The career of the American painter Robert Colescott (1925–2009) has never been more relevant than at this present moment in time. Given the crisis of race relations, image management, and political manipulation in the current American landscape, his perspectives on race, life, social mores, historical heritage, and cultural hybridity forthrightly confront the state of global culture today.
Colescott, who established his career in Portland with the support of gallery owner and philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer, initially made his mark on the art scene in the 1970s with paintings that transformed well known masterpieces of art history by blackfacing the main characters. This provocative strategy challenged long-standing taboos about racial stereotyping, while allowing Colescott to achieve his stated purpose to “interject Blacks into art history.” As he transformed familiar images to forge new, unexplored social meanings and implications, Colescott became a pioneer in the reemergence of figuration in the 1970s and in the strategies of appropriation in the 1980s.
Despite its unparalleled pedigree, however, Colescott’s work continues to be mired in controversy because of his blunt and crude gestural painting style and his transgressive examinations of race and gender. Colescott is particularly skillful at shocking us by dealing with the issues that we usually shy away from, or only speak of in secret, and then delivering what has been described as a “one-two punch” that forces us to grapple with the artistic, political, social, and historical meanings of his images.
Co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley, and organized by Raphaela Platow, the Contemporary Arts Center’s Alice & Harris Weston Director and Chief Curator. The online text is directly from the text panels and extended labels in the exhibition. Curatorial coordination in Portland by Grace Kook-Anderson, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art.
Colescott was born in Oakland, California in 1925. This painting celebrates the pioneering spirit of Colescott’s parents, Lydia Hutton Colescott and Warrington Colescott, Sr. Following the famous exhortation of John Babsone Lane Soule (widely attributed to publisher Horace Greeley) in the mid-19th century to “Go West,” Colescott’s parents moved from New Orleans to Oakland in 1919. Colescott evokes 19th century silhouette traditions in the bust-length profile depictions of his parents, who are nestled in pink clouds facing each other across the composition. He has dispersed various elements—a tipi, a moose, a house, spotted mustang, a cowboy, an oil well, a goat, and mountain rangers—throughout a multicolored map of the United States. In the center, a large tree in a cutaway space supports the nest of two birds, representing Colescott’s parents, who tend to two chicks, which represent the artist and his older brother Warrington, Jr. The garbage that litters the clouds represents what Colescott describes in 1981 as the “used underwear, popular trash, studio sweepings…that didn’t pass art history.”
Soon after graduating from high school in 1943, Colescott enlisted in the army and served in Europe. In 1946, he enrolled in San Francisco State University and then the University of California, Berkeley. In 1949, he went to France on the GI Bill, where he studied in the studio of the French modernist Fernand Léger. When Colescott arrived in Paris, he brought with him a portfolio of works on paper in the abstract style. The modernist pioneer explained to Colescott that he had turned away from his earlier involvement with abstraction because it was not accessible to ordinary people. Colescott decided to adjust to the situation and work from the models and props that Léger had set up in his teaching studio. As he made the transition in his own work, Colescott produced works imitative of Léger’s.
In 1964, Colescott applied for a position at the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt and became the first artist-in-residence at the Center in the fall of that year. Traveling to Egypt was perhaps the most pivotal turning point in Colescott’s life and career. He was immediately enamored with his new environment, which was very different from the cool, lush Pacific Northwest where he had lived for the past several years. It felt like the change that he had been seeking.
“I was haunted by the spirit of these dead queens and felt that I could make out their images in the surrounding rocks and crevices.”
Colescott’s Egyptian paintings present more abstract representations of the figure in space. On the one hand this could signify a return to earlier stylistic interests, and on the other it might be said that this effect was inspired by the eroded reliefs of the Valley of the Queens, an ancient burial ground south of Cairo. The partly effaced surfaces of these reliefs, with the fragmentary remnants of faces and figures, suggested to Colescott a spirit world or picture of the afterlife, which was, of course, a cornerstone of early Egyptian religion. The figures are sometimes fragmentary or upside down. There is no attempt to describe actual space, as the paintings are built up through large areas of pure color.
Colescott returned to the United States in 1969–70, settling in Oakland, California, where he had grown up. His style morphed from the lively zones of color and figuration that marked his Egyptian paintings into a cartoonish style inspired by the comic strips that he enjoyed as a child. In addition, they were also reflective of the countercultural imagery of his West Coast contemporaries, such as Joan Brown, Carlos Villa, Robert Arneson, Roy de Forest, William Wiley, and H.C. Westermann, as well as the Funk cartoonist Robert Crumb. Their work was characterized by an irreverent, no-holds barred approach to making art that reflected a Bay Area sensibility that made it a hotbed of political activism and artistic ferment, having been a key site of the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 70s. Colescott would have his debut on the New York art scene in the 1970s when he showed at the Spectrum and Razor Galleries. His fresh approach to figuration led to his being included in the groundbreaking exhibition Not for Laughs Only curated by Marcia Tucker at the New Museum in 1981. His initial strategy was to revisit the work of prominent artists in history such as Vincent van Gogh, Eugène Delacroix, Emanuel Leutze, and Pablo Picasso, and selectively render figures in the original compositions as Black people. This allowed him to address subject matter that was largely ignored by art history, while introducing a larger universe for aesthetic and artistic discourse.
By the mid-1970s, Colescott was fully engaged in his appropriation of art history. Eat Dem Taters—a spoof of van Gogh’s Potato Eaters—is particularly notorious. Here Colescott replaces van Gogh’s somber peasants with exuberantly grinning minstrel figures in order to send up the myth of the “happy darky.” The notion that Black people could be happy with very little was a staple of pre-World War II Hollywood films. This concept was also included in school textbooks of the period, in which Black people were described as fortunate to be enslaved, since slavery removed them from their previous, barbaric circumstances in Africa. Colescott effectively uses the stylization of racist stereotypes of Black people to draw viewers into the painting; and, regardless of their reaction, he forced them to confront their racist attitudes, anger or compliance.
While not a direct reference to Théodore Géricault’s 1818-19 painting, Raft of the Medusa in the Louvre Museum, the distribution of body parts and debris relates more closely again to the territory Colescott staked out for himself: “used underwear, popular trash, studio sweepings…that didn’t pass art history.” As opposed to the Géricaut composition, which is a scene of desperation with little hope of rescue, Colescott’s reminds us more of the wreck of the Titanic, particularly portrayed in the 1997 movie directed by James Cameron. We can bring to this image the observation of the critic Vivian Raynor, who noted in 1987 that Colescott “knows that the ship of civilization is sinking” but “he remains on board.”
This is one of two appropriations of Pablo Picasso’s 1907 Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art that Colescott painted in 1985. He designated the two versions “desnuda” (nude) and “vestida” (clothed) referring as well to Francisco Goya’s two representations of a “maja” (lower-class woman). The Demoiselles d’Alabama are rendered in Colescott’s characteristic fleshy, gestural style, which contrasts with Picasso’s more linear, graphic style. This version shows the figures dressed in exuberant clothing and styles. He explained that these appropriations were “about sources and ends,” as Picasso “started with European art and abstracted through African art, producing ‘Africanism,’ but keeping one foot in European art.” Colescott, however, “began with Picasso’s Africanism and moved toward European art, keeping one foot in Africanism.” This anti-academic, iconoclastic approach to figuration indicated Colescott’s explorations of the aesthetic issues surrounding Black and brown women. It crucially touches on the profound challenges around self-image among these women in the context of European cultural domination.
As in his reconstructions of masterpieces of Western art history, Colescott enjoyed debunking the narrative twists and turns of the “official” versions of biblical stories, as seen in his version of the story of the Garden of Eden in A Legend Dimly Told (whose title revisits a 1961 painting also in this exhibition) or Susanna and the Elders (Novelty Hotel), and in his ahistorical encounters between Aunt Jemima and Colonel Sanders. Aunt Jemima, in particular, seems to have captured his imagination. In two additional story lines, she becomes the consort of a Western gold rusher, Cactus Jack, or the impressive avatar of Willem de Kooning’s awesome image, Woman I. As Colescott noted in 1989, “I think the way I have appropriated painting is subversive because my version of the Déjeuner sur l’herbe or the de Kooning woman puts into question the ownership of the idea. The fact that the original work can be redone questions its value.” He also noted that if he created “something that really sticks in people’s minds” when they see the original version, “they’re going to think of mine.”
The most notable apparition of Aunt Jemima is in Colescott’s 1978 appropriation of Willem de Kooning’s Woman I of 1952-53 (Museum of Modern Art), one of the icons of Abstract Expressionism. I Gets a Thrill, Too, When I Sees De Koo replaces the grimacing figure in the de Kooning with a mischievous grinning avatar of Aunt Jemima. But this painting is also a variation of a Pop Art riff: I Gets a Thrill When I See Bill by Mel Ramos, where the head of the woman in the de Kooning is replaced with the headshot of a contemporary 1970s model. Colescott navigates a path from the gestural distortion of the de Kooning, through the glamorized version by Ramos. Thus, his Aunt Jemima acquires the sexual gloss of the Ramos, even as Colescott circles back technically to the gestural figuration of the de Kooning and the 1950s and 60s figural trends from which he has developed his style.
Since the 1980s, the issue of identity has preoccupied our increasingly globalized society. In Colescott’s career, that sense of identity was explored in various ways, including how he saw himself as a rogue romantic figure and an artist. Colescott was an astute and diligent student of cultural history and employed metaphor and allusion to deal with a variety of current events he experienced throughout his life. He deftly dealt with the ironic situation of the Black soldier, the dichotomy between domestic policy and foreign relations; interracial relationships were considered along with political assassinations, the struggles in the Middle East, and the US/ Mexico border. His New Orleans, Creole roots also drew him to the complexities of interracial identity, and his inherently bourgeois upbringing forced him to deal with the risks of assimilation—alienation from community, the possible loss of positive self-imagery and the endurance of trite stereotyping as the exotic “other.”
Painted over 20 years ago, this painting is another instance of Colescott’s prescience in terms of national and world events. As we contemplate the daily turmoil on the Mexico/US border, we can take note that Colescott observed in 1997 that this painting is about “human relations at the border. The will to get along in honesty and understanding is not about language differences. It’s about character and perception.”
The title of this painting demonstrates how Colescott exploited the convenience of Temple’s married name to achieve his code switch with regard to the racial identity of these two well-known protagonists. Susan Grubar suggests that “As in so many of his other paintings, this picture converts characters traditionally portrayed as white into Blacks, switching the races so as to ridicule, first our assumptions about white hegemony in cultural scripts and, second, the caricaturing that infects almost all depictions of African Americans in mass-produced as well as elite art.” The switch also causes us to wonder if America would ever accept a young Black girl as its sweetheart and whether it would tolerate the image of a white male obsequiously tap dancing. Gubar notes that Colescott’s self-described “one-two punch” in this instance “pertains to the shocking stories it uncovers about race and sex” and “the significance of the race-changed child in terms of sexuality, lineage, and cultural endowment.”
Colescott embarked on a series of paintings in the 1980s whose titles played on the platitude “those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it;” but, the titles provide a slight switch in nuance: Knowledge of the Past Is the Key to the Future. In this exhibition, works from this series examine the overlooked role of the African American Matthew Henson, who actually led the way to the North Pole as part of Admiral Peary’s expedition team (Matthew Henson and the Quest for The North Pole), the legacy of miscegenation and unacknowledged ancestry (The Other Washingtons), and the social and economic challenges of the disenfranchised (Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival). In these paintings, Colescott not only captures the kernel of the event, he surrounds it with “subtexts, pretexts, post-texts and narratives-within narratives” as how critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. once described the work of writer Ishmael Reed.
The specter of the figure in a red sweater at the left of the composition, who points a gun at the viewer, is a powerful evocation of events that have shaken American society too often over the last few years. Perhaps the alienation that is seen as a cause of school shootings is indicated by the fact that the relationship between the figures is random. Each one of the individual figures seems to be an independent entity absorbed in their individual stories. Scale and perspective are immaterial as we see the large reclining figure with a gunshot wound in his chest to the right; the male student nonchalantly points a gun directly out towards the spectator to the right; the anomalous bi-colored nude female who dominates the space just off center. Her large head on a relatively slim body is eerily reminiscent of one of Gauguin’s figural sculptures, such as Tahitian Girl of 1890 in the collection of the Nasher Sculpture Center.
Colescott’s parents left New Orleans, Louisiana, for Oakland, California, just after the end of World War I, in search of a better life. His mother had been a teacher before the war, and his father worked as a waiter on the Southern Pacific Railroad. His parents hoped that the move would lead to new possibilities for assimilation into mainstream society for themselves and their children. The aspirations of people of African descent to rise in society and join the middle class became a major theme of Colescott’s work. Now in the twenty-first century, we are becoming more conscious of the frailties of the myth of the American Dream. While it generally means economic, social, and political advancement, today that notion is inextricably caught up in issues around equity, immigration, migration, economic revival in the face of massive offshore outsourcing of production and products, and institutionalized racism. Additionally, gender roles and sexual orientation have expanded the scope of the analysis of the reality of the American Dream.
In Dialogue is an occasional series of interdisciplinary, discussion-based sessions that explore art on view at the Museum in relation to works in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Taking inspiration from Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, this upcoming series explores the impact of identity and culture with Sharyll Burroughs, colorism and gender with Dr. Ethan Johnson, and the use of satire with Broke Gravy. This In Dialogue series is supported by Cheryl and Rena Tonkin, and Marv Tonkin Leasing Company, In Memory of Alan Baron Tonkin. Please visit the Museum calendar for program dates.
Colescott’s approach to gender, race, and beauty was specific to his generation, and the period in which the paintings were done. As seen in television programs such as Mad Men, the post-World War II era in American culture was characterized by male privilege and female submission in the home, the office, and out in the world. Colescott inevitably goes to the heart of the matter with his deployment of images of women as vehicles of desire—specifically in the context of commentaries on war, national boosterism, and the economy. The dynamics of race intersect with gender and the promotion of mythic notions of what America was for its inhabitants and the world. Pin-up imagery therefore assumes a specific reference point for Colescott as he creates these female avatars of Black and white beauty. As seen in the paintings in this exhibition, the figural representations of women in Colescott’s work of the 1970s are set in the context of endlessly witty and exasperating visual puns that deconstruct popular advertising slogans, and popular idiomatic sayings. Displayed as they are as busty, hippy, even cellulite-y characters, they are at the service of the artist’s sardonic humor. But the question is: are they agents or vehicles? What lies behind those winsome, seemingly vacuous gazes? Are they smart cookies under Betty Boop guises, or forbearing ingénues ready to get what they want à la Mae West? What the consideration of popular imagery and its reception in the wider American cultures reveals is that what is there is not the whole story.
“I thought a lot about Cézanne’s bathers and Matisse’s bathers, and thought I would do some bathers. They’re about competing standards of beauty, and also about the intrusion of the white world on a black world. It also poses the idea of a beauty parade.”
Framed by Modernism was created by Carrie Mae Weems when she was commissioned by Miriam Roberts to make a portrait of Colescott for the catalogue of his installation at the Venice Biennale in 1997. Weems decided instead to explore the dynamics of the studio and the relationship between the artist and the model. In this situation, however, Weems is as much the artist as she is the model, so she posed herself in the nude assuming various poses in the corner at the back of Colescott’s studio. Colescott is positioned next to an easel at the front of the studio space with his back to Weems, his head in his hand or on his hip. The relative roles of the artist, model and viewer are in question, but in the end, it is Weems, who despite her diminutive presence, is in control of the situation. Weems noted she wanted to create an image which examines “the critical intersection between art and practice, men and women, and gender and identity, and notions about the object and the subject.”
Three preparatory drawings were done for a number of works from the 1970s, in which Colescott depicts questionable juxtapositions of adults and children, which transform sentimental images of childhood innocence into outrageous mashups of interracial sex, pedophilia, and colonialism. These include illustrations for a 1905 edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (originally published in 1851), Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates (first published in 1865 by Mary Mapes Dodge), poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (originally published in 1900) and Mark Twain’s 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As art historian Matthew Weseley has observed: “For Colescott, sex and race are inextricably mixed…and his paintings of the 1970s demolish many of the clichés regarding race with which he grew up. Like Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor—whom he admired—Colescott assumed the role of the comic shaman, who addresses serious issues in a humorous way, leading the viewer to realize the absurdity of ideas that often go unquestioned.”
In the early 2000s, Colescott had to face the effects of Parkinson’s syndrome. Despite the physical challenges he faced, Colescott continued to paint, as his figurative style evolved into richly modulated compositions that became increasingly abstract. Works such as Alas, Jandava present a more esoteric narrative in a child-like scribbly style. In Pick a Ninny Rose and Sleeping Beauty?, form, gesture, fully saturated color, and blank space come together in works that are dream-like and nightmarish at the same time. It would seem that Colescott allowed his subconscious to roam freely in an unresolved way, which relates morphologically and compositionally to the character of his paintings in the first few years of the twenty-first century.
“At this particular time people would like to feel a kind of intimacy in art. The move from the ideal and the classical, the need to feel and understand things and to identify things in the painting from their own lives—trivia, violence, confusion—is an element that has been unaddressed for a long time in art. People today are concerned with it. There’s a distrust for art that doesn’t concern itself with it and a real appreciation for art that does.”
If you decide to laugh, don’t forget the “humor is the bait,” and once you’ve bitten, you may have to do some serious chewing.
The tears may come later.
Presenting sponsor of the Portland exhibition: The Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation. Major support of the exhibition has also been provided by the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Richard Rosenthal; the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for the research phase of the exhibition and the exhibition itself; and The Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation for its support of the catalogue. The exhibition was also awarded a Sotheby’s Prize in 2018 in recognition of curatorial excellence and its exploration of an overlooked and under-represented area of art history.