Robert Colescott: 1925-2009

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Feeling His Oats, Robert Colescott, 1988/Albright-Knox Gallery

Feeling His Oats, Robert Colescott, 1988/Albright-Knox Gallery

The American painter Robert Colescott has died. Make that great American painter. Colescott was an African-American who was best known for high-comic riffs on racial stereotypes. One of his best known canvases was a spoof of Emmanuel Leutze’s painting ofWashington Crossing the Delaware in which George Washington Carver has been substituted for the Father of Our Country, standing manfully at the prow of a rowboat full of racial stock characters.

Exploding stereotypes in work that’s both hilarious and dead serious is a strategy that’s been carried forward in different ways now by Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley and Yinka Shonibare. But to think of Colescott merely as a satirist, or a kind of cartoonish political cartoonist is to miss the point entirely. What mattered about him first and last was that he was an absoluetly smashing painter, deeply versed in art history but endlessly inventive in making escape routes out of art historical traps.

After the war Colescott studied in Paris for a year with Leger and it’s a safe bet that from Leger he learned something about billowing forms that lock beautifully into place while still appearing to explode out of the formation. It always seemed to me there was also a bit of German Expressionist DNA in both his distorted figures and his wild, acidic palette, which Jawlensky would have loved. And Colescott spoke about the impact on his art of a year he spent teaching in Cairo.

In 1997 Colescott became the first African-American artist to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. Eight years earlier I had been borrowed by Time‘s sister publication People to profile him. In that story he said something that I think sums up his work precisely.

I’m an old-fashioned painter. I like to make paintings that look good. If they have that quality, one day when the subject matter is completely worn out, people will stop responding in shock. They might not even know what these paintings are about. Sometimes when we look at a Renaissance painting, we don’t know what it’s about—people flying through the air. I want these paintings to be valued because of the way they look as paintings.

And count on it, they will be.

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