A decade after his death, Robert Colescott is still mostly known for his paintings of “the old masters in blackface,” as he once lamented. His pastiches—among them Eat Dem Taters, 1975 (take that, van Gogh!); George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975; and I Gets a Thrill, Too, When I Sees De Koo, 1978, which I had not realized is a pastiche of a pastiche, using the figure of Aunt Jemima to get at de Kooning by way of Mel Ramos—subvert what they pay homage to, substituting black figures for white ones to reimagine historic events and images, even creating, Colescott thought, “a barrier between the viewer and the original work.” The familiarity of the works’ sources lends them obvious intrigue but underplays the artist’s painterly inventiveness, which was vividly illuminated in this Cincinnati retrospective, curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley.
Colescott studied drawing and painting at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was steered toward geometric abstraction—a tendency that was quashed when he arrived in Paris in 1949 to study with Fernand Léger, who gave him the “hard news” that “abstraction didn’t communicate ideas to people.” Colescott never looked back. Yet the message he would ultimately transmit was not Léger’s, confident of a communist future, but that of Shakespeare’s Puck: “What fools these mortals be!” But not right away. In the artist’s paintings from the 1950s and early ’60s, such as Aussi Assis, 1955–56, or Legend Dimly Told, 1961, made when he was living in the Pacific Northwest, Colescott finds his way through the Bay Area tradition exemplified by Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Park—a kind of dreamy realism in which, as Colescott wrote of his work in 1961, “the mystery remains locked in and therein lies its truth.”
In 1964, Colescott took a yearlong residency in Cairo, and suddenly something like the painter we’ve come to know appeared: In We Await Thee, which he painted toward the start of the residency, forms and imagery pulse with newfound improvisatory fluidity, to which he soon added a rejuvenated, almost aggressively lush palette, as in Nubian Queen, 1966. In the latter work, 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. Colescott was classified as such in, for instance, his army-discharge papers, issued in 1946; his older brother Warrington, also an artist, lived his whole life as a white man, which led to a break between the siblings.
Soon, Colescott was employing his boisterous new palette to deliver more blatant sociopolitical commentary, often satirical, as in The Colonel Sanders Trilogy: Instant Chicken!, 1972—which, among other critiques, lampoons what we’d now call the white cultural appropriation of black cuisine—but sometimes earnest, as in a couple of paintings inspired by the assassination of Robert Kennedy (Assassin Down, 1968–70, and Kitchen Assassination, 1971). In place of the evocative intensity of paintings like Nubian Queen, Colescott’s work of the ’70s tends to pack its punches with a Pop-inflected pictorial simplicity—see, for instance, Bye, Bye Miss American Pie, 1971, where a nude, big-breasted blonde presides over a black GI’s entry into combat (presumably in Vietnam).
Colescott’s later focus was on the tangled tragicomedy of race both on and beyond the canvas.
Colescott’s pictures never envision unconflicted amity among people of different skin colors. And his depictions of race are often just as fixated on tropes as are his depictions of the sexes—for Colescott, human relations seem always to be steeped in sexual desire. Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder, 1979, depicts Colescott himself being distracted from his work on a remake of Matisse’s Dance, 1909–10, by a blonde woman undressing behind him. He never had his fill of such imagery, which was helpful, he said, for “getting in touch with my own fears, frustrations, and desires.” But starting around 1985—when he moved to Tucson from the Bay Area, where he’d settled again in 1970—he began using stereotypical images in a less polemical, more subjective, yet equally raucous way. The best description of Colescott’s late work remains the poem that Quincy Troupe wrote for the painter’s 1997 show at the Venice Biennale:
shapes emerging as color fields take on form, break through the surface of red primer that is a womb filled with blood, here & there bodies lump down grotesquely under faces, primeval in their distortion, blotchy with earth tones that shock
the senses, pulled in & appalled by what they think they see here.
It’s as if Colescott had finally managed to regain the painterly liberty of his mid-’60s work without sacrificing the concerns and characters he’d been developing for more than twenty years. Foregrounding gesture, color, and spatial complexity, paintings such as Marching to a Different Drummer, 1989; Choctaw Nickel, 1994; and A Visit from Uncle Charlie, 1995, feel deeper and darker but also more expansive, with an epic quality that reminds me, more than anything else, of Max Beckmann’s great triptychs, such as Departure, 1932–35, or The Argonauts, 1949/1950—together forming an ultimately unfathomable mythography of the artist’s time.