More than thirty years after Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center staged a mid-career celebration of Robert Colescott, the arts center has assembled the first survey of his life’s work. Art and Race Matters features 85 pieces produced over more than five decades, taking the viewer from his early studies at Berkeley to his sojourn at the Atelier Fernand Léger, and then from his political maturation at the American Research Center in Cairo to years when he experienced Parkinson’s syndrome. The show boasts an array of styles and techniques, though the most distinctive involve satirical appropriations of iconic imagery in the interest of assailing racist and nationalist stereotypes. The results are by turns comical and harrowing, the varied pieces commenting on each another as well as a swath of art history, accumulating a kind of sardonic fury as we move from room to room, decade to decade.
Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975) ranks among his most famous pieces, condensing many of the show’s concerns while exemplifying his scorching tone. The work parodies Emanuel Leutze’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), replacing his earnest depiction of Revolutionary heroism with raucous minstrelsy. Whereas Leutze underscores the sailors’ struggle with the elements and their unswerving purpose in the face of danger, Colescott renders a scene of drunken revelry, banjo strumming, shoe-shining, catfishing, and barely restrained lust. A figure in the early painting struggles to protect a threatened flag; his later counterpart-in-blackface embraces it in almost lascivious fashion. More than forty years after Colescott produced the image, as the US president makes a spectacle of hugging the flag, the satire has added bite. The angle and languid unfurling of the banner also suggests a subversion of Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, ridiculing once more the ideology of American valor and self-sacrifice. Leutze invokes those themes against an action-rich backdrop that reaches toward the horizon, studiously attending to the rippling water and crags of ice that surround the boats. Colescott responds by flattening the picture plane, lending a cartoonish quality to figures that are already marked by garish excess. These brash depictions trumpet historical prejudices in ways that nullify national self-congratulations, converting images of supposed revolution into reactionary kitsch.
Thirteen years later, Colescott produced a similarly pointed indictment of American narcissism, focusing this time not just on the lies propagated by American education but the sites of their delivery. School Days (1988) locates us within the often volatile spaces of high school and college campuses, situating academics and sports alongside scenes of confusion and senseless violence. As with many of the artist’s paintings, the image gives us no clear entry point, displacing narrative ordering with the question of where to start. Giving shape to various forms of alienation, he arranges them as a collage radiating from a fiery center. Characters try to study and graduate but find themselves hampered by identity conflict and personal loss. They face constant distractions, some erotic and some menacing. Near the core of the image hovers a sexualized and deathly rendering of Justice, blindfolded and lifting a scale that weighs a bleeding student body against the accumulation of capital. The painting has a kinetic quality that keeps the eye wandering, but it also features moments that stop us cold: one woman shamelessly objectified, another dying from a bullet wound, a young man pointing a pistol directly at us. Such details steal our contemplative distance, returning the gaze in ways that implicate and intimidate the witness. But with Colescott, apparent meanings tend to have a contradictory underside. The figure of the black student with a weapon constitutes no less a stereotype than those in the Carver painting, and it rings with particular irony given those responsible for school shootings in the US context.
While School Days undercuts racist narratives of campus violence, Marching to a Different Drummer (1984) envisions a black man who has successfully navigated the educational system only to question its assimilationist effects. He settles into his reading chair smoking a pipe, conveying a buttoned-up, Eurocentric vision of leisure just below a mantelpiece filled with sports trophies. But the book does not hold his attention. He glances with apprehension toward images of tribal masks and tropical spaces, the passionate swirl and slow loosening of gravity working in marked contrast to the austerity of his own environment. Above his head white hands beat the drum. The instrument rests on a pastel cloud, the soft texture of fantasy. The dream is to belong; yet belonging requires capitulation. The enticements of whiteness have such a reach that they even enter the forested portion of the painting, a blonde nude riding her own billow of mist. As with many Colescott paintings, no remedy accompanies the diagnosis. The protagonist experiences not comforting resolution but only the steady clash of contradictory impulses. His lower body inclines toward deep history, but a ball and chain pulls in the opposite direction.
The artist counsels us to build our historical knowledge in the face of sociopolitical pressures to focus on immediate surroundings and short-term gains. His Knowledge of the Past Is the Key to the Future series offers that counsel in various ways, though none more powerful than in St. Sebastian (1986). The painting replaces its traditional martyr with a body that is fluid in terms of race and gender. It fuses the form of a black man with a white woman, arrow-ridden and bound to a classical pillar. Busts with more conventional identity-markers, one a white man and one a black woman, hover in the sky behind the post. Nooses tie those subjects to the suffering at the stake. A stream of vivid life flows through the scene, but no one can enter or drink. The barren landscape signals apocalypse: a mound of skulls, many pierced with their own arrows, suggest that Sebastian’s pain is hardly unique. Constructed divisions wrack the saint’s body while the earth decays. Humans’ preoccupation with social distinction depletes the energies that might be spent connecting with each other, and at least as urgent, redressing the ecological harm we have done. St. Sebastian, a faith icon that has historically served as a talisman against plague, constitutes a fitting vehicle for Colescott’s statement, warding off the future it forecasts.
The artist commonly incorporates these icons into his tableaux, adding stylized ropes and chains to accentuate the figures’ cultural persistence. Renaissance subjects undergo profound transformation as they filter through the meshwork of cubism, post-impressionism, modernist abstraction, pop art. Colescott further infuses the scenes with recognizable details from advertising, photography, television, and popular music, deriving an improvisational style from the jazz and blues aesthetics he learned from his musician parents. Robert Farris Thompson praises those aesthetics in Tango: The Art History of Love, remarking that “Colescott is a visual stride pianist: he paints images and colors with sharp syncopation” (300). The syncopation comes from surprising juxtapositions of periods and ideas, from polyphonic arrangements of sex, comedy, and brutality that keep viewers wildly off-balance. His satire ranges so widely that we cannot see where it ends, though we may surely count ourselves among its targets.
At once an acerbic commentator on local audiences and an international social critic, Colescott is the first African American painter to hold a solo show at the Venice Biennale, and his canvases are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Harlem’s Studio Museum, and the Seattle Art Museum. CAC’s Art and Race Matters shows with fierce clarity how such works have increased in political significance in the decade since his death in 2009. Colescott long insisted that historical knowledge is key to the future, and what’s more, a stimulus for treating each other better. The idea that the paintings are predictive, however, and that they signal the tenacity more than the correction of injustice, expresses the work’s more ominous relevance.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Tango: The Art History of Love. Pantheon, 2005.