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Robert Colescott
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Wikipedia About Robert Colescott

Robert H. Colescott, (August 26, 1925 — June 4, 2009) was an American painter. He is known for satirical genre and crowd subjects, often conveying his exuberant, comical, or bitter reflections on being African-American. He studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. According to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Colescott was “the first African-American artist to represent the United States in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1997. ” http://www. albrightknox. org/acquisitions/acq_2000/Colescott. html According to Askart. com and Artcyclopedia. com, his work is in many major public collections, including (in addition to the Albright-Knox) those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. In his George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, he re-imagined Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting of the Revolutionary War hero, putting Carver, a pioneering African American agricultural chemist, at the helm of a boat loaded with black cooks, maids, fishermen and minstrels. With equally transgressive humor and an explosive style, he also created his own versions of Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Édouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. The budding artist was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and served in Europe until the end of World War II. His tour of duty took him to Paris, then the capital of the art world and a city that was hospitable to African American artists. Back home, he enrolled at UC Berkeley, which granted him a bachelor’s degree in drawing and painting in 1949. He spent the following year in Paris, studying with French artist Fernand Léger, then returned to UC Berkeley, earning a master’s degree in 1952. Colescott moved to the Northwest after graduation and began teaching at Portland State University. He was on staff there from 1957 to 1966. But he had a life-changing experience in 1964 when he took a sabbatical with a study grant from the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt. He returned to Portland for a year but went back to Egypt as a visiting professor at the American University of Cairo from 1966 to 1967. When war broke out, he and his family (then-wife Sally Dennett and their son Dennett Colescott, born in Portland, Oregon in 1963) moved to Paris for three years. They returned to California in 1970 and he spent the next 15 years painting and teaching art at Cal State, Stanislaus, UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute. Colescott accepted a position as a visiting professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1983 and joined the staff in 1985, moving up the academic ladder until 1998, when he became a professor emeritus. Robert Colescott suffered from Parkinsonian syndrome, and died June 4, 2009 at his home in Tucson. http://www. azstarnet. com/allheadlines/296584. php The artist’s first four marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his fifth wife, Jandava Cattron; brother Warrington Colescott Jr. of Hollandale, Wis. ; five sons: Alex Colescott of Napa, California; Nick Colescott of Portland, Oregon; Dennett Colescott of San Rafael, California; Daniel Colescott of Modesto, California; and Cooper Colescott of Tucson, Arizona; and one grandson: Colescott Rubin of Portland, Oregon. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Robert Colescott, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Few artists in the history of American art have shouldered the mantle of cultural critique with as much humor, deadly seriousness, and aplomb as Robert Colescott. Throughout his long career, he has confronted the divisive subjects of race and sex head-on in his colorfully expressionist paintings that betray an extensive knowledge of art history and the sociopolitical consequences of discrimination and its global partner, colonialism. Since the mid-1970s, when Colescott began appropriating the compositions of masterpieces such as Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), and Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885), he has engaged in “blackfacing” and satire by replacing their subjects with Aunt Jemimas, pickaninnies, minstrels, and other overtly racist characters.1 Clearly objectionable, these gross exaggerations and distortions are used by Colescott to undermine cultural myths. The artist has acknowledged that he is “pushing the standards of taste. I’m exploiting stereotypes, questioning the heroic in art. I use humor as bait, pulling you in to confront the social comment. The visual joke alone is a sidetrack. There’s another layer.”2 His inflammatory and ironical tactics also subvert the iconic status of these paintings by exposing the dominant discourse that produced them.

In the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, Colescott made the transition from revisionist history painting into somewhat more hermetic and personal subject matter. While based on the same set of issues that had long concerned him, his repertoire of subjects expanded to take on religion, castration, ethnicity, and miscegenation, among many others. In the Walker Art Center’s painting Exotique (1994), Colescott mines the problematic concepts of exoticism and “the other” through three figural pairings.3 Anchoring the composition is an enigmatic yellow-and-white silhouetted form suggestive of the yin and yang symbol, which may have been employed by the artist to suggest the interdependence of the female principle with the male. To the right, a ridiculous-looking Frenchman exchanges words with a black woman who wears a colorful dress made from what appear to be African textiles. His voracious gaze and wandering hands attempt to take possession of her. “You are so exotic, dear madame!!,” he flatters, to which she retorts with the more politically correct, “If you please, dear sir!! Afrocentric!!!” Up above, an elongated purple figure positioned in the classic pose of the odalisque responds to them both, exclaiming, “Yo tambien!” (Me too!) (in Spanish, Pablo Picasso’s native tongue). The Picassoid mask and a strange anthropomorphic black cat are thinly veiled references to two paintings from art history that have been identified by scholars as brothel scenes in which race and gender provide fruitful avenues of interpretation: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), respectively. The final pair at the lower left—a robed, praying figure speaking Arabic to a large, fair-skinned nude woman—reinforces the construct of the exotic “other” as the source of both fear and fascination, an emblem of difference that is both demonized and romanticized. Despite all attempts at communication, Colescott’s figures seem hopelessly trapped in a centrifuge of cultural misunderstanding. In a 1987 statement on his work, the artist concluded that rather than providing a panacea, “the paintings end up devouring themselves in the final irony.”4 In Colescott’s world, perhaps this is all we should expect.

  1. Colescott’s reinterpretations of these paintings were Homage to Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People (1976), George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975), and Eat Dem Taters (1975).

  2. Quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 239.

  3. Exotique was exhibited at the 47th Venice Biennale, June 15–November 4, 1997. Colescott was the first black artist to represent the United States with a solo show in the U.S. Pavilion.

  4. Quoted in Lippard, Mixed Blessings, 241.

Carpenter, Elizabeth. “Robert Colescott.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center