Robert Colescott throws down the gauntlet
Be careful. A thundering and fascinating exhibition of the great American painter Robert Colescott (1925-2009), arrives at the New Museum, to delight and dissect. “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” is the first museum exhibition of this artist’s relentlessly provocative work to be seen in Manhattan since a 1989 exhibition (also at the New Museum) and the most comprehensive to date. It reveals a man who ultimately succeeded in merging his own private demons about race with the public demons of his country, creating one of the most compelling, both personal and socially relevant bodies of work in American painting. of the XXth century.
Tense and carefully crafted, the show traces Colescott’s heroic trajectory from start to finish, an edgy mix of abstraction and trompe-l’oeil during his undergraduate years to a sardonic humanism that’s both accusatory and optimistic.
As a light-skinned black American who was raised to pass as white – wanting, he would later say, “to belong to the wrong club” – Colescott did not artistically embrace his blackness until his mid-19s. 1960, at age 40.
After 1968 he produced very few paintings that did not refer to race and racism in ways that surprised, seduced, elucidated, amused and horrified. Embracing burlesque expressionism, he doctored stereotypes and caricature of blacks and whites, often reframing Western masterpieces with non-white subject matter. They were ancient and wildly satirical. In them, race was first among equal subjects which included gender, American history, sex, religion, consumerism and jazz, as well as large doses of popular culture – i.e. advertising, literature, movies, edibles and their mascots, like Colonel Sanders. .
Her points were highlighted by her fiery palette (hot pink, magenta and a vibrant cerulean blue) and her vigorous brushwork, both masterful and sloppy. In 1990, he wrote that he made “large sensual paintings. This is the first impact people get. They come in and say, ‘Oh wow!’ And then, ‘Oh [expletive]’ when they see what they have to deal with in the subject. It’s a built-in one-two punch; it catches them every time.
Perhaps most importantly, Colescott contributed to the resurgence of figurative painting that began in the 1970s and continues to this day, particularly among black artists. He first rose to prominence as a serial appropriator in the mid-1970s – ahead of Pictures Generation artists and Neo-Expressionists.
He was born in Oakland, where his parents (who identified as Creole) moved from New Orleans in 1919, at the start of the Great Migration. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley in 1949, and after living briefly in Paris and studying with Fernand Léger, returned for his graduate degree. In 1955 he accepted a job teaching college art in Seattle, then at Portland State College in 1957. (He taught at colleges and universities for most of his life, retiring in 1995 ). During these years he sorted around the influences of Northern California figurative painters – Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff and especially Joan Brown.
Colescott’s racial awakening began with two stints in Cairo, a residency in 1964 and a teaching position in 1966-67. You can see the effect of ancient Egyptian art in the first major painting in this exhibition, “We Await Thee” (1964), in which female nudes seem to emerge from a stone embankment. Their varying skin tones, as well as their literally split half-black, half-white bodies and faces, become frequent in Colescott’s work, perhaps reflecting his tensions around racial identity as well as the nation as a whole. .
Next, Colescott claimed the saturated colors of black figurative painter Bob Thompson in his “Nubian Queen” (1966) and “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” (1968), which seem to be populated by fiery red ghosts. Colescott carved out a place for himself in Pop Art with paintings like “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” (1971), which features a naked blonde above a black GI with a smoking M16 rifle.
His two most famous paintings, both from 1975, are his simplest appropriations: “Eat Dem Taters,” a black-and-white dispatch of van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” and “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook”. which transforms Emanuel Leutze’s depiction of George Washington, marching to victory, into a noir achievement, paying homage to one of America’s great educators. (In 2021, Carver’s painting sold at auction for $15.3 million to George Lucas for his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.)
Of Carver, Colescott observed in 1990, “The subversion of this icon, a quasi-religious image that everyone bows to and believes in – but no one thinks about – seemed like a good idea, a new life for an old shoe.”
Both works hang in the central gallery of this exhibition, crucial hinges between the artist’s early research efforts and his magnificent late works. These paintings throw down a gauntlet to both the art world and academia, but are only the beginning. If there’s one thing Colescott hasn’t done, it’s stand still.
In 1979, Colescott began to move towards more nuanced forms of appropriation in “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”, which shows the artist in his studio, painting a copy of Matisse’s “Dance”. , but distracted, as if by reality, in the form of a live model undressing.
One of the lesser-known and larger early paintings in the exhibition is ‘The Wreck of the Medusa’ from 1978, which takes us beyond Géricault’s masterpiece, ‘The Raft of the Medusa until the raft disintegrates into the sea – a beautiful expanse of blue under a narrow band of pink and blue sky. Dancing in the waves, a black man swims towards a blonde Avon lady, a lifeline, a swaddled baby (Moses?) adrift in a basket, and below, the performer himself near a bottle of alcohol.
A broader, yet lucid, humanist view of life takes hold in the final two galleries of the exhibition, with works from the late 1980s and 1990s. Cluttered with characters from eras, cultures and stories different, these paintings become almost lyrical. People move forward and overlap as if Colescott was thinking of cubism.
These phantasmagorical assemblages are thrilling, tragic, both legible and mysterious. In “School Days,” a black athlete points a handgun at us and, on the other side, a black man with a chest injury. A furious black woman with purple hair (white belly down) dominates the action.
Colescott wants us to understand some of what got us to this point, as his “Knowledge of the Past Is the Key to the Future” series suggests. One of them is “Matthew Henson and the Quest for the North Pole” (1986) which features a black American explorer, a naked white woman with the severed head of a black man on a platter – Salome and the martyr Jean Baptiste ; a chained black Venus and her leering white male guardian; and a woman whose face is half black and half white. In the lower left corner of this work – in one of the finest painting moments in the exhibition – a portrait of a Native American chief is sketched, indicating the immensity of white America’s sins.
Colescott, who died in 2009 at age 83, never stopped growing. In some of his final paintings he added different modes of representation, most effectively figures outlined in combinations of black and magenta. In “Beauty Is Only Skin Tone”, what appears to be an embracing black couple provides one of the show’s most peaceful and romantic moments. But take a good look. The man covers the woman’s eyes; a cartoonish white face, possibly that of Betty Boop, is confronted with a map of Africa which is also a woman’s head, and a black man appears to hold his head in white hands. Colescott’s paintings continue to make people nervous, especially in coastal enclaves of the art world. In 1997, when he became the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale with a solo exhibition, he was born at Site Santa Fe and the University of Arizona Museum of Art, some distance from these enclaves.
Likewise, the current exhibition was organized by the Cincinnati Center for Contemporary Art, and independent curator Matthew Weseley, author of an upcoming monograph on Colescott, and historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims, who writes on the artist’s work for decades. Together with Raphaela Platow, Director and Chief Curator of the Cincinnati Center for the Arts, the couple have orchestrated a lavish catalog in which we hear from Colescott (an excellent scholarly writer), his family and friends, and exceptionally astute professionals.
After traveling to Portland, Oregon, Chicago and Sarasota, Florida, the show arrived at its final stop at the New Museum, which was not on the original itinerary. It’s embarrassing that one of New York’s major museums wasn’t involved in this venture from the start, especially given its admissions of branching out on all fronts after the murder of George Floyd. But fortunately for the city, for the continued reshaping of American art history, and for young artists in all five boroughs, the Colescott show is here, and a debt of gratitude is owed to the New Museum.
Art and Race Matter: The Career of Robert Colescott
Through October 9, New Museum, 235 Bowery, Manhattan, 212-219-1222; newmuseum.org.