Robert Colescott: Knowledge of the past is the key to the future

 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American

Retrospective at the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

Robert Colescott was born in Oakland, CA of parents who had moved west from New Orleans in 1919.

 

 

 

Go West, 1980, acrylic on canvas.  

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

The artist’s parents, Lydia and Warrington Hutton Colescott, went west in search of economic opportunities and a path to assimilation into the middle class.  She had been a teacher and he a waiter on the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The two nesting birds in the center of the painting represent his parents tending his older brother and himself.

 

 

The artist was an African American the colour of whose skin would have permitted him – telling North American phrase – to “pass as white” if he so chose. 

 

This phrase is an indication of the abyss between Black and White Americans in terms of every kind of life chance and life outcome.

 

Robert Colescott never chose to pass as white despite protective parental pressure to do so.

 

He actively associated himself, his focus and his creative work with blackness. He began to do this towards the age of 40 after two visits to Egypt. 

The tension between his heritages continues to be visible in his work for years after these visits.

 

 

 

 

Real Crow, 1976,acrylic on canvas mounted on wooden panel (four parts).

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

On the one hand, crows are thought to bring bad luck and death. On the other, they are symbols of life, magic, mystery and destiny. 

‘Jim Crow’ is the name of a hateful minstrel character.

‘Jim Crow’ was an offensive name for Black Americans. 

Later it was the name applied to segregation laws implemented after the abolition of slavery.

‘Old Crow Bourbon’ is the logo of a Kentucky bourbon first distilled by James C. Crow in the 1830s.

 

 

 

as above

 

 

 

Before the age of 40, the artist appropriated a number of different styles from his studies of the Western tradition.

 

 

 

Untitled, 1949, oil on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

 

 

After that, the artist evolved a voluptuous, colour-saturated, vigorously brushworked figurative style

melding caricature and the burlesque; bleeding sometimes into Pop Art.

 

He was one of the revivers of figuration which had been cast into the wilderness in the 1940s; and remains in the demi-wilderness even now.

 

Robert Colescott’s subject matter was the distortion  of American history and readings of the landscape of current life by racial discrimination and gender bias: 

 

race, women and male-female relations,  medicine, consumerism, music, popular culture, America’s imperial ambitions.  

 

 

 

Homage to Roy Lichtenstein, 1991, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

He used incidents in American history as well as individual paintings and themes in the Western art tradition to point up the abyss the artist found between history and life as lived by African Americans

and their official narrative and representation. 

 

Ditto for women.

 

 

History and life itself in all their jumbled intensity, both surprising and joyful, and contradictory and conflict-full and death-bearing. 

 

Also multi-layered in terms of epoch and sequence;

and always more than the eye can take in in one swoop of reality or in one swoop of many of his images.  

 

The artist painted and taught art all his adult life. 

 

How difficult it is for African American  artists to be seen is pointed up

by the fact that not a single New York museum co-operated in the organization of this exhibition. 

 

This was the first retrospective of the artist’s work in New York in 30 years.

 

Only one other exhibition of Robert Colescott’s work has been shown in New York and that, also, at the New Museum, a newcomer to the museum world. 

 

This is the abysmal reality which is opposed to false narrative about ‘inclusion, equity, diversity, and fairness’.

 

This is the reality which Robert Colescott so robustly and imaginatively reconfigured,

 

pointing to the possibility of a fairer and ever more inclusive world

 

where the notion of ‘passing’ is without meaning and its practice dead.

 

 

 

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Untitled, 1949, oil on canvas.  

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

In 1949, the artist went to France on the GI Bill.  There he studied in the studio of the French modernist, Fernand Léger, 1881-1955.

This work, created when he returned to California, is imitative of Léger’s style.

 

 

 

 

Untitled, 1955-56, oil on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

 

 

 

Olympia, 1959, oil on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

An early appropriation of an individual painting:  this of Edouard Manet’s famous painting of the same name.

 

 

 

 

Legend Dimly Told, 1961; oil on canvas

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

 

 

 

From a Fragment by Sargent, 1962, oil on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

Here another appropriation: this time focusing on one daughter and a large Asian vase in a painting by John Singer Sargent:  The Daughters of Edward Darley Bait, 1881.

 

 

 

 

Untitled, 1963, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

 

 

In 1964 Colescott obtained a position at the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt.  He steeped himself in the art of Egypt’s ancient burial grounds. 

The influence of this work can be seen in a group of works by the artist called ‘Valley of the Queens’. 

 

Figures are partly effaced, fragmentary and sometimes upside down. There is no attempt to define the space in which these figures move.

 

 

 

 

We Await Thee, 1964, oil on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by Portland Art Museum, Oregon in 2022

 

 

Nubian Queen, 1966, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY  in 2022

 

 

 

 

Colescott was very affected by the public images of Blacks on television, in film and in advertising in all medias.

 

He created a number of works to satirize both racist attitudes in the media and his own position as a Black artist responding to the biases in the art of the Western tradition.

 

It was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that other than white TV characters were introduced into American TV.

 

 

 

 

Miss Black Oakland, 1967, acrylic on Egyptian linen.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY  in 2022

 

 

 

 

Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, 1968, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

 

 

 

In the galleries during this exhibition

 

 

 

 

The artist’s interest in stereotypes extended to the ways in which women were (are) caricatured and diminished in public media and commercial advertising.

 

 

 

 

Havana Corona,1970, acrylic on canvas. 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Brooklyn Museum loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

 

 

 

In the galleries during this exhibition

 

 

 

 

 

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie, 1971, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American. Akron Art Museum loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

The title is that of the counter-cultural song by Don McClean created in the disillusionment with the American imperial activity during the Vietnam War.

 

 

 

Beauty Queen, 1972, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the artist’s estate and his gallery in 2022

 

 

 

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Robert Colescott appropriated individual images from the Western cannon.

 

 

 

 

The Potato Eaters, 1885, oil on canvas. Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890, Dutch.

Image from the website of the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

 

 

 

Eat Dem Taters, 1975, acrylic on canvas. 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

Van Gogh’s peasants are replaced by a group of ‘happy darky’ characters.  It was long a tenet of North American white culture that Blacks were happy with very little and should be grateful to have been ‘rescued’ from Africa for a life in North America. 

 

This belief has not died out yet and is part of the unofficial justification for the racial discrimination which keeps a disproportionately large number of Blacks in  poverty.

 

 

 

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Washington crossing the Delaware, 1851, oil on canvas.

  Emmanuel Leutze, 1816-1868, German American.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

 

 

 

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loan from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

The artist has replaced George Washington with the agricultural researcher and renowned teacher, George Washington Carver. 

The rest of the crew is made up of stereotypes of Blacks from Hollywood movies. 

This image of a tin-patched boat and its ‘sailors’ is the artist’s metaphor for the United States. 

This was created one year before the Bicentennial of the American Revolution whose heroic depiction in the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware it parodies.

 

 

 

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Tin Gal, 1976, acrylic on canvas

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

 

 

Lone Wolf in Paris, 1977, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2022

 

 

 

 

 

Cactus Jack in El Dorado, 1977, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by Newark Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

 

 

Colored T.V., 1977, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2022

 

The word ‘colored’ in American English is a pejorative word for Black Americans. 

This painting refers also to the development of colour television.  Here a blond woman on screen speaks to the lack of racial diversity in the business of the small screen.

 

 

 

 

The Wreckage of the Medusa, 1978, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

Here are the shipwrecked people and detritus from the large painting of Théodore Géricault, ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, 1818-1819.

 

 

 

 

Colescott returned to California from a second visit to Egypt in 1970. 

 

From then on he often included his own image in his paintings: an unambiguous interpreter.

 

 

 

 

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, 1979, acrylic on canvas. 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by Portland Art Museum, Oregon in 2022

 

Here the artist is working on a copy of Henri Matisse’s 1910 painting, La Danse. 

The artist, distracted, turns to look at a woman only partially dressed.

Colescott explained that this is a representation of his creative process: on the one hand the imagination and on the other reality.

 

 

 

 

Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White, 1980,  acrylic on canvas. 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

Shirley Temple Black was a very popular White actress from her childhood onwards.

Bill Robinson was a Black performer and dancer who started in minstrelsy and vaudeville and moved into film and TV.

The artist switches the race of these two real people to ask whether we would hold them in the same regard if their race differed.

 

 

 

 

By the early 1980s, the artist had moved beyond parodies of individual masterpieces. 

He began to look at recurring themes in Western art history.

 

 

 

 

Three Graces:  Art, Sex and Death, 1981; acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loan from the Whitney Museum of (North) American Art, NY to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

This is a very old myth, revived during the Renaissance. The sculpture is the artist himself. 

The Black Grace is outside of the circle of the White Graces.

 

 

 

 

Bad Habits, 1983, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loan from the Portland Art Museum to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

The artist touches on the taboo of the socio-erotic appeal of White women for Black men: a subject of huge angst in the culture of the US.

 

 

 

 

The Judgement of Paris, 1984, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

The artist touches here again on the taboo of the socio-erotic appeal of White women for Black men: a subject of huge angst in the culture of the US.

 

 

 

 

Three Graces at the Bathers’ Pool: Venus is still Venus, 1985, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American. Baltimore Art Museum

 

 

 

 

Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future

 

Robert Colescott grouped a number of tableaux under this heading in the 1980s.

This proposition seems to have worked its deep meanings in him

 

and, perhaps, given him the insight and focus to keep on documenting his own complex inheritance

 

in the process by which he both rejected the advantages which would have come to him had he identified as a White American

 

and also documented the contribution of the races of North America to its history and present

 

irrespective of official  narratives which are skewed and skewered by racism and misogyny.

 

In these paintings, the artist represented encounters among people of different races on the American continent.

 

He re-interpreted the subjects of Old Master paintings or of actual events in the history of the United States. 

 

These dense tableaux re-imagined the ways in which Blacks were overlooked in official narratives but nevertheless played a  constant and lively part.

 

 

 

 

Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Matthew Henson and the Quest for the North Pole, 1986; acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum in 2022

 

Matthew Henson, 1866-1955, an African American, led the way to the North Pole. 

This was one of 7 voyages to the Arctic over a 23-year span as part of the team of Admiral Robert Peary, 1856-1920.

Henson was the bridge to the Inuit communities whose aid was critical in these explorations.

 

 

 

 

Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Some Afterthoughts on Discovery, 1986, acrylic on canvas

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

 

 

 

 

 

Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future, 1986, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

The body of the Catholic saint, Sebastian, has become half Black male, half White female.  On either side, nooses tether the heads of a White male and a Black female.

 

The fact that the US Congress has (December 2020) found reason to rush the nationwide protection of interracial marriage into law indicates how widespread to this day is the fear that these interracial relationships will not be protected in some states.

 

 

 

 

Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future:  Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival, 1987, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by Portland Art Museum, Oregon

 

 

 

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An American Rescued in the Desert by the Mahdi and Emperor Haile Sellasie, 1986; acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022 by N’Namdi Contemporary Fine Art, Miami, FL

 

An evocation of intermittent, messianic movements which have called for diasporic African communities to return to Africa.

Haile Sellassie I, 1892-1975, the last Ethiopian emperor.

Muhammad Abad bin Abd Allah, designated the Mahdi, 1844-1885, Nubian.

 

 

 

 

Modern Day Miracles, 1988, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.

 

 

 

 

 

In the galleries during this exhibition

 

 

 

 

 

Hard Hats, 1987, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY by Milwaukee Art Museum in 2022

 

 

 

 

In the late 1980s into the 1990s, the artist moved to bolder colours and experimental compositions of figures, shapes, symbols and personal cyphers. 

 

The immeasurable goings on of ordinary North American life, marked as it is by its racial and gender fault lines.

 

 

 

 

School Days, 1988, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned to the New Museum, NY in 2022 by Denver Art Museum

 

A jaundiced view of the educational system of many American communities:  the Whites are hard at work and graduating.  The Blacks are in disorder.

 

 

 

 

Emergency Room, 1989, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  MOMA, NY

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty is Only Skin Deep, 1991, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loan from the University of Arizona Museum of Art to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

 

 

 

Arabs:  The Emir if Iswid (How Wide the Gulf?) 1992; acrylic on canvas. 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

This painting refers both to the Gulf War, 1990-91 and an archaeological site on the Nile which revealed the existence of a community from the fourth millennium BCE.

 

 

 

 

Choctaw Nickel, 1994, liquitex gel medium on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned by the New School Art Collection, NY to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

 

 

 

Venus 1, 1996, acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Loaned by Portland Art Museum, OR to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

 

 

Alas, Jandava, 1998; acrylic on canvas.

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009, American.  Private collection loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Robert Colescott: Knowledge of the past is the key to the future

  1. My Goodness! Colescott’s work is so prolific and, despite the implicit protests, filled with joyful colour and humour. Loved seeing it. Thank you, Sarah for an introduction to this wonderful artistic outpouring.

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