TWO PAINTINGS WITH HISTORIC EXHIBITION HISTORIES recently sold at Bonhams auction house. “White Boy” (1989)” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)” (1991) by Robert Colescott (1925-2009) are important works in artist’s oeuvre. In 1997, Colescott was the first Black artist to represent the United States in a single-artist exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Both “White Boy” (1989)” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)” were featured in his show in the U.S Pavilion.

Earlier this month, “White Boy” sold for more than $930,000 at Bonhams Los Angeles. “Hunchback of Notre Dame” sold for more than $1.4 million last fall at Bonhams New York.

 


Nov. 11, 2021 (New York) – Lot 6: ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009), “Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo),” 1991 (acrylic on canvas, 90 x 114 inches / 228.6 by 289.7 cm.). | Estimate $1 million-$1.5 million. SOLD for $1,410,312 fees included

 

Recognized for his thought-provoking and insightful works, Colescott took race and gender relations head on, dispatching with political correctness. He often referenced and riffed on well-known European images—employing art history traditions and prominent cultural figures to debunk myths, poke fun at accepted norms, and surface uncomfortable truths.

Colescott showed 19 paintings made over the previous 10 years in Venice. His most celebrated paintings are large-scale, dense figurative compositions masterfully rendered in deep saturated colors. “White Boy” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame” are prime examples of this approach.

“Hunchback of Notre Dame” was acquired from Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York in 1997, the same year as the Venice exhibition. At Bonhams Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on Nov. 11, the painting sold within the estimate ($1 million-$1.5 million) for $1,410,312. The result is second-highest price at auction for a work by the artist.

Colescott’s Hunchback image remains as poignant today as it was three decades ago when he created it. Referencing “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Victor Hugo’s 1933 novel, the painting explores the complexities of race, sex, and politics through the lens of cultural stereotypes and taboos. A Black Notre Dame football player, a blind-folded lady justice figure, and church bells are among the symbols and metaphors that surround the central vignette—a Black man in the character of the Quasimodo, cradling a nude white woman.

In the novel, Hugo’s protagonist communicated solely through ringing the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral. The people of Paris were afraid of Quasimodo, but appreciated the melody of the bells, a scenario akin to the longstanding nature of white society’s relationship to the Black community. The subject of great fascination, Black culture and entertainment are embraced and appropriated, while Black people are generally regarded as far less desirable, even feared.

The 47-lot Bonhams New York sale also featured “That Little Place Around The Corner” (1988), a small painting by Colescott and an untitled sculpture by Richard Hunt dated 1979.

 


Feb. 18, 2022 (Los Angeles) – Lot 6: ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009), “White Boy,” 1989 (acrylic on canvas, 84 x 72 inches / 213.4 x 182.9 cm). | Estimate $800,000-$1.2 million. Sold for $930,313 fees included

 

IN 1996, “WHITE BOY” by Colescott was acquired from Laura Russo Gallery in Portland, Ore. Twenty-five years later, the lot headlined Bonhams Post War & Contemporary Art auction on Feb. 18 in Los Angeles. Despite the promotion and exhibition history, interest in the painting among buyers was lukewarm, with bids topping out below the estimate ($800,000-$1.2 million). The lot hammered at $750,000 ($930,313 fees included).

The sale included 40 lots. “White Boy” at Lot 6 and was followed by “(Forever Free) Get Emerged” (1999) by Michael Ray Charles at Lot 7, meeting a similar fate. “(Forever Free) Get Emerged” sold for $20,312.50 fees included. The hammer price was $16,000 failing to reach the estimate ($20,000-$30,000).

The paintings were completed within two years of each other, but the artists differ in age by four decades. Creating complex images that confront racial stereotypes, Charles is among subsequent generations of African American artists who have followed Colescott, navigating similar themes in their work.

Like Colescott, Charles has maintained a career as an educator alongside his artistic practice. A professor of painting at the University of Houston in Texas, Charles splits his time between Houston and Brussels, Belgium. Coming soon, a solo show dedicated to Charles opens at Galerie Templon in Paris, France, on March 19.

BORN IN OAKLAND, CALIF, Colescott served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. He 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.

Over the six-decades he pursued his artistic practice, Colescott was also a university professor, teaching painting at Portland State University in Oregon; the University of California at Berkeley; and the University of Arizona in Tucson. Early in his career, he was the first visiting professor of art at the American University in Cairo, Egypt (1966-67). Colescott died in Tucson, Ariz. in 2009. He was 83.

Colescott’s current record was achieved in May 2021 when his seminal painting “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” (1975) sold for an astronomic $15.3 million at Sotheby’s, far exceeding his previous auction history, which had peaked at $912,500 in 2018. The painting is now in the collection of the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.

Only two paintings by Colescott have sold for more than $1 million at auction—”George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” CT

 

* All results include Buyer’s Premium fees, unless otherwise noted. Estimates and hammer prices do not include fees

 

FIND MORE On March 9, Bonhams is hosting its Modern & Contemporary African Art auction in London

FIND MORE about resale royalty rights for visual artists from the Center for Art Law, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit

 

READ MORE about Robert Colescott’s Venice Biennale exhibition in the Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker

 

BOOKSHELF
“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” documents the artist’s current traveling retrospective and is the most comprehensive volume about his life and work. Also consider, the catalog “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas,” which was published on the occasion of the exhibition organized by the Seattle Art Museum in 2018.

 

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