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"The Lenny Bruce of Painting": Robert Colescott

Updated: Jan 24


In Nubian Queen, “the titular figure is a wavering black form standing in a field of vibrant, swirling hues and smiling at a sun of concentric circles; a white (or merely white-faced?) figure is positioned behind her, as if a child on her back."

 

His years in Cairo marked a major shift in the work of American figurative painter, Robert Colescott, and a newfound sense of his own Blackness within a larger African diaspora.


“I responded to the art history there, the 3,000 years of non-white culture affected what I did,” he said, in an interview, An American Original, on ART/new york, a video series on contemporary art.


Colescott (1925-2009) was the first visiting professor of Art at the American University in Cairo (AUC) from 1966 to 1967. AUC celebrated his contributions at the opening ceremony of an exhibition of his work: The Cairo Years, which runs from February 9 to March 31.


The show will coincide with Black History Month, which commemorates the achievements of people of African or Caribbean heritage throughout February, as well as recognizing their long struggle for racial justice, reported The Caravan.


Before teaching at AUC, the painter first came to Cairo in 1964 while on sabbatical leave from Portland State University in Oregon. He worked as the first artist-in-residence for the American Research and Center, a scholarly institution dedicated to supporting the conservation of Egyptian antiquities and research of all periods of Egyptian history.


During this time, archaeological sites in Upper Egypt inspired him with their “African monumentality”, particularly the Valley of the Queens in Luxor, the burial place of the wives of the pharaohs, said Matthew Weseley, an art historian and one of the curators.


“Prior to Colescott’s arrival in Cairo, his depictions of people of color were sometimes generalized, and the features were either effaced or left blank, which spoke to the detachment and neutrality in his art at the time,” Weseley told The Caravan.


“In his Cairo paintings, depictions of Black people were more symbolic, as they were no longer the effaced figures that he had painted previously, and the narratives in the paintings were more developed.”


The exhibit comprises four large murals that Colescott painted while in Cairo. Two of the pieces – The Angel of Mercy Carries a Burned Black Body and Nubian Queen -- directly address racism, according to Weseley.


The Angel of Mercy Carries a Burned Black Body depicts three people around an upside-down black body that is hanging from the arm of the person on the far left, which could represent violence against Blacks in the United States, said Weseley, who was also one of the curators of Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott (2019-2021) which was shown at museums in Chicago; Sarasota, Florida; Cincinnati and Akron in Ohio, and Portland, Oregon.


Artform (November 2019) described Nubian Queen:


“The titular figure is a wavering black form standing in a field of vibrant, swirling hues and smiling at a sun of concentric circles; a white (or merely white-faced?) figure is positioned behind her, as if a child on her back. Though this work may not mark an explicit foray into racial politics, it does foreshadow Colescott’s later focus on the tangled tragicomedy of race both on and beyond the canvas.


“This was a matter whose complexity Colescott understood intimately: His parents were light-skinned enough to mostly pass for white, and they encouraged their sons to do the same.”


Cairo helped the artist embrace his African ancestry, which his mother taught him to be ashamed of and hide from others, Assistant Professor of Film, Terri Ginsberg, one of the curators, told The Caravan.


“He did mention in at least one letter written from Cairo to a colleague in the U.S. that, in Egypt, he was able to experience the possibility of assimilating as Black (rather than as white) and that this was liberating him,” said Ginsberg.


Colescott’s U.S. Army discharge papers in 1946 classified him as white, according to Artform. His older brother, Warrington Jr., also an artist, lived his whole life as a white man, which led to a break between the siblings. Warrington’s obituary in The New York Times (October 4, 2018) said that he and Robert “had a distant relationship and, with their Creole heritage, differed over their racial make-up. Robert considered himself African American; Warrington considered himself white.”


At the exhibition’s opening, AUC President Francis J. Ricciardone said: “Robert Colescott was one of a number of Black Americans, particularly in the arts, who went abroad to explore and define who they were and reflect back on America.”

 

The Angel of Mercy Carries a Burned Black Body depicts three people around an upside-down black body that is hanging from the arm of the person on the far left.

 

The artist’s father, Warrington Colescott Sr., was a classical and jazz violinist, who worked as a Pullman porter. His mother, Lydia (Hutton) Colescott, was a pianist, who taught school. They moved from New Orleans to Oakland, California, where the painter was born in 1925. At a young age, he took up drumming and considered a career as a musician, according to Miriam Roberts in Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings (1997).


The sculptor, Sargent Claude Johnson, was a family friend, who worked with Colescott’s father on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Johnson was one of the first African American artists working in California to achieve a national reputation. (Johnson’s father was of Swedish ancestry and his mother Cherokee and African American. The sculptor’s five brothers and sisters identified as Native Americans or white, while he lived as a Black man, according to Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson in A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present.)


In 1942, the United States Army drafted Colescott, who served in France and Germany until the end of World War II. His tour of duty took him to Paris, a center of the art world, which was welcoming to Black Americans.


In 1946, he enrolled in San Francisco University and, then, the University of California at Berkeley, where he received a bachelor’s degree in drawing and painting in 1949. He spent the following year in Paris on the G.I Bill, a law that provided a range of benefits to veterans. He studied with French artist, Fernand Leger, who would not look at his portfolio of geometric abstractionist art because “he felt that abstraction didn’t communicate ideas to ordinary people,” said Colescott in the interview, An American Original. So, the artist reintroduced the figure to his work.


Colescott returned to UC Berkeley and earned a master’s degree in 1952. He moved to the Pacific Northwest and was on staff at Portland State University from 1957 to 1966. On his second stint in Cairo, the Six-Day War broke out. The artist and his wife and son left for three years in Paris.


“From there, he experienced the momentous events of 1968, (among them the escalation of involvement in the Vietnam War, the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F Kennedy assassinations and, presumably, news of race (rebellions) and heavy Black Panther Party activity at their headquarters in Oakland), perhaps generating a heightened sense of both American and African-American allegiances, wrote Jody B. Culter in Art Revolution: Politics and Pop in the Robert Colescott Painting, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware."


When he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, some artists like Peter Saul, a father of the Pop Art movement, had developed “extravagant, often caustic figurative styles,” according to his obituary in The New York Times (June 9, 2009).


“His style morphed from the lively zones of color and figuration that marked his Egyptian paintings into a cartoonish style inspired by the comic strips that he enjoyed as a child,” according to Dream Idea Machine: Art View. “In addition, (his work) was also reflective of the countercultural imagery of his West Coast contemporaries . . . as well as the Funk cartoonist, Robert Crumb. Their work was characterized by an irreverent, no-holds-barred approach to making art that reflected a Bay Area sensibility that made it a hotbed of political activism and artistic ferment.


“His initial strategy was to revisit the work of prominent artists in history such as Vincent van Gogh, Eugene Delacroix, Emmanuel Leutze, and Pablo Picasso, and selectively render figures in the original compositions as Black people. This allowed him to address subject matter that was largely ignored by art history, while introducing a larger universe for aesthetic and artistic discourse.

 

In Eat Dem Taters (1975), he replaces van Gogh’s somber peasants with exuberantly grinning minstrel figures in order to send up the myth of the ‘happy darky’.

 

“By the mid-1970s, Colescott was fully engaged in his appropriation of art history. Eat Dem Taters, a spoof of van Gogh’s Potato Eaters is particularly notorious. Here Colescott replaces van Gogh’s somber peasants with exuberantly grinning minstrel figures in order to send up the myth of the ‘happy darky’," wrote Dream Idea Machine.


"The notion that Black people could be happy with very little was a staple of pre-World War II Hollywood films. This concept was also included in school textbooks of the period, in which Black people were described as fortunate to be enslaved since slavery removed them from their previous, barbaric circumstances in Africa. Colescott effectively uses the stylization of racist stereotypes of Black people to draw viewers into the painting; and, regardless of their reaction, he forced them to confront their racist attitudes, anger or compliance.”


For 15 years, Colescott painted in the Bay Area and taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, UC Berkeley and California State University at Stanislaus. Then, he returned to the desert, not in Egypt but, in Tucson at the University of Arizona.


Since the 1980s, the issue of identity has preoccupied our increasingly globalized society. Colescott explored identity through a variety of current events that he experienced in his life: the ironic situation of the Black soldier; the dichotomy between domestic policy and foreign relations; the struggles in the Middle East, and the U.S./Mexican border.


In the early 2000s, Colescott had to face the effects of Parkinson’s disease.


“Despite the physical challenges he faced, Colescott continued to paint, as his figurative style evolved into richly modulated compositions that became increasingly abstract,” according to Dream Idea Machine.


“Form, gesture, fully saturated color, and blank space come together in works that are dream-like and nightmarish at the same time. It would seem that Colescott allowed his subconscious to roam freely in an unresolved way, which relates . . . to the character of his paintings in the first few years of the twenty-first century.”


His fifth wife confirmed his death at age 83 in Tucson. His other survivors were his brother, Warrington Jr.; five sons, and one grandson.


His New York Times obituary described him as “an American figurative painter whose garishly powerful canvases lampooned racial and sexual stereotypes with rakish imagery, lurid colors and almost tangible glee.”


His brother, Warrington, a printmaker, dealt with many of the same themes and “deftly navigated the intersection between tragedy and high comedy with biting etchings about civil rights, history, politics and the Internal Revenue Service (which audited him)”, wrote The New York Times (October 4, 2018). Asked to compare his work with his late brother’s, Warrington, emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, spoke in the present tense to Cal Alumni Association, Berkeley issue of California (Spring 2011):


“He’s a very good painter, and he’s much rougher than I am. . . . He’s an attack artist.”


Berkeley art historian Peter Selz observed:


“He comes on like the (irreverent comedian) Lenny Bruce of painting. That not everyone got the jokes could be exasperating for him.”


Lowery Stoke Sims said that the artist has been “a naughty obsession of mine for over 40 years” in her lecture, Whose Art History Is It? Some Thoughts on Robert Colescott, at New York Studio School (February 24, 2021). Sims, who was a curator of Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, quoted him:


“I think that the way I have appropriated paintings is subversive because my version puts into question the ownership of the idea.”


Robert Colescott said about his work in Smithsonian Magazine:


“It’s satire. It’s the satire that kills the serpent, you know.”

 

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook (1975), a takeoff of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting of the Revolutionary War hero, places Carver, a Black agronomist, at the helm of a boat carrying a bare-bottomed mammy, a banjo-playing minstrel, and a man drinking from a jug, among others. Colescott’s outing of the stereotypes was an affront to many. Since then, the painting has achieved iconic status.

 

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