Robert Colescott (1925-2009)
By: Huey Copeland
When the artist Robert Colescott passed away this June in Tucson, where he had lived since 1985, he left behind a body of work that troubles many of the antinomies haunting Western art and its institutions. Appraised as both beautiful and ugly, racist and radical, hilarious and tragic, cutting and cathartic, Colescott’s paintings wed such contrary terms in order to instigate a “one-two punch”: As he put it in a 1996 video of that name, the vibrancy of his works’ colors and compositions seduced from afar, eliciting an “Oh wow!” from viewers who might then mutter “Oh shit!” when confronted up close with the visceral matters that were his signature subjects.
Perhaps no work more famously exemplifies this tactic than Colescott’s oft-reproduced George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975. As with many of the paintings for which he remains best known—racially and sexually charged parodies of pieces by the likes of Delacroix, Manet, Matisse, and van Eyck—Colescott here took up a canonical work only to deform it: Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 rendering of George Washington. Having replaced the white founding father with his black, peanut-pioneering namesake, the artist populated the rest of his canvas with “darkies” blithely engaged in all manner of illicit congress, thereby carrying out his title’s promised conflation of two American historical narratives and the logic that undergirds them. For even as Carver is held out to the nation’s youth as an emblem of African-American success, his accomplishments are everywhere compromised by black subjects’ casting in marginal roles that enable the ongoing construction of hegemonic whiteness within representation.
In Colescott’s breakout works of the 1970s, he reproduced and interrogated his own encounters with black visuality, an arena that has been construed—whether in the schoolroom, the mass media, or high art—as what critic Michele Wallace has termed a “negative scene of instruction.” Thankfully, despite the depredations visited upon the African-American image, the aspiring painter was exposed to counter-models of aesthetic engagement from the very beginning. Born in 1925, Colescott grew up in Oakland, California, during the Great Depression, the son of a pianist mother and a jazz violinist father. The latter paid the bills by working on the Southern Pacific Railroad and cultivated a friendship with a fellow artist-cum-porter, the renowned sculptor Sargent Johnson. Molded by his parents’ commitment to their music and encouraged by Johnson’s support of his drawing, the young Colescott doggedly pursued his interest despite the obstacles facing African-American visual artists seeking to hone their craft and exhibit their work.
After completing military service in Europe during World War II, Colescott received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949, only to return to the Continent that year. There, he studied in the Paris atelier of Fernand Léger, whose midcentury work remained focused on representational imagery, however stylized, in contrast to Colescott’s training and his painterly practice at the time, which were still in thrall to American gestural abstraction. Further schooling and teaching gigs brought Colescott back to the West Coast, where bodily forms proliferated in the painting of Bay Area artists such as Peter Saul, Joan Brown, and David Park. In 1970, amid the upheavals of the civil rights and Black Power movements, Colescott settled in San Francisco, where he embarked on the canvases that eventually landed him the cover of this magazine in 1984, led to his selection as the official US representative to the Venice Biennale in 1997, and now seem likely to secure his reputation as one of the foremost American painters of the postwar period.
As has been the case for many African-American artists, the painter’s trips abroad, particularly to Egypt in the mid-’60s, were quite formative for his mature style: They gave him an optic through which to perceive both the provinciality of American culture and the erasure of blackness from Western artistic practice. An outlier of ’60s Pop, a cousin to ’70s “bad painting,” and a precursor to ’80s neo-expressionism and appropriation, Colescott diverged from these tendencies in emphasizing the calamities that racialized projection foists upon us all. Indeed, his punning role reversals—Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White, 1980, or Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Desnudas, 1985, for example—deploy nothing less than the volatile genre of blackface in posing a negative inversion of our cultural imaginary. As literary theorist Stephen Best has argued, when employed as a joke, this mode of counterfactual proposition may bolster perceptions of black abjection, though it is just as liable to mock anyone who cannot see both the arbitrariness of racial designations and their lasting effects. In reimagining the protagonists of, say, van Gogh’s Potato Eaters as corked-up buffoons, Colescott drove home the fundamental contingency, even whimsy, at the core of identity without losing sight of the historical intractability of race.
To quote the artist, “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.” Colescott’s attitude toward the blackness of comedy and the comedy of blackness put his work in dialogue with that of a number of African-American cultural practitioners who likewise emerged in the ’70s and enjoyed cross-cultural appeal: George Clinton, David Hammons, Richard Pryor, and, perhaps most signally, Ishmael Reed, whose 1976 send-up of the slave narrative tradition, Flight to Canada, features George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware on the cover of recent editions. These artists were part of a “freaky-deke” generation—to borrow critic Greg Tate’s phrase—who travestied black nationalist proprieties in plumbing the mythic and the mundane, the glorious and the perverse, the surreal and the superfluous, with work that was “as wonderfully absurdist as black life itself.”
This critical sensibility consistently animated Colescott’s work, and beginning in the ’80s, he depicted an increasingly wide range of scenarios: mounds of chocolate cake rendered as Cubist still life, a fatally overcrowded Oakland emergency room, imperialist ploys in the Middle East, conflicting commentaries on the racial origins of tango. Just as his referents extended far beyond the art-historical canon, so too did his richly tactile painterly technique. In some instances, his facture becomes even more congested, inscrutable, and layered, as if to better refract our current crises. In other paintings, such as the gestural 2002 acrylic Ole McWillie’s Farm, Colescott’s style, like that of late de Kooning, is aired-out and lyrical. But his title is as loaded as ever: It refers to his white maternal great-grandfather, who was governor of Mississippi in the late 1850s. Whether alluding in this work to his own miscegenated heritage or tackling in others the means through which racialized femininity is produced for visual delectation, Colescott confounded our narratives about American progress by emphasizing the recursive logics that continue to inform the production of self and nation.
In this sense, Colescott’s work might be said to instance the anti-essentialist turn that transformed African diasporic art in the ’60s and ’70s—call it, with a nod to art historian Rosalind Krauss, the opening of blackness onto an “expanded field.” While some artists primarily used text, video, photography, or their own bodies in exploring this terrain, Colescott’s insistence on painting meant he could sully and celebrate Western cultural hierarchy in its most gilded aesthetic tongue. Neither content with the confines by which artists of color are so often hemmed in, nor mindful of calls for “positive imagery,” Colescott instead said yes: yes to history and its omissions, yes to figuration and its darkest blights, yes to painterly coherence and dadaist confusion, yes to multiculturalism and political incorrectness—all to affirm the fact of our collective tragedy and the small pleasures we might take in its farcical repetition.
If the syntax of Colescott’s most renowned paintings follows the structure of the counterfactual, his practice as a whole was frequently generated by a conjunctive grammar, allowing him to inhabit the complex axis of black figuration, to open it up for subsequent practitioners, and to establish a discursive framework in which their art could be legible, though not unproblematically lauded. His charcoal drawings anticipate those of Zoë Charlton; his emphasis on the polymorphous desires inherent in the “peculiar institution” helped unleash the phantasms of Kara Walker; and his images of interracial contact are echoed in the work of artists ranging from Kim Dingle to Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. One might easily extend the list to Michael Ray Charles, Kalup Linzy, Kerry James Marshall, and Christian Walker—each of whom has been licensed by the perverse effects of Colescott’s art. This fecundity and promiscuity, this additive possibility, suggest his engagement with both strategies of African-American modernist innovation described by scholar Houston A. Baker Jr.: The artist’s work is at once a cryptic mastery of form that “floats like a trickster butterfly in order to sting like a bee” and an aggressive destruction of it, “a go(ue)rilla action in the face of acknowledged adversaries.” Colescott’s paintings allow us to see in vivid Technicolor how the funky intersections of race, sex, and power can give rise to a broadly critical practice that aims for no less than a total knockout.