A PROFOUND AND PROVOCATIVE parody of American history painting by Robert Colescott (1925-2009) was acquired yesterday by the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” (1975) sold for a record-breaking $15.3 million at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York on May 12.

At $9 million-$12 million, the estimate far exceeded Colescott’s previous record, which was $912,500 (fees included), set in November 2018 when “Cultural Exchange” (1987) sold at Christie’s New York. “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware” hammered at $13.1 million and reached $15,315,900, with fees included. The result is nearly 17 times the artist’s previous record.


Lot 108: ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009), “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook,” 1975 (acrylic on canvas, 78 ½ x 98 ¼ inches / 199.4 by 249.6 cm). | Estimate $9 million-$12 million. Sold for ($13,100,000 hammer price) $15,315,900 fees included. RECORD

 

The Lucas Museum purchase was first reported by ARTnews the evening of the sale. “It’s exactly what the Lucas museum is looking at, this unbridled dismantling of high and low,” Lucas Museum Director and CEO Sandra Jackson-Dumont told ARTnews, shortly after the sale. “Colescott is a great artist whose work has told so many stories.” The following day, the museum, which is currently under construction in Exposition Park in Los Angeles, issued a statement confirming the acquisition.

“George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” is arguably Colescott’s best known work. The painting is a reinterpretation of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868). Held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the 19th century paintng depicts George Washington as a hero at a pivotal moment in the American Revolutionary War.

In Colescott’s version, George Washington becomes George Washington Carver. The artist casts the subjects of the painting as racial stereotypes. Carver captains the boat, towering over the eight other figures on board, including a cook in chef whites, a banjo player, and a man drinking from a jug. The sole female figure rests her bare bottom on the edge of the boat with her back to the viewer and, facing the crotch of one of the men, has her mouth full. Meanwhile he clings to the American flag. Everyone is Black and has pink lips. Colescott has said the painting is about white perceptions of Black people.

In its statement about the painting, the Lucas Museum said: “Over the years, it has come to be seen as the apex work in the career of Robert Colescott (1925–2009) and a stunning breakthrough in late 20th-century American art, emboldening many other artists with its outspoken Blackness, outraged and outrageous political content, high-handed appropriation of art history, and scabrous, satirical use of cartoon imagery.”

The painting was first displayed in “Robert Colescott: Paintings” at John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco, in the summer of 1975. In 1976, the work was acquired from the gallery by a private collector in St. Louis, Mo., who held on to it for 45 years before it was offered at Sotheby’s.

“George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware” has been presented in many museum exhibitions. The painting was first on view in “Art About Art,” a group exhibition that opened in 1978 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, before traveling to four other venues across the country.

More recently, the painting was featured in “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas,” presented at the Seattle Art Museum in 2018. It was also on view in in “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” the first comprehensive retrospective of Colescott, a traveling exhibition organized by the Contemporary Art Center Cincinnati that traveled to three additional venues, from 2019 to 2020. The painting and a 1974 graphite on paper study for the work were showcased in “Art & Race Matters.” The Jewish Museum in New York also included the painting in “We Fight to Build a Free World: An Exhibition by Jonathan Horowitz” (2020-21).

“Over the years, it has come to be seen as the apex work in the career of Robert Colescott (1925–2009) and a stunning breakthrough in late 20th-century American art, emboldening many other artists with its outspoken Blackness, outraged and outrageous political content, high-handed appropriation of art history, and scabrous, satirical use of cartoon imagery.” — Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

BORN IN OAKLAND, CALIF, Colescott served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, when he was honorably discharged. He went on to earn bachelor’s (1949) and master’s degrees (1951), both in art practice from the University of California at Berkeley. Throughout his formidable career, he was a practicing artist and university professor.

Over the years, Colescott exhibited widely in solo and group shows. His work is represented in the collections of many major museums and he achieved some groundbreaking historic firsts. He was the first Black artist to have his work grace the cover of Artforum magazine, when “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from a U.S. History Text” was featured in March 1984. In 1997, Colescott was the first Black artist to represent the United States with a solo exhibition in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Colescott spent a good portion of his years in Portland, Ore., and died in Tucson, Ariz., in 2009, at age 83. Writing in the catalog for “Art and Race Matters,” Matthew Weseley, who co-curated the exhibition, stated that the artist lived half his life passing for white until his mid-40s.

In an essay titled “Robert Colescott: The Untold Story,” Weseley wrote: “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. 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…”

This perspective-altering transformation occurred just five years before Colescott painted “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware.”

Lowery Stokes Sims curated first retrospective of Colescott. Organized by the San Jose Museum of Art in 1987, the show included “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from a U.S. History Text.” She also co-curated “Art and Race Matters,” the most recent retrospective.

Writing in Artforum (March 1984), Sims, an associate curator at The Met at the time, described the painting as one of Colescott’s most successful and went on to explain its cultural significance:

    …[I]t is an angry protest against the tokenism of traditional American history, which allows only one black hero (Crispus Attucks) and buries the rest. It goes on to illuminate the existence of George Washington Carver, a botanist at Tuskegee Institute who distilled more uses out of the common peanut than it took to put Jimmy Carter in the White House. By taking on the contrasting images predicated by the American class system, Colescott makes a hero of the ordinary man and woman (even these stereotypes) and takes note of the social pressures on the “super niggers” isolated from each generation by the power structures as tokens to “represent the race.” And finally, as the artist points out, this painting presents one of the few depictions of a blow job in the history of art.

“By taking on the contrasting images predicated by the American class system, Colescott makes a hero of the ordinary man and woman (even these stereotypes) and takes note of the social pressures on the ‘super niggers’ isolated from each generation by the power structures as tokens to ‘represent the race.’” — Lowery Stokes Sims

THE LUCAS MUSEUM was established by married co-founders George Lucas and Mellody Hobson and broke ground in 2018. Jackson-Dumont officially joined the museum in January 2020. She is one of a handful of Black directors leading a mainstream U.S. art museum.

Originally slated to open this year, the Lucas Museum is now expected to debut in 2023. The museum has been making major acquisitions. Last year it added the Separate Cinema Archive to its collection. The massive archive of more than 37,000 rare items documents more than a century of African American film, from 1904 to 2019.

In April, the museum acquired the archive for artist Judith F. Baca’s monumental mural “The History of California” (1976–84). Commonly referred to as The Great Wall of Los Angeles, the massive, half-mile long mural depicts the history of California from pre-history to the mid-20th century, capturing “well-known historical narratives as well as often-overlooked events such as the displacement of Indigenous communities, the internment of Japanese American citizens, and the expulsion of Mexican Americans from Chavez Ravine.”

“George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” an important, record-shattering painting by Colescott, is the latest addition to the collection.

“The acquisition of this significant painting brings into our collection a dynamic vehicle for exploring the many dimensions of narrative art. It is at once a contemporary and historical work of art,” Jackson-Dumont said in the museum’s statement.

“Visitors to the Lucas Museum will be able to explore and unpack racially, socially, and historically charged and significant figures, such as George Washington Carver, Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Ben, that Colescott intrudes into the patriotic narrative known from popular culture and Emmanuel Leutze’s iconic, 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware. Our hope is that they will consider how a visual artist can charge and change the story with complex histories and emotions.” CT

 

READ MORE about facts and analysis around gaining resale royalty rights from auction sales for artists and their estates

 

BOOKSHELF
“George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware” (1975), Robert Colescott’s record-setting painting, is published in the exhibition catalogs for “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas” and “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” and Richard J. Powell’s recent book, “Going There: Black Visual Satire,” among other volumes. Also consider “A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black-Cast Posters” and “Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art,” which document the extensive poster collection included in the archive acquired by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

 

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