In Never-before-Seen Drawings, Robert Colescott Satirizes Art History
By: Caroline Ellen Liou
“I kind of blew apart abstract painting and put it back together again,” says the late artist Robert Colescott. That may be a bit of an understatement. Colescott didn’t just “kind of” blow apart painting, he exploded the entire conceit of art history itself — and in putting it back together again with his trademark sense of satire, he revealed cracks in how art history tells its own story. This is the subject of Colescott’s never-before-seen series of works on paper ROBERT’S complete HiSTORY of WORLD ART, now on view for the first time at Blum & Poe.
The way Colescott chooses to begin says it all: kicking off the series are four buxom, fleshy women dressed in thigh highs and garters, each holding a cigarette between her fingers. Though each one is supposed to represent an early art historical period, you’d hardly know it from first glance. Rome, for example, is personified by a woman with her legs splayed, puffs of cigarette smoke wrapped around herself as if it were a feather boa. Only after looking at the contortions of her body entwined in smoke does it recall the famous Roman sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons.” Similarly, Islam is portrayed by a Black woman with a mound of pubic hair peeking out from behind her salacious getup. The only indication that she is supposed to represent Islam is her veil, and perhaps the arabesque clouds of smoke that descend in curlicues around the figure. The false modesty of the veil pokes fun at, if not outright mocks, the caution surrounding nudity and representation of the figure within traditions of Islamic art.
Throughout the series, Colescott does much more than just insert his own version of the art historical isms. He takes the yearning to see oneself reflected in art history and, wary of that instinct, challenges the viewer’s idea of how things should look like, skewering notions around propriety, race, beauty, and art. Rather than offer a single message of celebration or critique, the drawings refuse an easy reading. Despite the fact that the body of work represents nothing less than the grandiose attempt to critique the entirety of art history, it never loses sight of the ridiculousness of it all.