“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” 2022. New Museum, New York. (L-R) See Colescott’s We Await Thee, (1964), Nubian Queen (1966), and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1968).
Fresh off its survey of Faith Ringgold, the New Museum presents a retrospective of another veteran African American painter whose aesthetic DNA courses through subsequent generations of black artists. Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, the artist’s first museum outing since 1989, is a pugnacious affair brimming with in-your-face disquisitions on the titular issues and it seems timelier than ever now that democracy itself is being threatened by White grievance.
Long before Kerry James Marshall, Colescott (1925–2009) set out to challenge the absence of people of color in art history, and like Kara Walker, he stirred controversy by leavening his work with racist and sexist caricatures. His formula grew out of some unexpected sources and it didn’t gel until late in his career.
Born in Oakland, California to a musical family from New Orleans. His mother was a pianist and his father was a violinist fluent in both jazz and classical repertoires. The young Colescott developed an interest in art, which was encouraged by a family friend, an African American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance named Sargent Claude Johnson.
Drafted into the Army in 1942, Colescott found himself in Paris at the end of World War II. Upon leaving the service, he received a BFA from UC Berkeley in 1949 (where he also earned an MFA in 1952), before returning to the City of Light for a year of study with the modernist Fernand Léger.
“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” 2022. New Museum, New York. See Colescott’s Olympia (1959) on the right.
The exhibit follows Colescott’s development chronologically, starting with his tutelage under Léger. The latter was known for figures built out of geometric forms polished to machine shop precision, but he started out as an abstractionist who turned to representation out of a desire to make his art accessible, inspiring Colescott to do the same. 
Spanning the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the show’s first room is dedicated to early works, that haven’t been seen in public before (Colescott had gifted them to a cousin). These include an homage to Manet manifested as a vigorously gestural reprise of Olympia, and another to John Singer Sargent based on a detail of Sargent’s group portrait, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Both foreshadowed Colescott’s later critiques of Western art’s ineluctably Caucasian character.
Robert Colescott, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, 1968. Acrylic on canvas. 78 ½ x 59 in (199.4 x 149.9 cm).
Colescott held several teaching positions like one at Portland State College in Oregon where he produced the paintings mentioned above. But his 1964 sojourn as a visiting professor at the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt proved to be a major turning point for him.
Since the nineteenth century, ancient Egypt had been a source of debate for the proponents of Afrocentrism among the African American intelligentsia. Rather than representing a unique civilization, the theory went, the Age of The Pharaohs was a distinctly African phenomenon, forged from the cultural and environmental particulars of the continent.
While it’s unclear whether Colescott himself knew of this idea, it is true that he fully embraced his African American identity while in Cairo, as evinced by the compositions he made there. They were the first to showcase Black subjects as well as the looser brush marks and brightly chromatic palette that became characteristic of his mature paintings. The examples here include Nubian Queen (1966) and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1968), both of which comprise dreamlike swirls of colored patches reminiscent of Kandinsky’s Blaue Reiter period.
“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” 2022. New Museum, New York. (L-R) See Colescott’s Havana Corona (1970); Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie (1971); and Miss Black Oakland (1967).
“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” 2022. New Museum, New York. (L-R) See Colescott’s Beauty Queen (1972) and Real Crow (1976).
In contrast, some of his initial efforts upon returning to America centered on white women and made pointed connections between misogyny and violence. In Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie (1971)—named after singer-songwriter Don McLean’s treacly ode to rock ’n’ roll and the loss of postwar innocence—a nude blonde wearing a slice of the eponymous confection towers over an African American soldier in Vietnam. Beauty Queen (c. 1972) shows a pageant winner in front of a graphic-novelized rape scene. Implicit in both is the murderous racist hang-up over the supposed sexual threat that Black men pose to white women.
Robert Colescott, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975. Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, 2021.45.1. Installation view: “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” 2022. New Museum, New York.
Still, it’s Colescott’s insertion of people of color into art history that largely made his reputation. With that in mind, his masterpiece is undoubtedly George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975). A parody of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 apotheosis of our first President, the painting presents a literal boatload of racial stereotypes to indict American exceptionalism.
Colescott was hardly unheralded in his day: In 1997, he became the first Black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. This fresh look at his pioneering work helps you understand why, of course, but it is also yet another reminder that the work of demolishing racial barriers remains a Sisyphean task.
Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen’s Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.
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