BLENDING PROVOCATIVE PERSPECTIVES on race and gender relations, a unique sense of humor, knowledge of Western art history, and lived experience with American identity, culture, and traditions, Robert Colescott (1925-2009) developed an insightful and thought-provoking practice that didn’t shy away from controversial topics and images that might offend.

He was an exceptional painter whose works ranged in style from satirical scenes that resembled artistic single-panel cartoons and dynamic reinterpretations of famous history paintings to gestural compositions crowded with symbolic figures beautifully rendered in deep saturated colors. The various approaches were about storytelling—debunking myths, poking fun at accepted norms, surfacing uncomfortable truths, and pushing back against blatant racism.

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Other Washingtons,” 1987 (acrylic on canvas, 90 x 114 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Olga N. Sheldon Acquisition Trust, U-6463.2015

 

Given Colescott’s sharp commentary on race, new scholarship about his racial identity necessarilty re-calibrates the analysis of his work. Research conducted by independent art historian Matthew Weseley reveals that Colescott lived half his life passing as white. He was in his mid-40s when he embraced his African heritage, proudly identified as African American, and is believed to have first raised in his work the race matters for which he is well known. It is through this lens, the artist’s delayed recognition of his blackness, that the first comprehensive retrospective of Colescott should be viewed.

“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” a complete survey of Colescott’s work is debuting at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati this week. Mounted a decade after his death, the exhibition opens Sept. 20 and features 85 works spanning 50 years. More than 60 paintings are on view with about 20 works on paper, dating from 1949 to 2002.

Co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Weseley, the exhibition is organized by Raphaela Platow, director and chief curator at CAC. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog is being published to accompany the show. The most comprehensive volume to document Colescott’s career includes the new findings from Weseley.

“Given the crisis of race relations, image management, and political manipulation in the current American—indeed the global—landscape,” Sims said in a statement when the exhibition was announced, “Colescott’s perspectives on race, life, social mores, historical heritage and cultural hybridity allow us a means—if we are up to the task—to forthrightly confront what the state of world culture will be in the next decade.”

“Colescott’s perspectives on race, life, social mores, historical heritage and cultural hybridity allow us a means—if we are up to the task—to forthrightly confront what the state of world culture will be in the next decade.” — Co-Curator Lowery Stokes Sims

The exhibition is scheduled to travel to Portland, Chicago, and Akron, Ohio, with additional venues potentially added to the tour:

  • Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati | Sept. 20-Jan. 12, 2020
  • Portland Art Museum, Portland, Ore. | Feb. 15–May 17, 2020
  • Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, Ill. | June 20–Sept. 27, 2020
  • Akron Art Museum, Akron, Ohio | Oct. 25, 2020–Jan. 31, 2021
 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “The Wreckage of the Medusa,” 1978 (acrylic on canvas, 66 x 84 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Private Collection.
Photo by Ray Litman

 

BORN IN OAKLAND, CALIF, Colescott served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, when he was honorably discharged. Referencing his official separation document from the U.S. Army, Weseley reports that there were three options for indicating a soldier’s race (“negro,” “white,” and “other”) and on the artist’s form, an “x” is typed in the box for “white.” (Weseley does not indicate whether Colescott filled out this form himself or a military official did so based on his appearance.)

Colescott went on to earn bachelor’s (1949) and master’s degrees (1951), both in art practice from the University of California at Berkeley. Between degrees, he studied with Fernand Léger in Paris, who encouraged his transition from abstraction to figuration. Alongside his six-decade artistic practice, Colescott maintained a parallel identity as a university educator. He spent a good portion of his career in Portland, Ore. He died in 2009 at age 83 at his home in Tucson, Ariz.

The catalog published to accompany “Art and Race Matters” is illuminating. The volume features lavish images of Colescott’s paintings from throughout the years. In addition, essays by Sims and Weseley; brief writings by Richard J. Powell, Mary Lovelace O’Neal (she and Colescott taught at UC Berkeley in 1979), and Lauren McIntosh Walrod, among others; and brief conversations with the arti97)st conducted by Joe Lewis and Carrie Mae Weems conducted by Sims, frame and give context to his life and practice. One essay in particular delves into Colescott’s early years and sheds light on his background.

It’s widely known that he had a brother, Warrington Colescott (1921-2018) who was also an artist. Both were relatively fair skinned with loosely curled hair. Colescott’s mother, Lydia Kennar Hutton, was descended from black people who were enslaved. On his father’s side, Warrington Wickham Colescott Sr., had a white father and his mother was believed to be of mixed heritage—part black, white, and Native American.

Identifying as “Creole” in New Orleans, both of the artist’s parents were sufficiently light skinned to pass for white, which they did when they arrived in Oakland. Little known, is the fact that Colescott passed for white, too, for half his life, in the years prior to race being the central theme of his work.

THIS ASTONISHING REVELATION is made by Weseley in “Robert Colescott: The Untold Story,” the opening essay of the catalog. He writes that the artist embodied America’s tortured racial history.

“[N]early a decade after his death, there is still a great deal about Colescott that remains unknown,” Weseley writes. “While Colescott has a reputation as an influential black artist, it is not widely known that he passed for white until a fateful sojourn in Cairo, Egypt, in the mid-1960s, and his return to the United States several years later. It was only then, in 1970, when he was forty-five years old, that he began creating the satirical paintings addressing black identity with which he made a name for himself.”

Weseley continues: “These paintings constituted, among other things, a public announcement of his previously hidden identity. By then, he had been painting for more than two decades, but this radical break with his past casts a shadow over his earlier works, which have not been given the attention that they deserve. Colescott’s remarkable story has yet to be told.”

“While Colescott has a reputation as an influential black artist, it is not widely known that he passed for white until a fateful sojourn in Cairo, Egypt, in the mid-1960s, and his return to the United States several years later.” — Co-Curator Matthew Weseley

Walrod, the artist’s cousin, further elucidates the family’s racial dynamics. She states that Colescott’s parents passing for white caused problems for members of the extended family, including her own, who identified as black.

(Weseley includes a citation, stating, “While I feel certain that Colescott’s parents passed—or attempted to pass—after moving from Louisiana to California, there is some contradictory evidence, which suggests that their behavior in this respect is inconsistent.” Walrod’s statement that they did pass, appears to confirm his research, which was informed in part by Walrod.)

“The worst aspect about all of the familial mystery is the fact that the two brothers, who were so close and likewise so close to my mother, and to me, spent the later part of their lives not speaking to or acknowledging each other, nor did their offspring know one another,” writes Walrod, who also became an artist.

“When Robert decided to throw off the secret murky Creole camouflage and expose himself by way of his paintings as an African American, the relationship between the two brothers ended.”

Walrod took a class with Colescott when he was teaching at UC Berkeley. She said he taught her not to shy away from expressing her views and political perspectives or feel obligated to follow the latest trends in art. In the catalog, she adds:

    Robert was one of the first brave artists to break through this racist barrier of fear and start a discussion with his incredible paintings. And he was one of the first members of that generation of our family to show pride in our ancestry. It is not something that his parents would have understood, nor would many of his ancestors. But he was brave to break away from the confines of his upbringing and from what he had been taught by his mother from his very early childhood—to hide his racial identity. In a way it is because he fought so hard against his upbringing that he was able to express so boldly what he wanted to say—that he knew who he was, and that he saw the injustices in the world. Yes, he did use humor and cartoons and florid colors, but that was his way, and it worked well for him as an artist and as a means to convey his message, which underneath is one of unease and disgust for the treatment of people of color.
 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook,” 1975 (acrylic on canvas, 84 x 108 inches). | © Estate of Robert Colescott / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

 

WESELEY DESCRIBES Colescott as having “achieved some prominence” in his lifetime. He was the first black artist to have his work featured on the cover of Artforum. Perhaps his best known painting, “Page from a U.S. History Text: George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware” (1975) appeared on the March 1984 cover, nearly a generation after the magazine was founded.

In the painting, Colescott reinterprets “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) by Emanuel Leutze, which depicts George Washington as a hero at a pivotal moment in the American Revolutionary War. In his version, Colescott casts the subjects of the painting as stereotypes. George Washington Carver appears to captain the boat, towering over the eight other figures on board, including a cook in chef whites, a banjo player, and man chugging from a jug. The sole female figure rests her bare bottom on the edge of the boat and has her mouth full. Everyone is black and has pink lips. Colescott has said the painting is about white perceptions of black people.

In his version, Colescott casts the subjects of the painting as stereotypes. George Washington Carver appears to captain the boat, towering over the eight other figures on board, including a cook in chef whites, a banjo player, and man chugging from a jug. Everyone is black and has pink lips. Colescott has said the painting is about white perceptions of black people.

The first retrospective of Colescott was organized in 1987 by the San Jose Museum of Art and presented works from 1975 to 1986, including “Page from a U.S. History Text: George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware.” Curated by Sims, a longtime champion of Colescott, and John Olbranz, then director of the San Jose museum, the traveling exhibition was presented at nine venues, including the Seattle Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art, Portland Art Museum (Oregon), New Museum in New York, and CAC, where the current retrospective is originating.

In 1997, Colescott was the first African American artist to represent the United States with a solo exhibition in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He was 71. The exhibition featured 19 works dating from 1987 to 1994. (Weems collaborated with Colescott on a portrait for the show, which is included in the current retrospective.)

In a New York Times review of the larger biennale, Roberta Smith opined briefly on Colescott’s installation: “At the American Pavilion, Robert Colescott’s bright, luscious paintings, with their raucous figurative style and caustically ribald commentary on American racism, turned in one of the more solid performances here. Being the first black artist to represent the United States at Venice, Mr. Colescott made history just by showing up.”

After the Venice presentation, the show toured seven U.S. institutions, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Queens Museum of Art in New York, Portland Art Museum (Oregon), University of California at Berkeley Art Museum, and SITE Santa Fe.

Beyond these major traveling shows, Colescott’s work has been exhibited widely and included in group and themed exhibitions. His work is represented in many public and private collections.

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas,” 1985 (acrylic on canvas, 96 x 92 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Seattle Art Museum, 2016.12, General Acquisition Fund, Bill and Melinda Gates Art Acquisition Fund, Margaret E. Fulller Purchase Fund, and Patricia Denny Art Acquisition Fund. Photo by Nathaniel Willson

 

IN DECEMBER 2017, Los Angeles-based Blum & Poe announced its representation of Colescott’s estate. Since then, Blum & Poe has presented his work in two gallery exhibitions and at international art fairs. He was also included in “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas” (Feb. 15-May 13, 2018) a three-artist show on view at the Seattle Art Museum.

Sims, an independent curator and art historian who retired from the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and also held positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Studio Museum in Harlem, notes in the new retrospective catalog that Colescott’s work stood out among his contemporaries.

In her essay titled, “Colescott in the 1980s and 90s: Stranger in a Strange Land,” Sims begins with a reference to his inclusion in “Fast Forward: Painting From the 1980s,” a 2017 collection exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art where Colescott’s painting “The Three Graces: Art, Sex, and Death” (1981) was displayed near works by David Salle, Sherrie Levine, and Julian Schnabel.

“Amid the relatively slick surfaces and disjointed spatial elements in the compositions of these artists, the aggressively gestural painting and allegorical quality of Colescott’s [painting] stood out like the proverbial sore thumb,” Sims writes.

“Even juxtaposed with the more expressionistic work of Jean-Michel Baquiat, the fleshy surfaces of Eric Fischl, or Leon Golub’s ‘scraped-down, ever-shifting layers of dark and light,’ Colescott’s lumpy funkiness and bright colors demonstrated the distinctiveness of his work within the art decade that he helped define. Never mind the fact that he was in his fifties, a generation older than most of the artists he was exhibited with at the Whitney.”

“Colescott’s lumpy funkiness and bright colors demonstrated the distinctiveness of his work within the art decade that he helped define.”
— Co-Curator Lowery Stokes Sims

Huey Copeland penned a memorial tribute to Colescott, published a few months after he died in the October 2009 edition of Artforum. In the Passages essay, Copeland wrote that the artist “left behind a body of work that troubles many of the antinomies haunting Western art and its institutions. Appraised as both beautiful and ugly, racist and radical, hilarious and tragic, cutting and cathartic, Colescott’s paintings wed such contrary terms in order to instigate a ‘one-two punch’: As he put it in a 1996 video of that name, the vibrancy of his works’ colors and compositions seduced from afar, eliciting an ‘Oh wow!’ from viewers who might then mutter ‘Oh shit!’ when confronted up close with the visceral matters that were his signature subjects.

Few museum exhibitions elicit such dramatic and engaged responses. Aptly named, with more than 80 works on view, “Art and Race Matters,” Colescott’s long-awaited retrospective, should garner plenty such reactions. CT

 

“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” is on view at the Contemporary Art Center Cincinnati, Sept. 20, 2019-Jan. 12, 2020

 

FIND MORE reporting on Robert Colescott when his exhibition opened at the 1997 Venice Biennale here and here

 

BOOKSHELF
“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” accompanies the artist’s new career-spanning retrospective. The volume is co-edited by Raphaela Platow and Lowery Stokes Sims, with an essay by Matthew Weseley and contributions from several others. “Robert Colescott: A Retrospective, 1975-1986” was published to coincide with Robert Colescott’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.

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Sleeping Beauty?,” 2002 (acrylic on canvas, 85 1/4 x 145 1/8 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo by Joshua White

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Eat Dem Taters,” 1975 (acrylic on canvas, 59 x 79 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Rosenblum Family. Photo by Adam Reich

 

From the “Art and Race Matters” catalog (Matthew Weseley, “Robert Colescott: The Untold Story”): “‘Eat Dem Taters’ is a spoof of van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, in which Colescott has replaced van Gogh’s somber peasants with exuberantly grinning minstrel figures in order to send up the myth of the ‘happy darky.’ The notion that blacks could be happy with very little was a staple of pre–World War II Hollywood films, and it was also included in school textbooks of the period, in which blacks were described as fortunate to be enslaved, since slavery removed them from their previous, barbaric circumstances in Africa.”

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “I Gets a Thrill, Too, When I Sees De Koo,” 1978 (acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Gift of Senator and Mrs. William Bradley, 1981.25

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “The Bilingual Cop,” 1995 (Liquitex gesso, paint, and gel medium on canvas, 90 x 114 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Robert Colescott Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Museum purchase, Contemporary Collectors Fund, 1997.11. Photo by Pablo Mason

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Relationship,” 1949 (oil on canvas, 30-1/2 x 39-1/2 inches. © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo by Heather Rasmussen

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Interior II – Homage to Roy Lichtenstein,” 1991 (acrylic on canvas, 16 x 18 inches). | © 2019, Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Private Collection

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “School Days,” 1988 (acrylic on canvas, 90 x 114 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from NBT Foundation, 1991.56. Photo courtesy Denver Art Museum

 


ROBERT COLESCOTT, “1919,” 1980 (acrylic on canvas, 71 3/4 x 83 7/8 inches). | © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo by Joshua White

 

From the “Art and Race Matters” catalog (Matthew Weseley, “Robert Colescott: The Untold Story”): “In 1980, Colescott made a painting commemorating his parents’ escape from the South (titled “1919”). His parents are depicted before a graphic map of the United States. His father, who served in a regiment that comprised ‘colored’ soldiers during World War I, is depicted wearing his Army uniform. His parents’ departure from New Orleans is indicated with a red arrow, and a black line refers to their arrival in Oakland. The two baby birds in a nest symbolize Robert and his older brother, Warrington Jr. Colescott portrayed his father with very dark skin and his mother with lighter skin, not because that was how they appeared, but perhaps because that was how they felt about themselves.”

 

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