Colescott-Sheldon-U-6463.2015

 

WITH TWO MAJOR MUSEUM EXHIBITIONS on the horizon, Blum & Poe announced its representation of the estate of Robert Colescott (1925-2009). The thinking man’s provocateur, Colescott challenged art history and reinterpreted American history, painting transgressive, racially and sexually charged scenes with wit, insight, and imagination.

Blum & Poe made the announcement on Dec. 1, and said an exhibition of Colescott’s work is planned at its Los Angeles location in March 2018. The gallery presentation coincides with “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas,” a three-artist show opening at the Seattle Art Museum in February 2018. In late 2019, Lowery Stokes Sims is curating a traveling retrospective of Colescott, which will originate at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati.

In a statement, the gallery called Colescott, who died in 2009 at age 83, “a proud instigator who fearlessly tackled subjects of social and racial inequality, class structure, and the human condition through his uniquely rhythmic and often manic style of figuration.”

“A proud instigator who fearlessly tackled subjects of social and racial inequality, class structure, and the human condition through his uniquely rhythmic and often manic style of figuration.” — Blum & Poe

The exhibitions and representation come at a time when Colescott’s work is being considered anew. In 1997, he was the first African American artist to represent the United States with a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale. There were more shows and museums made acquisitions, but a major volume about his practice was never published. Understudied, his distinctive work is particularly relevant in today’s culturally fraught climate—a stew of dirty politics, moral debasement; sexual misconduct; unprecedented national diversity and progress for people of color, amid racial tension.

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Kitchen Assassination,” 1971 | © Estate of Robert Colescott, Courtesy Blum & Poe

 

SEEKING AN ALTERNATIVE to the segregated South, Colescott’s family moved from New Orleans to Oakland, Calif., where the artist was born. He received a bachelor’s degree in drawing and painting from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949. A few years later, he earned a master’s degree from the same institution. An artist and educator, Colescott lived and worked in Tucson, Ariz. Throughout his career, he was a professor of painting with academic appointments at Portland State University in Oregon; UC Berkeley; University of Arizona, Tuscon; and the American University in Cairo, Egypt (1966-67).

After his undergraduate years, Colescott went to Paris to study with Fernand Léger, who greatly influenced him. The young painter had been working in geometric abstraction and was encouraged by Léger to focus on figuration. Colescott said the French artist told him “abstraction didn’t communicate ideas to ordinary people.” In a circa 1989 interview with Jim Johnson, an art historian at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colescott said he made the transition and dedicated himself to working with the figure and his imagination, “trying to say something about the human condition.”

Sims, who is curating Colescott’s forthcoming retrospective, also organized his first one in 1987 with the San Jose Museum of Art. A 34-page catalog was published and the show traveled around the country to eight more venues including the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati; the Baltimore Museum of Art; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; New Museum in New York (Feb. 24-April 16, 1989); and the Seattle Art Museum.

A number of contemporary African American artists have appointed themselves to recast the art history canon. Colescott acquitted himself in a particularly complex manner on this front. For the 1987 retrospective, Sims wrote about how Colescott approached his work and its significance:

    “Colescott’s work is not the consumerist romance of the Pop artists. One of his techniques is to appropriate images from the masterpieces of art history and from advertising, charging the original characters or replacing them with surrogates in such a way as to ask the question ‘what if …?’ What if you switched the sex of the figures in classical image Laocoön? What if you made the Flemish bride in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait black? What would our reaction be and what kind of world would we have if these were the normal situations? … Colescott’s increasing inclination toward allegorical formulations occurs at a time when his influence, like that of other ‘old-time’ figurationists such as Leon Golub and Peter Dean, is beginning to be felt in the art world. At a moment when ‘appropriation’ is the critical catchword, Colescott is rapidly moving to personally distilled and universal statements about the role of individuals in history and the progression of cultural achievements.”

“At a moment when ‘appropriation’ is the critical catchword, Colescott is rapidly moving to personally distilled and universal statements about the role of individuals in history and the progression of cultural achievements.” — Lowery Stokes Sims


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook,” 1975 (acrylic on canvas). | Private Collection, St. Louis, © 2017 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photo by Jean Paul Torno

 

COLESCOTT IS REPRESENTED in the collections of many major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, National Gallery of Art, and High Museum of Art. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has four paintings by the artist and, a few months ago, the Cleveland Museum of Art announced the acquisition of “Tea for Two (The Collector),” a 1980 painting by Colescott, that is currently on view in its contemporary galleries.

Earlier this year, “The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death” (1981) by Colescott was included “Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s” at the Whitney. MoMA is currently showing “Emergency Room,” a 1989 painting by Colescott in “The Long Run,” a group exhibition that runs through Nov. 4, 2018. His work can also be seen in New York at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, where it is featured in “Figuratively Speaking,” another group show, until Jan. 20, 2018.

During the conversation with Johnson, Colescott responded to a question about how he liked painting so far, 40 years into his career. “When it really boils down to it, I don’t know what else I would do. I don’t know of another profession that intermixes work and pleasure so homogeneously,” Colescott said. “That appeals to me and then I get the opportunity to express myself openly and overtly and nobody’s going to put me in jail. At least not up to this point.”

With locations in Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo, Blum & Poe represents more than 40 other artists, including Henry Taylor and Tony Lewis. CT

 

TOP IMAGE: ROBERT COLESCOTT, “The Other Washingtons,” 1987 (oil on canvas). | University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Olga N. Sheldon Acquisition Trust, Courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery

 

BOOKSHELF
“Robert Colescott: A Retrospective, 1975-1986” was published to coincide with the artist’s 1987 retrospective. Several publications document other early Colescott exhibitions, including “Robert Colescott: Troubled Goods, A Ten Year Survey (1997-2007)” and “Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings,” which accompanied his history-making presentation at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997. In addition, “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas,” will be published in February 2018 to accompany the Seattle Art Museum exhibition.

 

Colescott_1991_14
ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Auvers-sur-Oise (Crow in the Wheat Field),” 1981 (acrylic on canvas). National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art). | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas,” 1985 (acrylic on canvas). | General Acquisition Fund, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, and Patricia Denny Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.12. © 2017 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925–2009), “Tea for Two (The Collector),” 1980 (Acrylic on canvas). | Cleveland Museum of Art

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Culture Type participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate program designed to help sites earn commissions by linking to amazon.com. When you make any purchase from Amazon, and the many independent booksellers and vendors that use Amazon, via a link from this site, Culture Type receives a minute percentage of its price. The program helps offset a small portion of the countless hours and expense required to research, report, write and produce Culture Type’s content. Your support is much appreciated.