Over a nearly six-decade painting career, Robert Colescott (b. 1925, Oakland, CA; d. 2009, Tucson, AZ) was a proud instigator who fearlessly tackled subjects of social and racial inequality, class structure, and the human condition through his uniquely rhythmic and often manic style of figuration. Colescott's distinctive works, while not easily placed within any one specific school of painting, share elements of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, "Bad" Painting, Renaissance Painting, Neo-Expressionism, and Surrealism.
Compositions that at first glance seem to tilt and spiral off of their axis are ultimately held together with a masterful sense of balance. Colescott's intense interest in critiquing painting's failure to accurately represent the Black experience is manifested in a lifetime of work that offers a revisionist art historical narrative and has subsequently influenced an entire generation of artists.
As noted by the journalist Quincy Troupe: "Like the world they depict, Colescott's polyrhythmic, improvisational paintings are full of surprises—in juxtapositions of forms and colors, in distortions of scale, in inventions and interplays of space and structure. They are filled with diverse references to the history of art itself, not only in homages to specific paintings, but to the traditional conventions of his chosen medium—history painting, portraiture, landscape, still life, and allegory."
After serving in the US Army during World War II, Robert Colescott received a bachelor’s degree and, later, a master’s degree in drawing and painting from the University of California, Berkeley. His studies continued in Paris under the tutelage of Fernand Léger, who was instrumental in Colescott’s embrace of the human figure as subject. He was a lifelong professor of painting at academic institutions including the Portland State University, OR; University of California, Berkeley; and University of Arizona, Tucson; and held the distinction of being the first visiting professor of art at the American University in Cairo, Egypt in 1966 and 1967. In 1997, Robert Colescott was honored as the first African American artist to represent the United States with a solo exhibition at the 47th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy.
His work was recently shown alongside Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas in the exhibition Figuring History at the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA in 2018. A traveling retrospective curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley opened at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH in 2019, accompanied by a comprehensive monograph on the artist’s life and work, published by Rizzoli Electa.
Colescott’s work is represented in public collections internationally, in such notable institutions as the Akron Art Museum, Akron, OH; American Research Center in Egypt, Alexandria, VA; Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD; Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Denver Museum of Art, Denver, CO; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI; de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA; Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA; High Museum of Art, Atlanta GA; Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; New Museum, New York, NY; Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA; Pinault Collection, Paris, France; Rubell Family Collection, Miami, FL; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA; Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; among many more.
Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott