain narratives of human injustices and foibles. In 1997, he represented the United States with a solo exhibition in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a career coup that brought international exposure. Well into the new millennium he continued to produce monumental paintings that mixed up art history with subjects related to violence, sexuality, racism and capitalist greed, exhibited, fittingly, in a final ten-year retrospective organized by Peter Selz, which opened at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco in 2007. An increasing looseness of his bmshwork in this period perhaps betrays the effects of Parkinson’s disease, to which he eventually succumbed.
Colescott’s only half-kidding, transparent explorations of his bodily and artistic identities communicate an artistic honesty that is, in itself, compelling, while the slightly absurd art-and-history-lesson scenarios in which they are often presented have secured a unique place in art of his era.