‘Art and Race Matters’ at the Contemporary Arts Center

Robert Colescott’s colorful perspective turns history on its head

The Contemporary Arts Center has a wow-factor season opener. Robert Colescott’s “Art and Race Matters” is here for the first of four U.S. museum stops. The exhibit opens Sept. 20, and admission is free. 

“Art and Race Matters” features 85 works from 50 years of Colescott’s career that bring to the surface and challenge both diversity and racial stereotypes. The CAC was awarded a prestigious Sotheby’s Prize for curatorial excellence – for breaking new ground in understanding how Colescott’s paintings evolved, and for contributing to the understanding of his stature in contemporary art.

Robert Colescott, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook”
Robert Colescott, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook”

Don’t expect a dry exhibit, hard to comprehend without a Ph.D. in cultural studies. Robert Colescott was a passionate painter, his works bursting with color, content – and especially humor. One of his most famous early paintings is “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook,” 1975. It is a work riffing on the famous Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze painting of George Washington in a seminal event in the United States’ battle for freedom. In Colescott’s version, we see stereotypes of African Americans – from the short-order cook to the banjo player – all in the boat with Carver, a pioneering chemist. Colescott turns our complacent view of history on its head.

Colescott was born in Oakland, California, in 1925 and died in 2009. His mother was a pianist and his father a jazz violinist; he grew up in an artistic family that encouraged education. His father supported the family as a porter on the Southern Pacific Railroad. That surely influenced Colescott when he developed the content in his paintings. You could be educated, but you got lower-class jobs if you were black. 

Colescott fought in the 86th Blackhawk Division during World War II and served in Paris, where he found the culture more hospitable to black people than in the U.S. During a later trip to Paris, he studied with the famous French painter Ferdinand Léger, who emphasized the scale of forms in a painting and, especially, color. Leger also stressed narration. Colescott spent a lot of time in Paris museums looking at 19th-century painting, and that had a huge impact on how his artwork evolved. 

Back in his home state, he earned a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1952 and spent the next decade teaching in the Northwest.

Robert Colescott, “1919”
Robert Colescott, “1919”

In 1964, he spent a year as faculty artist-in-residence at the American Research Center in Cairo, which was another important influence on his future output. The Egyptian art he saw reinforced what his Parisian mentor Léger had emphasized, especially ideas about narrative: Tell a story in your paintings. Furthermore, he saw the iconic and stylized art of ancient Egypt firsthand. Just as artists like Van Gogh were highly influenced by seeing Japanese prints for the first time, and made bolder and crisper paintings as a result, so Colescott became bolder in his painting after seeing Egyptian art.

After another stint in Paris, he returned in 1967 to the United States, which he found changed by the civil rights movement. Contemporary Bay Area artists – such as Roy De Forest, William T. Wiley, Joan Brown, Robert Arneson and Peter Saul – especially energized him. These artists developed flamboyant, sometimes caustic, figurative styles. 

The American art scene in the 1950s was dominated by Abstract Expressionism, which was devoid of recognizable imagery. It was bold to make paintings with figures following the impact and success of abstract art. And in the 1960s, Pop Art turned its back on abstraction, using common objects as subjects for paintings, as Andy Warhol did in his “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” Bay Area artists, though, wanted to re-energize the use of the human figure in contemporary painting. Colescott jumped right in, and by the end of the 1960s he had found his mature style.

By the mid-1970s, Colescott had created a series of paintings that reimagined iconic European paintings he had examined in Paris, such as Edouard Manet’s famous “Olympia” of 1863. For his 20th century version, he painted a lovely black woman in place of Manet’s Venus-like white nude. The art world took notice. In 1997, Colescott was the first African American painter to have a solo exhibit at the venerable Venice Biennale in Italy. His work is in the permanent collections of many museums, including Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Oakland Museum.

Robert Colescott, "Feeling His Oats"
Robert Colescott, “Feeling His Oats”

“Given the crises of race relations, political propaganda and image manipulation in the current American landscape, Colescott’s career has never been more relevant,” said exhibition curator Lowery Stokes Sims, a Colescott scholar. “His perspectives on race, life, social mores, historical heritage and cultural hybridity allow us to forthrightly confront what the state of global culture will be in the immediate future.” Colescott’s approach to his paintings – in what seems like an offhand, sarcastic, satirical and even caustic manner – also helps us do just that.

“Art and Race Matters” is organized by Lowery Stokes Sims and CAC’s Alice & Harris Weston director, Raphaela Platow, with assistance from Matthew Weseley. A catalog highlighting Colescott’s extensive career, published by Rizzoli Electa, will be available for purchase. Don’t miss this fantastic exhibition. υ

Robert Colescott: “Art and Race Matters,” Contemporary Arts Center, Sept. 20-Jan. 12. Opening reception: Sept. 20, 8 p.m.


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