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

A touring retrospective showcases the late painter’s incisive examinations of race, gender and identity.

Robert Colescott poses with one of his paintings in an archival image.
Barry Blinderman

Boosted in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, top-level contemporary African-American artists finally are getting the recognition they deserve, including soaring sale prices and major shows like the much-heralded touring survey devoted to Chicagoan Kerry James Marshall in 2016-17.

But many people probably have still never heard of Robert Colescott, who set the stage for many of the Black artists who have followed him but remains stubbornly and unfairly overlooked since his death in 2009 at age 83.

A touring retrospective on view at the Chicago Cultural Center through May 29 — the largest ever devoted to the Oakland, California, native — seeks to at least partially redress this oversight. “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” comprises 55 paintings and works on paper spanning 50 years, including little-known early examples from his time in Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Egypt.

The show was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and it 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 was postponed because of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Colescott is best known for his satirical, often biting examinations of race, gender and identity. Some draw on and reimagine art history, like his 1975 reworking of Emanuel Leutze’s famed painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” with George Washington Carver and all-Black figures. (A 1974 pencil study for the composition is on view here.)

“It’s my belief that he combined appropriation with transgressive attitudes in a way that nobody else has done,” said Lowery Stokes Sims, one of the retrospective’s two New York-based co-curators.

A guest looks at Robert Colescott’s “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” in 2021, when it sold at auction. A pencil study for the painting is part of the Chicago Cultural Center exhibit.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

In 2017, Colescott was included in “Fast Forward,” an examination of 1980s painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But according to Sims, his work stood out like a “sore thumb” in comparison to such other artists as Robert Longo, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. “He wasn’t that kind of slick, clean-cut New York look,” she said.

His work from the 1970s and ’80s drew on California funk and had more to do with Chicago’s Hairy Who movement than what was happening in mainstream East Coast art. That dichotomy helps explain why he was featured in 1987, 1990 and 1992 at Chicago’s Phyllis Kind Gallery, which championed the Chicago Imagists.

“He didn’t really fit in very well,” Sims said. “Even if you look at him in in the context of those important shows that Marcia Tucker did in the late ’70s like ‘Bad Painting,’ he was of a similar sensibility but the way he painted was so much more robust. His figures were very well articulated — you could call them raw and raunchy.”

“The Wreckage of the Medusa” (1978) is on display in “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott.”
©2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society, New York. Private Collection. Photo: Ray Litman

Being out of step with much that was happening in the art scene at the time was a big reason for the artist’s comparative under-recognition. It also does not help that much is still not known about Colescott.

According to co-curator Matthew Weseley, who has been studying him since 1996, the artist’s estate has not made his personal archive available to researchers, and he was sometimes cagey about his personal life and inaccurate in his record-keeping.

“I’m the person who revealed that he passed for white until 1970,” Weseley said. “That was not known in his lifetime.”

Here are some highlights of the Cultural Center exhibition:

  • “We Await Thee” (1964). This is a rarely seen example of his works from his time in Egypt, including his exploration of an ancient necropolis there. “He got very involved in the ideas of reincarnation, which is what Egypt art is all about,” Weseley said. “That painting is about that but in a painterly technique derived from 20th-century modernism like Matisse.”
  • “Colored T.V.” (1977). Weseley described it as an “extraordinary” painting that has been interpreted and misinterpreted in multiple ways. “Colescott in more than one place said that the central figure is a transvestite,” he said, noting the work’s reference to a transformational song from the movie “Pinocchio” — “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
  • “Shirley Temple Black and Bill Bojangles White” (1980). In this piece, the artist draws on Black’s surname and imagines her as a Black woman and Robinson as white. “It’s what he would call a switcheroo,” Sims said, “and it shows how his mind works. It just throws up in our face so many attitudes about how we perceive and characterize people of different races.”
  • “The Three Graces: Art, Sex and Death” (1981). Sims called it an important transitional piece from Colescott’s purely appropriationist work to a group of paintings that led his 1984-85 “Bather” series on Black and white beauty. “It’s interesting” she said, “how he takes The Three Graces, which have been done by everybody from Raphael to Rubens and plays them up in a way that one would expect to see in a pinup.”

While the co-curators know this retrospective alone won’t accomplish everything, they hope it is a major step toward moving Colescott into his rightful place in 20th-century American art history.