For those of us who spend time thinking about art that is under-appreciated and valued, it is especially fulfilling to see the renewed focus on the work of Robert Colescott (1925-2009), one of the most significant American artists of the postwar period, but whose work has been virtually absent from public consciousness for some time now.
Colescott’s work had been a vibrant and consistent presence in the 1970s and well beyond—he was the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1997. He nonetheless seemed to have been somewhat marooned on the island of American regionalism.
This is one of those inefficiencies of timing and access. But now, with an exhibition of paintings by Colescott from the 1960s through 1980s at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, it is made abundantly clear just how significant and great an artist he is (until 28 April).
While I have known and deeply respected Colescott’s work since I began in this field in the late 1970s, the show was a revelation for me. Born in Oakland, California, in 1925, Colescott was an African American man of light skin tone. In his art, he deals with skin and the stereotypes of race; with acceptable and appalling behaviors in society; opening the idea of color itself to reevaluation in far more complex ways than it had ever been addressed before.
He was a profoundly insightful artist who used the languages of satire and cartooning to address the ironies and nuances of identity, both in formal terms and in grappling with the histories of art and society.
Every detail has been thought through. What appears simple becomes quite complex the longer you look at a Colescott painting. Colescott made precise decisions about forms; the specific angle of lines; the abstraction of compositions; color; and especially in his later work, his quite brilliant brushwork, through which he renders many details absolutely exquisitely. All of this is somewhat hidden in plain sight—no doubt intentionally—in favor of the narrative messaging.
Colescott is best known for his paintings from the 1970s, which were send-ups of previous art historical hits, such as George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975) or I Gets a Thrill Too When I Sees De Koo (1978), a simulation of a De Kooning woman with Aunt Jemima’s face plastered on like an African mask upon a Cubist woman. Colescott didn’t struggle with the position of a black artist in a white world so much as he rammed into it head-on.
At the same time, there is a complexity of execution and of painterly richness that becomes especially apparent later in his career. This exhibition includes a series of paintings from the mid-1980s that are based on familiar art-historical subjects or stories, recast by race and intentionally distorted, figuratively-speaking. Take The Emperor at the Bather’s Pool (1985), in which black women—who appear to have stepped out of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)—reside sovereign and strong.
The interrelationship between black and white becomes even richer in these later works in several ways: the expression of societal presupposition; the nature of the birth of culture (it is not irrelevant that Colescott lived in Egypt for a number of years in the 1960s); and in terms of his own consciousness of his skin color, and the seeping tones of his subjects.
Colescott is so significant: how is it that he has gone completely unnoticed by a younger generation of collectors and historians who have been exploring this terrain of artists of African descent in an art history written by white practitioners serving white patrons? Influences of his work can be traced through a lineage of African American artists as diverse as Kerry James Marshall and Glenn Ligon. But this oversight is not limited to race: his impact is equally important in how we think about the ways in which the feminists of the 1970s transitioned from a male-written language of art towards one that better defined women and their views of the world; or Latin American Pop, which worked through a mainstream style in order to address content that was otherwise dangerous to communicate publicly; to Bay Area Figuration; artists ranging from R Crumb to William T Wiley and Joan Brown; as well as the Chicago Imagists such as Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum and Roger Brown.
It seems inevitable that, even though Colescott is just being introduced to a new audience—one focused on issues of identity like no generation before—our understanding of the historical course of art will expand to give him his rightful position.
Every argument or discussion is laid out in his work, decades before they become the focus of our contemporary audience and the market. At the same time, he was one of the few African American artists of his generation who fit so nimbly into the mainstream of non-mainstream art of the time. Today, there are no limits to the extent to which his work explores what it means to be American.