Life & Culture

Robert Colescott’s satirical art gets some overdue attention at Chicago Cultural Center

Powered in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, high-profile contemporary African-American artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve, including high selling prices and big shows like the much-publicized touring survey dedicated to Chicagoan Kerry James Marshall in 2016-2017.

But perhaps not many people have yet heard of Robert Colescot, who paved the way for many black artists who followed him but who has been stubbornly and unjustly ignored since his death in 2009 at the age of 83.

A touring retrospective exhibit on display at the Chicago Cultural Center through May 29 — the largest ever dedicated to an Oakland, California, native — seeks to at least partially correct that mistake. “Art and Race: The Career of Robert Colescott” consists of 55 paintings and work on paper spanning 50 years, including little-known early examples from his time in Seattle; Portland, Oregon, Egypt.

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

Colscott is known for his satirical and harsh examinations of race, gender, and identity. Some draw upon and reimagining art history, such as his 1975 reworking of Emanuel Luzzi’s famous painting “Washington Crossing Delaware” with George Washington Carver and all-black figures. (A 1974 pencil study of the composition is shown here.)

“I think he combined seizure and offending attitudes in a way no one else has,” said Laurie Stokes Sims, a co-curator of the show in New York.

A guest looks at Robert Colescot’s “George Washington Carver Crosses Delaware: A Page from an American History Book” in 2021, when it was sold at auction. The Pencil Drawing Study is part of the Chicago Cultural Center exhibit.
Cindy Ord / Getty Images

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

His work drew from the 1970s and 1980s California funk music and had more to do with the Hairy Who movement in Chicago than it had with mainstream East Coast art. This duality helps explain why he appeared in 1987, 1990, and 1992 at the Phyllis Kind Fair in Chicago, which championed Chicago Imagists.

“He didn’t fit really well,” Sims said. “Even if you look at him in the context of those important Marcia Tucker shows in the late ’70s like ‘Bad Painting’, he had the same sensitivity but the way he painted it was much more powerful. His characters were very straightforward – you could call them raw and vulgar.”

The Wreckage of the Medusa

“The Medusa Wreck” (1978) is featured in “Questions of Art and Race: The Career of Robert Coliscott.”
© 2021 Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust/Artists Rights Society, New York. private group. Photo: Ray Littman

Not keeping up with much of what was going on in the art scene at the time was a big reason the artist was underappreciated. It also doesn’t help that you don’t know too much about Colescot.

According to co-curator Matthew Wesley, who has taught him since 1996, the artist’s ownership has not made his personal archive available to researchers, and he has sometimes been anxious about his personal life and imprecise in record-keeping.

“I’m the one who revealed he died until 1970,” Wesley said. “It was not known in his life.”

Here are some of the highlights of the Cultural Center exhibition:

  • “We are waiting for you” (1964). This is a rarely seen example of his work from his time in Egypt, including his exploration of an ancient tomb there. “He was deeply involved in ideas of reincarnation, which is what Egyptian art is about,” Wesley said. “This painting is about that but in the style of a painter drawn from 20th century Modernism like Matisse.”
  • “Colored TV” (1977) was described by Weseley as an “extraordinary” painting that has been interpreted and misinterpreted in multiple ways. “Colliscott has said in more than one place that the central character is transvestite,” he said, referring to the work’s reference to a transformative song from the movie “Pinocchio” — “When You Wish You Were a Star.”
  • Shirley Temple Black and Bill Bojangles White (1980). In this piece, the artist draws on the surname Black and imagines her as a black woman and a white Robinson. Sims said, “This is what he was calling transformation, and it shows how his mind works. It shows in our faces a lot of attitudes about how we perceive and distinguish people of different races.”
  • “The Three Graces: Art, Sex, and Death” (1981). Sims described it as an important transitional piece from Colscott’s purely custom work to the set of paintings that led the 1984-85 “Bather” series about black and white beauty. “It’s interesting,” she said, “how he takes The Three Graces, done by everyone from Raphael to Rubens, and plays it in a way one would expect to see in a pin-up.”

While the co-curators know that this retrospective exhibition alone will not get it all done, they hope it will be a major step toward moving Colescot to its rightful place in the history of twentieth-century American art.

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