Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott

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 initially made his mark on the art scene in the 1970s with paintings that transformed well-known masterpieces of art history by black facing 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. Following its debut in Cincinnati, the exhibition will travel to the Portland Art Museum, Sarasota Art Museum and Chicago Cultural Center.

Major support of the exhibition has 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.

Additional support has been generously provided by:

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Ernie Kretzmer
Gerald and Sondra Biller

By Gallery

Richard & Barbara Basch Gallery

Robert Colescott, 1919, 1980, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
1919
1980
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

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-nineteenth century to “Go West,” Colescott’s parents moved from New Orleans to Oakland in 1919. Colescott evokes nineteenth-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 ranges—throughout a multicolored map of the United States. In the center, a large tree in a cut away 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 described in 1981 as the “used underwear, popular trash, studio sweepings…that didn’t pass art history.”

Getting Started

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. Three years later, 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.

Robert Colescott, Homage à Fernand Léger, 1950, Pen and graphite on paper, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Homage à Fernand Léger
1950
Pen and graphite on paper

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Robert Colescott, Rue St. Marceaux, 1949, Gouache on paper, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Rue St. Marceaux
1949
Gouache on paper

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Robert Colescott, Flowers, 1958-1959, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Flowers
1958-1959
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust
and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Aussi Assis, 1955-1956, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Aussi Assis
1955-1956
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkCourtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Aussi Assis

1955-1956
Oil on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust
and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

After receiving a master’s degree from Berkeley, although he would have preferred to work with students on the college level, Colescott went to work teaching art to middle school students in the public school system in Seattle, Washington. He began to free himself of Léger’s influence. His paintings of this period show how he began to engage with the more figurative aspects of Abstract Expressionism, as seen in the loose, vigorous brushstrokes of Willem de Kooning, and the gestural figuration developed by artists on the west coast.

Robert Colescott, View of Columbia Gorge, 1960, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer
View of Columbia Gorge
1960
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer

Robert Colescott, Untitled, 1949, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Lauren McIntosh, Berkeley, CA
Untitled
1949
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of Lauren McIntosh, Berkeley, CA

Untitled

1949
Oil on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of Lauren McIntosh, Berkeley, CA

This work—never before exhibited in public—is in the collection of Colescott’s cousin Lauren McIntosh, who was given it by the artist. It indicates his style of painting when he was working on his graduate degree at Berkeley. What is striking is the interplay of rectangular and trapezoidal planes, which predicate how he organized his compositions later in his career despite their more figurative orientation.

Olympia

Ca. 1959
Oil on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

Along with From a Fragment Sargent, painted in 1962, this composition is a prelude to Colescott’s appropriations of western art history in the 1970s. Here he pays homage to the famous 1863 painting of the same title by Édouard Manet in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Colescott softens the confrontational attitude of the main figure in the Manet and brings the Black maid into the same light and plane so that she is more in dialogue with Olympia. Her posture provocatively suggests it is she who is bringing the offering of flowers to Olympia.
Robert Colescott, Olympia, Ca. 1959, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation
Olympia,
Ca. 1959
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

Robert Colescott, Expectation, 1963, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Expectation
1963
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Expectation

1963
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust
and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

This painting, done on the eve of Colescott’s sojourn in Egypt, is notable for its elaborate details of the interior around the nude study, as seen in the pattern of the back walls and rug at the lower left. We also see how he uses checkered patterned elements—garments, floors, tablecloths, etc.— to activate space, and to create a spatial bridge between the table on which the figure leans and her lap as she sits in the chair. The complexity of the planes created by the walls, floor, folding screen and the blue structure to the left reminds us of the early untitled painting from 1946 in this exhibition.

We can see similar elements in Interior II—Homage to Roy Lichtenstein, painted three decades later, in which Colescott has inserted a Black woman into the Pop artist’s original interior. As critic Martin Lobel has noted: “Through his alterations to the image, Colescott forces us to see the literal but also figurative (read: racialized) whiteness on which the coolness and detachment of Lichtenstein’s image—and, by extension, that of Pop in general—depends.” This demonstrates how Colescott’s challenge to western art truisms was ongoing throughout his career.
Robert Colescott, Legend Dimly Told, 1961, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Legend Dimly Told
1961
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

From a Fragment Sargent

1962
Oil on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust
and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

From a Fragment Sargent was inspired by the 1881 painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Colescott compresses the scene to focus on the daughter at the left and the large blue and white vase that illustrates the vogue for Asian ceramics in the late 1800s.

Robert Colescott, From a Fragment Sargent, 1962, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
From a Fragment Sargent
1962
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Robert Colescott, White Bowl (Distance Traversed), 1962, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer
White Bowl (Distance Traversed)
1962
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer

White Bowl (Distance Traversed)

1962
Oil on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer

The works that Colescott created in Oregon—where he moved in 1957 to teach at Portland State College—are less brushy in character and are more aligned to the work of Bay Area figurative painters such as Elmer Bischoff, who had briefly been Colescott’s teacher at Berkeley.

Flora & Andrew Major Gallery

Egypt

In 1964, Colescott applied for a position at the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt and became their first artist-in-residence 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.

Colescott returned to Oakland, California in 1969-70. His style morphed from the lively zones of color that marked his Egyptian paintings into a cartoonish style inspired by the comic strips that he enjoyed as a child. They also reflected the countercultural imagery of his west coast contemporaries, such as Joan Brown, Robert Arneson, Roy de Forest, William Wiley, and H.C Westermann, as well as the 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.

Robert Colescott, We Await Thee, 1964, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, Gift of the Artist, © 1964 Robert Colescott, 66.60
We Await Thee
1964
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, Gift of the Artist
© 1964 Robert Colescott, 66.60

Robert Colescott, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet
1968
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Beauty is Only Skin Deep

1991
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
Museum Purchase Funds provided by the Edward J. Gallagher, Jr. Memorial Fund

This painting demonstrates the virtuosity with which Colescott approached figuration and compositional organization in the 1990s. Here a spectral couple rendered in black with red accents seems to emerge from the pink cloud like an extra-terrestrial formation. Within the cloud, and below at the extreme left corner, there are Picasso-esque faces that face frontal with profile views in the same form. To the right is a brown face that resembles a tribal head, which covers itself with hands of a lighter hue. Crammed in between all this is a multi-colored topographical form of the African continent on the left, and a landscape of a brown path with greenery on the other side, leading to purple mountains and a section of blue sky in the distance.

Robert Colescott, Beauty is Only Skin Deep, 1991, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Collection of The University of Arizona Museum of Art
Beauty is Only Skin Deep
1991
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
Museum Purchase Funds provided by the Edward J. Gallagher, Jr. Memorial Fund

Robert Colescott, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: St. Sebastian, 1986, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Private Collection,
Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: St. Sebastian
1986
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Private Collection

Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: St. Sebastian

1986
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Private Collection

In this painting, the body of the saint has become a perfectly bi-furcated hermaphrodite—Black male/white female—shot through with the arrows. On either side of this figure float the heads of a white male and a Black female, which are tethered together by nooses. As Colescott noted, he was dealing with the “interrelatedness of the races, common destiny, and the idea of survival…if one goes, we all go.” An ominous pile of human skulls lies to the left amid the rocky terrain, reminding us that we are always under the “threat of oblivion.” While the meaning of the composition is centered on outdated taboos around interracial relations, recent events in which nooses have been left by anonymous individuals to intimidate African Americans demonstrate the persistence of prejudice and attempts at oppression and suppression in our society.

Elaine Mason Keating Gallery

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 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 21st century.

Robert Colescott, Sleeping Beauty?, 2002, Acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Sleeping Beauty?
2002
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Susan M. Palmer Gallery

Reckoning with the American Dream

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 21st 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 preference have expanded the scope of the analysis of the reality of the American Dream.

Cactus Jack in El Dorado

1977
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of the Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, Gift of Gregory A. Lunt, 1988

Cactus Jack in Eldorado is one of two compositions from 1977 that shows Aunt Jemima roughing it on the frontier, cooking a meal, as Cactus Jack pans for gold. These compositions directly relate to Colescott’s frequent evocation of the western myths and stories that dominated his childhood in movies and books. The landscape, which has been an important element in his work since the 1960s, literally carries the story as the river flows from the top of the composition to the foreground.
Robert Colescott, Cactus Jack in El Dorado, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Newark Museum, Gift of Gregory A. Lunt, 1988
Cactus Jack in El Dorado
1977
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of the Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, Gift of Gregory A. Lunt, 1988

Robert Colescott, The Wreckage of the Medusa, 1978, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Joyce Cooper (Estate of Jay Cooper); Phoenix, AZ; Courtesy of George Adams Gallery, NYC
The Wreckage of the Medusa
1978
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Private collection

The Wreckage of the Medusa

1978
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Private collection

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 Géricault composition, which is a scene of desperation with little hope of rescue, Colescott’s reminds us more of the wreck of the Titanic, particularly as 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.”

Study for George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware

1974
Pencil on paper
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Benny Andrews Nene Humphrey Collection

In George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, Colescott replaced George Washington in Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum with the renowned agricultural researcher. Colescott replaced the rest of the crew with a literal boatload of stereotypes lifted from Hollywood movies: a chef, a barefoot fisherman, a musician strumming a banjo, a man swilling moonshine, a shoeshine boy, and a mammy figure performing fellatio on the flag bearer at the center of the composition. Colescott has reduced the size and impressiveness of the boat in the original 1851 painting and undermined its seaworthiness with a tin patch. He has also enlarged the American flag to convey the idea that the boat and its inhabitants constitute a metaphor for America itself. George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware is the most gleeful and unbridled attack on racist ideology in his oeuvre, and it would become his most famous work, maintaining a notoriety that has persisted to today.
Robert Colescott, Study for George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware, 1974, Pencil on paper, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Benny Andrews Nene Humphrey Collection
Study for George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware
1974
Pencil on paper

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Benny Andrews Nene Humphrey Collection

Robert Colescott, Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White, 1980, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer
Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White
1980
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer

Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White

1980
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer

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 the two well-known protagonists. Susan Gubar 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.”

Real Crow

1976
Acrylic on canvas on wooden panel
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Colescott was deeply affected by the representations of Blacks in the mass media, so he created many works that address their marginalization. Some of the most effective works turn familiar images on their heads by inserting Black and other minority figures in situations usually associated in advertising, television or film with white Americans. This composition demonstrates Colescott’s interest in the interpretive possibilities of product brands and advertising strategies. The depiction of the crow in top hat and smoking a cigar is typical of the anthropomorphism that was seen in cartoon characters such as Heckel and Jeckel. Crows have a disruptive reputation both in mythology and popular lore. On the one hand, they are symbols of bad luck and death, and on the other, symbols of life, magic, mystery, and destiny. With reference to this image we can contemplate the fact that Old Crow bourbon is a signature product of the state of Kentucky where it was first distilled by James C. Crow in the 1830s. It’s original logo, a crow perched atop grains of barley, is rumored to have been a symbol of the bridging of the North and South during the Civil War.

Robert Colescott, Real Crow, 1976, Acrylic on canvas on wooden panel, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Real Crow
1976
Acrylic on canvas on wooden panel

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Robert Colescott, Hard Hats, 1987, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, Gift of Judith and Howard Tullman
Hard Hats
1987
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Gift of Judith and Howard Tullman, M1998.79

Hard Hats

1987
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Gift of Judith and Howard Tullman, M1998.79

This composition can be seen as an homage to the post war “construction worker” paintings by Colescott’s mentor Fernand Léger. It features a wife visiting her construction worker husband on site.

She wears a pot on her head to mimic his own hard hat, and to the left is a vignette of a kitchen counter and sink with dishes, and a variety of construction workers, including a shirtless Black man, a supervisor wearing a shirt and tie with a cigar. The scaffolding that creates horizontal/ vertical framework in paintings such as Léger’s 1951 Builders with a Rope in the collection of Guggenheim Museum is mirrored in Hard Hats by the placement of the wooden beam hauled by the Black worker and the planks of wood suspended from an unseen crane. Both mimic the horizontal and vertical alignment of the windowpanes. Colescott’s celebration of ordinary people in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness—the American corollary to ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’—indicates how Léger and Colescott shared political perspectives.

Elaine W. Crouse Gallery

Misbehavin' Art History

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 lead 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.

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). Aunt Jemima, in particular, seems to have captured his imagination. In Cactus Jack in El Dorado, she becomes the consort of a western gold rusher. As Colescott noted in 1989, “I think the way I have appropriated painting is subversive because my version of the Dejeuner 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.”

Robert Colescott, Relationship, 1949, Oil on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Relationship
1949
Oil on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust
and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death

1981
Acrylic on Canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Gift of Raymond J. Learsy, 91.59.1

This painting draws on a theme from antiquity that was revived in the work of Italian artists such as Raphael and Sandro Botticelli during the Renaissance. The three female figures usually represent the qualities of “charm,” “beauty,” and “creativity.” Colescott brings a more contemporary nuance to these avatars, adding almost a punk quality as he characterized them as representing “Art,” “Sex,” and “Death.” The Graces are usually represented nude, with their arms around each other’s shoulders as they stand in a circle with one figure facing left, a center figure standing with her back to the viewer and the third standing facing right. In Colescott’s version, the figures are rendered more individually rather than as three versions of the same figure. They have their own personalities, skin tones, clothing, and accessories.
Robert Colescott, The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death, 1981, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Whitney Museum of American Art
The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death
1981
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Gift of Raymond J. Learsy, 91.59.1

Robert Colescott, Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, 1979, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Portland Art Museum
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
1979
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Gift of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer in honor of Brian Ferriso © 1979 Robert Colescott, 2006.96

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

1979
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Gift of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer in honor of Brian Ferriso
© 1979 Robert Colescott, 2006.96

In Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, Colescott depicts himself at an easel working on a version of Henri Matisse’s La Danse of 1910 in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. He has turned away from the painting to look at a woman in a state of partial undress. According to Colescott, the painting is an allegory of his creative process, in which he is caught between the world of his imagination, which he depicts on canvas, and the real world, with all its distractions and allurements. In a 1981 interview with artist/writer Joe Lewis, Colescott notes that he was “involved with these non-flesh-and-blood women” in the Matisse, while he was “also faced with the flesh-and-blood woman. It’s a conflict between art and reality.”

Venus I

1996
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Gift of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer
© 1996 Robert Colescott, 2003.4.3

This painting relates to Colescott’s Bad Habits of 1983 where he deals with the subject of the artist’s studio. In the earlier painting, the nude model floats above the artist’s head as if she is an idea coming into being as he paints. In a continuation of Colescott’s ongoing examination of issues of beauty and race, here he shows the model sitting on a bench with her back to us, contemplating a mirror in which a reflection of Black woman confronts her. While Colescott depicts himself at the easel capturing his Bad Habits, the easel in Venus I is anthropomorphic, with easel’s legs, a torso formed by a painting and a palette from which two precariously perched paintbrushes hang like arms and hands. A second palette with brushes poked through the thumbhole serves as the head. Colescott himself may appear as two specters in this painting: the illusive Cheshire Cat whose leering set of lips and teeth clinch a proverbial stogy, which materializes from a checkerboard tablecloth—the tail end of which is anchored by the buttocks of the Venus. Or he could be the rather sketchy figure at the lower left that is reminiscent of one of Picasso’s self-presentations.

Robert Colescott, Venus I, 1996, Acrylic on canvas,© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Portland Art Museum, Oregon, Gift of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer
Venus I
1996
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Gift of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer
© 1996 Robert Colescott, 2003.4.3

Robert Colescott, A Legend Dimly Told, 1982, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
A Legend Dimly Told
1982
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan

A Legend Dimly Told

1982
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan

This is one of several paintings—including Auvers sur Oise (Crow in the Wheatfield) of 1981 and Lost in the Jardin des Plantes of 1982—in which Colescott presents a lush landscape as the focal point of the composition, while various human shenanigans go on at the lower edge/ foreground of the composition, invariably presided over by an outsized character (Vincent van Gogh, Colescott). One wonders if Colescott was thinking of the character of the Lord (“De Lawd”) played by Rex Ingram in the 1936 film, Green Pastures, with its all-Black cast.

School Days

1988
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from NBT Foundation 1991.56

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.

Robert Colescott, School Days, 1988, Acrylic on canvas,© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from NBT Foundation 1991.56
School Days
1988
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from NBT Foundation 1991.56

Robert Colescott, Alas, Jandava, 1998, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Jandava Cattron
Alas, Jandava
1998
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Private collection

Susanna and the Elders

1980
Colored pencil and graphite on paper
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

This study for a painting of the same name is a particularly provocative retelling of the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. While Susanna is the victim of inappropriate voyeurism of tormenting men in the story, in Colescott’s image, she turns the table and becomes the tormentor, performing a virtual striptease in front of them.
Robert Colescott, Susanna and the Elders, 1980, Colored pencil and graphite on paper, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Susanna and the Elders
1980
Colored pencil and graphite on paper

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Robert Colescott, My Shadow, 1977, Crayon on paper, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
My Shadow
1977
Crayon on paper

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

Robert Colescott, Colored T.V., 1977, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Colored T.V.
1977
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
Gift of Vicki and Kent Logan

Colored T.V.

1977
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
Gift of Vicki and Kent Logan

Colescott has relied on various meanings of the word “colored” to inform this scene of a Black woman watching television. On the one hand, the word was used to refer to Black people in a rather pejorative way, and on the other, refers to advances in television technology that permitted the transmission of images in color as opposed to black and white. Interestingly, the image on the television is that of a blond, white woman, reminding us of the lack of diversity in the media, which began to be addressed in the late 1960s and 1970s with the debut of television shows such as Julia, The Jeffersons, Benson, What’s Happening, and The Flip Wilson Show.
Robert Colescott, Interior II - Homage to Roy Lichtenstein, 1991, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Collection of George N’Namdi
Interior II - Homage to Roy Lichtenstein
1991
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Private Collection

George P. Salley & Irwin L. Srob Gallery

Identity Politics

Since the 1980s, the issue of identity has preoccupied our increasingly globalized society. In Colescott’s oeuvre, 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.”

Robert Colescott, An American Rescued in the Desert by The Mahdi and Emperor Haile Selassie, 1986, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of N'Namdi Contemporary Fine Art, Miami
An American Rescued in the Desert
by The Mahdi and Emperor Haile Selassie

1986
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of N'Namdi Contemporary Fine Art, Miami, Florida

An American Rescued in the Desert by The Mahdi and Emperor Haile Selassie

1986
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of N’Namdi Contemporary Fine Art, Miami, FL

As the story goes, in 1966 when Emperor Haile Selassie made a state visit to Jamaica, he was surprised at the tumultuous reception given to him by over 100,000 members of the Rastafarian group who had constituted around the idea that he was God. This type of messianic belief has been observed among populations of Black and brown peoples who sought a savior to bring them out of the oppression of the mainstream power structures. One thinks of the emergence of the Ghost Dance phenomenon among Native Americans in the 1880s, or Marcus Garvey and his “back to Africa” message among African Americans in the 1920s. In this painting, Colescott shows a Black American, dressed in a tropical print shirt, finding his own messianic rescue. He is supported by Haile Selassie and another, the Sudanese religious leader Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, designated the “Mahdi” or “Redeemer,” who fought against Egyptian and British forces for Sudan.

Arabs: The Emir of Iswid (How Wide the Gulf?)

1992
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Rubell Family Collection, Miami, FL

Colescott’s oblique reference in the title of this painting to the so-called Gulf War of 1990-1991, which is also known as Operation Desert Storm, is matched by his enigmatic reference to Tell el-Iswid, an archaeological site on the eastern delta of the Nile, which revealed the existence of a fourth millennium culture. Colescott indicates the location of his Iswid on the yellow shape of a country that frames the Emir’s profile. Ghostly apparitions of a veiled woman, a gun-toting man and men wearing keffiyeh form beneath him. These specters interlace with two nude females, who are chained together at the wrists as they sit on a pile of oil barrels and bananas, both products of the Middle East. Colescott may be encouraging us to contemplate how countries can be economically stymied and politically limited by the resources that are the very sources of their wealth.
Robert Colescott, Arabs: The Emir of Iswid (How Wide the Gulf?), 1992, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Rubell Family Collection
Arabs: The Emir of Iswid (How Wide the Gulf?)
1992
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Rubell Family Collection, Miami, FL

Robert Colescott, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival, 1987, Acrylic on Canvas, Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, Museum Purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection © 1987 Robert Colescott, 88.3
Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival
1987
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Museum Purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis
and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection © 1987 Robert Colescott, 88.3

Choctaw Nickel

1994
Liquitex, gel medium on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The New School Art Collection, New York, NY (Gift of Vera List)

Critic David Bonetti wrote: “There is often more to Colescott than what first appears.” In his reading of this painting—which examines the reality of African/ Native American relations—he focuses on the “passage of golden paint scumbled atop the fiery red,” which he finds “masterful.” Furthermore, “the figures along the bottom of the painting, variously representing intermingled Black and Indian peoples, exhibit an impressive array of painting techniques and style,” demonstrating that Colescott’s “painting skills might be the first thing overlooked.”
Robert Colescott, Choctaw Nickel, 1994, Liquitex, gel medium on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The New School Art Collection, NY (Gift of Vera List))
Choctaw Nickel
1994
Liquitex, Gel medium on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The New School Art Collection, New York, NY (Gift of Vera List)

Rosemary & Lou Oberndorf Gallery

ART AND RACE MATTERS:
THE CAREER OF
ROBERT COLESCOTT

Reflection Space

All artists are products of their time, Robert Colescott’s work demonstrates powerful imagery related to the Civil Rights movement. His satire highlights the struggle against prejudice and fight for equality that continues today. Colescott also heavily relies on female objectification, typical of his time, to comment on changing ideals of beauty, equally in his personal development and in society at large. Although evolved in various ways, both of these issues have remained constant in our society. People of color still experience discrimination. Women are still objectified. Artists today tackle these topics, and more, and have seen Colescott as an artist to gain inspiration from, and to whom to react.
How have you reacted, or been inspired?
Robert Colescott, Havana Corona, 1970, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Brooke and Carolyn Alexander 1991.270
Havana Corona
1970
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, Gift of Brooke and Carolyn Alexander 1991.270

Havana Corona

1970
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, Gift of Brooke and Carolyn Alexander 1991.270

Havana Corona became the compositional prototype for several of Colescott’s works in the 1970s that featured a centralized female figure. They took on some of the aspects of the classic pin-up, which, for Colescott, emerges directly out of images he encountered as a soldier in World War II. While it seems at first to be a Pop Art engagement of product placement, Havana Corona is much more complex, as it examines the dynamics of race and gender in the Latin American context, where the legacies of assimilation and mestizaje (mixture) often resulted in contradictory phenomena—emotionally and psychologically. Colescott captures this by placing the disembodied hand of someone who is obviously a prosperous, upper class white man at the margins of the composition. The hand holds a cigar, the smoke from which morphs into a cloud-like element that in turn frames a floral crown hovering over the head of the dark-skinned woman. A dandified biracial man is suspended at the right and to the lower left is a bubble in which we see a sexual encounter that would have produced this mixed-race individual.

Dulacrow’s Masterwork: A Mockumentary Film

1976
Digital video, color, sound, Ed. 1/10
Duration: 43 minutes, 50 seconds
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Rubell Family Collection, Miami, FL

Art historian Lizzetta Lefalle Collins reports that Colescott produced this video, Dulacrow’s Masterwork: A Mockumentary Film, in 1976 to document a performance that was presented at the San Francisco Art Institute where he was teaching. Colescott is seen as his alter ego “Eugene Dulacrow” giving a slide lecture on the iconic 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, which is in the collection of the Louvre. Set to the music of the modernist, French composer Edgard Varèse, the video is Colescott’s satirical version of what he considered boring and pedantic art history lectures. Colescott painted his own version of the Delacroix painting entitled Homage to Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, also in 1976, while masquerading as Dulacrow and listening to recordings of Varèse’s Intégrales, Density 21.5, Ionisation and Octandre. These compositions represent the composer’s experimentations with sound and rhythm to find new possibilities within familiar elements of music, similar to Colescott’s experiments with art historical icons.

B. Claire Rusen Gallery

Gender, Race and Beauty

Colescott’s approach to gender, race, and beauty is 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 gets 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 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 idiomatic sayings. Displayed 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 a la Mae West? What the consideration of popular imagery and its reception in the wider American culture reveals is that what is there is not the whole story.
Robert Colescott, American Beauty, 1976, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
American Beauty
1976
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

American Beauty

1976
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Although it was painted in the 1970s, this painting assumes a special significance in the context of today’s #metoo movement. Colescott lays bare the sexual manipulation of women in fashion, beauty pageants, sports, and the movies, which indicate the pervasiveness of such behavior in society at large. We are confronted with the troubling truths that often lay behind media images that present women in glamorous, glossy guises.

Tin Gal

1976
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Private collection

Colescott did several images of women composed of different substances—tin, cacti, etc.—that were intended to present metaphors for different stereotypical temperaments and personalities. Here the tin cowgirl brandishes her gun and Colescott has inscribed “fearless” and “avenger” in the composition. At the bottom he stenciled, “INVINCIBLE: HER ONLY FEAR IS COMING UN SCREWED,” a reference to the rude assessment of what men think ails strong, liberated women who refuse to accommodate their sexist expectations.
Robert Colescott, Tin Gal, 1976, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Tin Gal
1976
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Private Collection

Robert Colescott, Bad Habits, 1983, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, Gift of Douglas and Lila Goodman, © 1983 Robert Colescott, 2001.90.9
Bad Habits
1983
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Gift of Douglas and Lila Goodman, © 1983 Robert Colescott, 2001.90.9

Robert Colescott, The Judgment of Paris, 1984, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer
The Judgment of Paris
1984
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer

Robert Colescott, Lone Wolf in Paris, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Collection of Ed & Sandy Martin - promised gift to Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Lone Wolf in Paris
1977
Acrylic on canvas

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Promised gift of Ed and Sandy Martin in honor of Howard N. Fox

Lone Wolf in Paris

1977
Acrylic on canvas
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Promised gift of Ed and Sandy Martin in honor of Howard N. Fox

Many who grew up watching Acme cartoons, remember the wolf character (created by the renowned cartoonist Tex Avery) whose eyes would pop out of his head as he jumped into a lateral position when ogling and howling at a good-looking woman. One might see this image as an avatar of Colescott, who frequently visited Paris in the 1970s and 80s, after having spent time in Paris and the south of France after his Egyptian sojourn in the 1960s. This painting is accompanied by three drawings that illustrate different aspects of the wolf character Strutting His Stuff, Checking It Out, and declaring, Yes Virginia.
Robert Colescott, Lone Wolf Trilogy (Strutting His Stuff, Checking It Out, Yes Virginia), 1976, Graphite on Paper, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Lone Wolf Trilogy (Strutting His Stuff, Checking It Out, Yes Virginia)
1976
Graphite on paper

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Tinhorn

1976
Graphite on paper
© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo

Contrary to expectations, Colescott produced a drawing of the male counterpart of Tin Girl, who presents himself more as a dandy than a superhero. Colescott characterizes different parts of his anatomy as mechanized elements (“ball joint”) and inscribes at the lower right: “the deck is stacked and…,” and suggestively declares that “the tinhorn plays for keeps.”
Robert Colescott, Tinhorn, 1976, Graphite on paper, © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Tinhorn
1976
Graphite on paper

© 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy of The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo