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The press release for the US Pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale described Robert Colescott (1925–2009) as “arguably the most important American figurative painter of his generation.” The qualifier, “arguably,” is significant, because since the 1990s few scholars have been making that argument. A lifelong teacher, Colescott didn’t begin to make a name for himself until 1971, at the age of forty-six, with outrageous, satirical paintings about race, sexuality, and power in art history and in American culture generally. By the 1980s, Colescott had become a subject of frequent controversy for his art historical parodies, which took aim at the likes of Édouard Manet, Jan van Eyck, Eugène Delacroix, Willem de Kooning, and Pablo Picasso by repainting the central figures of their compositions in the style of racist caricature. As his work continued to evolve, Colescott refused the designation of postmodernist provocateur, preferring instead to describe his practice as a continuation of modernism, participating in the “grand tradition” of Western painting (95, 138). Despite the success he achieved during his lifetime, Colescott appears only briefly, if at all, in surveys of twentieth-century American or, indeed, African American art.
Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott is both the first major retrospective exhibition of Colescott’s painting since the artist’s death and a publication that takes great strides toward demonstrating the breadth and diversity of Colescott’s oeuvre. A grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts enabled the multiyear research initiative that produced this publication (10). More than an exhibition catalog, Art and Race Matters comprises over 130 full-color illustrations, two scholarly essays, timelines and exhibition histories, and eleven appendixes containing a variety of reminiscences, interviews, previously published essays, and a selection of Colescott’s own writings. Scholarly essays by cocurators of the exhibition, independent scholar Matthew Weseley and the renowned art historian Lowery Stokes Sims, join contributions from artists Carrie Mae Weems and Joe Lewis, curators Barry Blinderman and Miriam Roberts, art historians Richard J. Powell and Mitchell D. Kahan, collectors Arlene and Jordan Schnitzer, and others.
Weseley’s opening essay is largely biographical: “Robert Colescott: The Untold Story” narrates the major events of the artist’s life and career through the 1970s. Weseley begins with the specifics of Colescott’s Creole heritage, “probably part black, part white, and part Native American” (14–15). According to Weseley (with the support of archival photographs), Colescott’s parents and his artist brother, Warrington Jr., were fair-complexioned enough to “pass” for white and did so for much of their lives. Colescott, while “keenly aware of his racial difference,” did not “publicly acknowledge his black identity” until his mid-forties (15). Weseley’s narrative describes Colescott’s “pivotal turning point”: a racial awakening spurred by his residency in Egypt, which emboldened him to give up passing and embrace Black identity (27). Ultimately, Weseley describes Colescott’s rejection of passing as the major motivating factor that transformed his painting. Here, Weseley’s “Untold Story” presents a somewhat shallow representation of the relationship between Colescott’s biography and his art, one that calls for more critical attention to the social and historical complexities of passing and the way instances of it disrupt conventional understandings of the stability of race. Furthermore, while such close attention to Colescott’s life is important for the historical record, Weseley tends to make Colescott’s racial identification an overdetermining factor in his analysis of the artist’s work.
Opening Art and Race Matters by focusing on Colescott’s biography unfortunately perpetuates what James Smalls has identified as a limiting factor for African American art history—that “African American artists are presented in primarily biographic form with general arguments of racial injustice and Black struggle as the underlying base or foundation” (“A Ghost of a Chance: Invisibility and Elision in African American Art Historical Practice,” Art Documentation 13, no. 1 [Spring 1994], 6). Writing more than twenty years after Smalls, Kobena Mercer, in his book Travel and See, still detects “repeated emphasis on the artists’ biographical identity . . . that tends to detract attention from the aesthetic intelligence embodied in actual works of art” (Duke University Press, 2016, 1). Weseley’s narrative of Colescott’s shifting racial identity, however fascinating, risks further obscuring the already underappreciated conceptual and intellectual rigor of Colescott’s practice.
The undeniable strength of Weseley’s “Untold Story” is its careful attention to Colescott’s early paintings, long ignored by curators and art historians. Narrating the evolution of Colescott’s subject matter, from spiritual, semiabstract figures (as in his 1960s Valley of the Queens series) to the satirical work he is best known for, Weseley offers a nuanced picture of Colescott’s paintings from the 1950s through the 1960s. Here, Weseley focuses particularly on the aesthetic impact of Bay Area Figuration, Fernand Léger’s figurative approach to Cubism, and Colescott’s exposure to ancient Egyptian painting in Cairo. Despite the fact that Colescott achieved fame with parodies such as George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: A Page from American History, he later lamented being cast as simply the “the guy who painted the old masters in blackface” (226).
Sims’s essay begins where Weseley’s leaves off, at the end of the 1970s, exploring the new directions of Colescott’s work as he achieved success and visibility in the 1980s. For Colescott, talking about race was impossible without also talking about sex, and the cartoonish, oversexed female figures that dominate his paintings are, depending on one’s perspective, provocative or offensive. Sims writes an edifying analysis of Colescott’s Bathers series from 1984–85, in which she skillfully weaves a discussion of Colescott’s interest in the “sensuality” of both nineteenth-century French painting and African sculpture with attention to the politics of “interracial encounters” (95). Sims’s frank discussion of Colescott’s treatment of female figures in his work is long overdue. Rather than glossing over the often pornographic qualities of Colescott’s female figures, she acknowledges both his personal, sometimes unsettling desires and the political logic of his representations.
Perhaps the most astute criticism of Colescott’s representation of women is Carrie Mae Weems’s 1997 photographic triptych Framed by Modernism, described in Sims’s essay and in an included interview of Weems by Sims (119, 189–92). The photographs were commissioned by curator Miriam Roberts for the catalog that accompanied Colescott’s Venice Biennale exhibition in 1997. In Weems’s work, we see both artists posed together in Colescott’s studio. Colescott appears clothed in the foreground, posed next to a blackboard and in front of one of his large-scale paintings. Weems poses nude in the back corner of the studio space, alternately gazing at the viewer or off in a dreamy repose. The photographs are captioned, “SEDUCED BY ONE ANOTHER, YET BOUND BY CERTAIN SOCIAL CONVENTIONS”; “YOU FRAMED THE LIKES OF ME & I FRAMED YOU, BUT WE WERE BOTH FRAMED BY MODERNISM”; “& EVEN THOUGH WE KNEW BETTER, WE CONTINUED THAT TIME HONORED TRADITION OF THE ARTIST & HIS MODEL.” As Weems describes, Colescott’s personal vulnerability in this work feels brave. By collaborating with Weems, Colescott challenged his own status as a “master” of tradition and revealed the “troubled space that he knows he occupies,” in which his artistic choices reveal him to be “implicit in . . . larger social relationships” (190). As in all of Weems’s work, the nuanced relationship between wordplay and image offers a complex navigation of the politics of the artist’s gaze.
Throughout the book, the authors have sought to redress the tendency to discuss Colescott’s work only in terms of its political narratives rather than as aesthetically innovative in its own right. This approach is bolstered by including reminiscences from some of Colescott’s students, who speak with conviction about the artist’s technical innovations and expertise. For example, Alfred Quiroz offers, “His favorite color for underpainting was magenta. When I was showing examples of his work to my students, I would say, ‘Look at the underpainting. That magenta just flows through. You don’t even realize it’s there until you really look at it’” (193). The electrifying intensity of Colescott’s colors, one of the hallmarks of his style, permeated his practice into the 2000s, even as he veered toward expressive abstraction.
Ultimately, Art and Race Matters offers a generous introduction to an understudied artist and will likely launch a new era of interest in Colescott’s life and work. Long described as laying the groundwork for contemporary art stars like Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Michael Ray Charles, Colescott was one of the earliest artists to provoke controversy for his use of Black stereotypes and so-called “negative imagery.” Paging through the illustrations of the book, one is struck by the abundance of insight, research, wit, and complexity in Colescott’s images. The density of his paintings, and the effort and learning it takes to unravel them, offers a stark contrast to our current environment of political pronouncements in 140 characters or less. Art and Race Matters led this reader to wonder how the messy, challenging politics of Colescott’s paintings might function in Donald Trump’s America. The work does not offer easy solutions or slogans and is almost never reassuring, but it pushes us to ask hard questions, feel uncomfortable, and laugh at ourselves along the way.
PhD Candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin