Robert Colescott’s satirical art has long drawn attention at the Chicago Cultural Center

Spurred in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, high-profile contemporary African-American artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve, including skyrocketing sales prices and major shows like the much-heralded touring survey devoted to the Chicagoan Kerry James Marshall in 2016-17.

But many people have probably never heard of Robert Colescott, who laid the groundwork for many black artists who followed him but who remains stubbornly and unjustly overlooked since his death in 2009 at the age of 83. .

A traveling retrospective presented at the Chicago Cultural Center until May 29 – the largest ever devoted to the native of Oakland, Calif. – seeks to at least partially remedy this oversight. “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” includes 55 paintings and works on paper spanning 50 years, including little-known early examples from his time in Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Egypt.

The show was organized by the Cincinnati Center for Contemporary Art and traveled to museums in Portland and Sarasota, Florida before coming to Chicago. It was originally scheduled to be presented in 2020 at the Cultural Center but was postponed due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Colescott is best known for his satirical and often biting examinations of race, gender, and identity. Some take inspiration from and reimagine art history, such as his 1975 reworking of Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” featuring George Washington Carver and all-black figures. (A 1974 pencil study for the composition can be seen here.)

“I believe he combined appropriation with transgressive attitudes in a way no one else has,” said Lowery Stokes Sims, one of the retrospective’s two New York-based co-curators. York.

A guest looks at Robert Colescott’s “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” in 2021, when it was auctioned. A pencil study for the painting is part of the Chicago Cultural Center exhibit.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

In 2017, Colescott was included in “Fast Forward”, an examination of 1980s painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But according to Sims, his work stood out as a “sore thumb” compared to other artists such as Robert Longo, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. “He wasn’t that kind of sleek, slick New York look,” she said.

His work from the 1970s and 1980s was inspired by Californian funk and had more to do with Chicago’s Hairy Who movement than with what was happening in mainstream East Coast art. This dichotomy helps explain why it was shown in 1987, 1990, and 1992 at Chicago’s Phyllis Kind Gallery, which championed the Chicago Imagists.

“He didn’t really fit in very well,” Sims said. “Even if you look at him in the context of those big shows that Marcia Tucker did in the late ’70s like ‘Bad Painting’, he had a similar sensibility but his way of painting was so much more robust. His characters were very good articulate – you could call them raw and raunchy.

“The Wreckage of the Medusa” (1978) is exhibited in “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott”.
©2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society, New York. Private collection. Photo: Ray Litman

Being out of step with everything that was happening on the art scene at the time was a major reason for the artist’s comparative under-recognition. It also doesn’t help that nothing is still known about Colescott.

According to co-curator Matthew Weseley, who has studied him since 1996, the artist’s estate did not make his personal archives available to researchers, and he was sometimes suspicious about his personal life and inaccurate in his attire. of files.

“I’m the person who revealed he passed as white until 1970,” Weseley said. “That was not known when he was alive.”

Here are some highlights from the Cultural Center exhibit:

  • “We are waiting for you” (1964). This is a rarely seen example of his works from his time in Egypt, including his exploration of an ancient necropolis there. “He got very involved in the ideas of reincarnation, which is the very essence of Egyptian art,” Weseley said. “This painting is pretty much that, but in a painterly technique derived from 20th century modernism like Matisse.”
  • “Color TV” (1977). Weseley described it as an “extraordinary” painting that has been interpreted and misinterpreted in multiple ways. “Colescott has said in more than one place that the central figure is a transvestite,” he said, noting the artwork’s reference to a transformational song from the movie “Pinocchio” – “When You Wish on a Star.” .
  • “Shirley Temple Black and Bill Bojangles White” (1980). In this piece, the artist takes inspiration from Black’s surname and imagines her as a black woman and Robinson as white. “It’s what he would call a switcheroo,” Sims said, “and it shows how his mind works. It throws us back to figure so many attitudes about how we perceive and characterize people of different races.
  • “The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death” (1981). Sims called it an important transitional piece between Colescott’s purely appropriationist work and a group of paintings that led his 1984-85 “Bather” series of black-and-white beauty. “It’s interesting,” she said, “how he takes The Three Graces, which have been done by everyone from Raphael to Rubens, and plays them in a way that one would expect to see in a pin-up.”

While the co-curators know that this retrospective alone will not accomplish everything, they hope it is a major step in bringing Colescott to his rightful place in American art history. of the XXth century.

Comments are closed.