Blum & Poe is pleased to announce Cairo to the Bay Area, 1967–1982, a presentation of drawings and paintings by the late Oakland-born artist Robert Colescott (b. 1925, Oakland, CA; d. 2009, Tucson, AZ).
Colescott was born in Oakland in 1925 and spent approximately thirty-seven of his eighty-three years in the San Francisco Bay Area. He identified proudly with being an artist from California, however, his experiences living and traveling abroad informed his artistic development profoundly. The works gathered here represent a fulcrum point in Colescott’s career, a moment when his idiomatic outward expression began to come into focus with layers of humor, irony, and incisive personal and political awareness prompted by the formative experiences he encountered outside of his home state.
Colescott lived in the Pacific Northwest, Egypt, and France between 1952 and 1970. During this time, his paintings went through the transformative, self-imposed rigors of dedicated experimentation and mimicry before arriving at the deeply personal, intellectual, humorous, and masterful style he is known for today. Colescott pivoted from abstraction to figuration while under the tutelage of Fernand Léger in Paris in 1949. He earned his master’s degree in art from the University of California at Berkeley in 1951 and moved to the Pacific Northwest the following year. In the 1950s, the Bay Area Figurative movement took hold as luminary painters David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and others challenged the status quo of the reigning Abstract Expressionists. When Colescott’s contemporaries in Seattle and Portland compared his work to that of the older painters Bischoff and Park, Colescott minimized the connection and asserted that he was on a path of his own making. In fact, Bischoff had been Colescott’s teacher briefly when Bischoff was still making abstract work. Before he found a mature expression, Colescott was like a stylistic weathervane moving between abstraction, figuration, still lifes, and landscapes—all of which reflected the various places where he lived.
His spirit of exploration and habit of drawing heavily from the locations and people surrounding him led to a significant shift in consciousness when he first visited Cairo, Egypt in 1964. At this point, Colescott transcended the polymorphous nature of his early paintings and began to establish a consistent and wholly unique style and perspective, evident in Nihad in the New World, 1967 and WHiTE GODDESS etc., 1968. Colescott spent a year between 1964 and 1965 in Cairo as an artist in residence at the American Research Center in Egypt and returned in 1966 to teach art at the American University in Cairo, effectively concluding his Pacific Northwest chapter. If he and his family had not been forced to leave the country on the cusp of the Six-Day War in mid-1967, Colescott might have lived out his days in Cairo.
The time that he spent in Egypt opened him up in ways that he could not have predicted. Steeping in the vast lineage of Black art history in northern Africa helped Colescott come to terms with his conflicted personal racial identity and integrate it into his artwork, sparking a major career development. In the artist’s words, “There were experiences [in Egypt] that I thought were fundamental to my art and identity. Some very positive things happened to me. Walking down the street in Cairo was to be walking among people like myself. Everybody—the president of the country and on down—was a person of color.”
When Colescott returned to live in Oakland at the close of the 1960s after being away for nearly two decades, his sharp wit, use of social satire, and dedication to the figure landed him in the second generation of Bay Area Figurative artists. This fertile chapter included the celebrated painting George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975. Girded by his confidence, acute powers of observation, deep knowledge of art history, and extraordinary skills as a painter, over the course of the following fifteen years Colescott would go on to make some of his most iconic work.
A retrospective curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley opened at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH in fall 2019, traveled to the Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; Sarasota Art Museum, Sarasota, FL; and Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL; and will conclude at the New Museum, New York, NY in 2022. This survey show is accompanied by a comprehensive monograph on the artist’s life and work, published by Rizzoli Electa. Colescott’s work is represented in public collections internationally, in such notable institutions as the Akron Art Museum, Akron, OH; American Research Center in Egypt, Alexandria, VA; Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD; Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Denver Museum of Art, Denver, CO; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI; de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA; Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA; High Museum of Art, Atlanta GA; Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; New Museum, New York, NY; Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA; Pinault Collection, Paris, France; Rubell Family Collection, Miami, FL; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA; Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; among many more.