Mocking Black Stereotypes, a Black Artist Makes Waves

updated 05/22/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1989 01:00AM

Seattle is a low-key, convivial town, but when the Robert Colescott retrospective opens at the Seattle Art Museum next week, it may put some acid in the placid rain. In Cincinnati, a woman marched into the museum before the show opened and vociferously declared the artist's work to be insulting to blacks. In Portland, museumgoers gulped at Colescott's bawdy nudes. And then there was Akron, where the school board president publicly denounced the paintings as "repulsive, demeaning and immoral."

No arguing with the New York Times that these were "potentially explosive images," though clearly not everyone agreed they were "...baited with a wild, driving and sometimes apocalyptic humor." Among the works in question was Eat Dew Taters, Colescott's revised version of the humble meal in Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters, in which he replaced Van Gogh's gloomy Dutch peasants with a cartoonish bunch of grinning black sharecroppers. Then there was his jumbo redo of Washington Crossing the Delaware, in which the great black agronomist George Washington Carver stands in for the first President in a rowboat brimming with racial stereotypes, like a banjopickin' minstrel and a plump Aunt Jemima. Uh-oh. Those are racist offenses of the first magnitude, but for one thing. Colescott is one of the nation's best-known black artists.

"These paintings are not directly about black people," says the 63-year-old Colescott, running a hand pensively over his bushy white eyebrows. "They're about a perception." The poor-but-merry sharecroppers in Eat Dem Taters, he explains, are "a frontal attack on the myth of the happy darky. It's a silly image exaggerated beyond even the stereotype to show that the myth was absurd. Van Gogh was saying that the peasants were eating their simple fare and glad they had it. But I think even he tried to show that they were brutalized by life. I just tried to push that idea as far as it would go."

As for George Washington Carver piloting his ship of fools, "the painting is about tokenism," says Colescott. Carver was one of the few blacks mentioned in the history textbooks of the artist's youth. "Carver was allowed to be noble," Colescott says, "but it was a crumb in terms of what was available" to be written about if anyone had surveyed the subject seriously. In the painting Carver ushers in a boatload of the menial images of blacks that white society once fostered.

Wandering through the whole history of painting, in which images of blacks are almost unknown, Colescott made his reputation by putting his people back into the picture in the most literal way. He also draws from popular culture, as in Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White, in which America's sweetheart is reimagined as a little black girl song-and-dancing with a white "Bojangles" Robinson. ' "What if America's sweetheart had been a black girl?" he asks with a wry smile. "What kind of society would that have represented? What would it mean to a white man to see himself as a Bill Robinson, caught in that image and playing second fiddle to a black girl?"

With his teasing bright colors and shimmying line, Colescott tickles clichés to death. Sometimes his critics don't get the joke, but he disarms most of them, as he did in Akron, where he showed up to explain his intentions. Not that he thinks he needed to; ultimately, he believes, the work is capable of explaining itself. "When the show got to Akron," he recalls, "people looked at it and said, 'Wow—this is art!' "

Many observers in the art world agree. "I think he is one of the most important artists, black or white, to appear in the last 20 years," says Lowery S. Sims, an associate curator of 20th-century art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns a number of Colescotts. Through its use of irony and image appropriation, she adds, "his work strongly states that black people were not outsiders but key to the history of society."

It was in Oakland, Calif., where Colescott grew up, that he got his first glimpse of black exclusion. His father was a violinist with no chance to display his classical abilities. Discrimination forced him to work as a waiter on the Southern Pacific Railroad, occasionally picking up jobs playing jazz. "I think he would have loved to have played in a symphony," Colescott says. "A lot of guys on the railroad were overqualified, but it was the job available to black men. You bet I sensed disappointment in him."

One of the men Colescott's father worked with on the railroad was the pioneer black sculptor Claude Sargent Johnson. "He was the first artist I ever met," Colescott says. As a boy, young Robert showed an intelligence that made his parents anxious to steer him toward the professions, but he preferred to draw and paint. After getting a degree in art in 1949 from the University of California at Berkeley, he set out for Paris to study with the great French artist Fernand Léger. But Léger turned out to have little taste for the abstract art that Colescott then admired. "Léger felt abstraction didn't communicate ideas to people," says Colescott. "So I figured, well, I'm just going to start working from the figure so I can get his attention. One way or another, I've been working with a figure ever since."

After 14 years back in the States, most of them spent teaching junior high school in Seattle and then college in Portland, Colescott took off again with the second of his four wives and two kids (his and theirs), this time to teach and study in Egypt. "Living in Cairo was one of the most exciting things I ever did," he says. "Part of it had to do with 3,000 years of nonwhite history that I was immersed in—powerful art that made the Acropolis seem like a dollhouse. It was a soul reinforcement to me."

It was after his return to the States in 1970, when he encountered a burgeoning pride among American blacks, that Colescott arrived at the style that has become associated with his name. He has no illusions that his paintings will undo the conditions he criticizes. "I'm keeping alive the idea that you can damn well say what you want," he says. "Americans don't really dig censorship with art."

These days Colescott lives in Tucson with his fourth wife, Colleen, 36, a book graphics designer, and their 2½-year-old son, Cooper. (Colescott has four other boys.) For the past four years, he has taught at the University of Arizona at Tucson, pursuing his own work in a rented space while he awaits completion of a new house and studio. "I'm an old-fashioned painter," he says. "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."

In much of his newer work, Colescott has abandoned reimagining art from the past. He has also been edging away from his overt role as social critic. In a painting done last year called Chinese Noodles, an interracial couple is seen eating take-out food. Is that a comment on race relations? A trenchant observation about the challenge from the Pacific Rim? "It's not about anything," Colescott shrugs. "It's just a woman and a man eating noodles." Sometimes, after all, what you see is what you get.

—Richard Lacayo, Sue Carswell with Colescott in New York

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