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Robert Colescott (1925-2009)

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Hot Dawg! An Impression, 1981 acrylic on canvas 84...

Hot Dawg! An Impression, 1981
acrylic on canvas
84 x 72 inches / 213.4 x 182.9 cm

Jealousy, 1984 acrylic on canvas 84 x 72 inches /...

Jealousy, 1984
acrylic on canvas
84 x 72 inches / 213.4 x 182.9 cm

Hot Stuff-Coming Through!, 1991 acrylic on paper 4...

Hot Stuff-Coming Through!, 1991
acrylic on paper
41 x 26 inches / 104.1 x 66 cm

Popeye and Other Negroes in a Bar Fight, 1991 acry...

Popeye and Other Negroes in a Bar Fight, 1991
acrylic on paper
41 x 26 1/4 inches / 104.1 x 66.7 cm

Out Gunned, 1993 acrylic and graphite on two sheet...

Out Gunned, 1993
acrylic and graphite on two sheets of joined paper
41 1/2 x 59 1/2 inches / 105.4 x 151.1 cm


New & Noteworthy

Artist Information


“If you decide to laugh, don't forget the ‘humor is the bait,’ and once you've bitten, you may have to do some serious chewing. The tears may come later.”[1] 

                                                                    –Robert Colescott

Robert Colescott was born in Oakland, California in 1925. His parents had relocated there from New Orleans in 1919 to escape the violence of the Jim Crow South and provide their future children access to an integrated, rigorous, and affordable education. His father was a violinist who had fought in France with the segregated 92nd Division during the First World War before taking a job as a waiter on the Southern Pacific railway. His mother, a pianist, had been a teacher in New Orleans but was forced to resign when she married because schools would not allow married women to teach. Colescott grew up in a diverse, middle-class neighborhood, and his parents nurtured his intellect as well as his love of music and drawing. The Colescott’s were part of a small but significant black cultural community that included artist Sargent Claude Johnson, a family friend who would support and encourage Colescott’s artistic ambitions as he got older.

When Robert finished high school in 1942, he volunteered for the US Army, serving in Europe and the Pacific. Upon his return, he used funding from the GI Bill to attend San Francisco State University, where he intended to study international relations and economics. Although he had been drawing and painting since childhood, he never saw art as a potential career until a college counselor advised Colescott not to pursue international relations because a career with the State Department was unlikely for African Americans. In 1946, he transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where the West Coast bastion of the Abstract Expressionist movement was in full swing. When he finished his BFA in 1949, Colescott was working primarily in an abstract style, and traveled to Paris with the intention of studying with Fernand Léger. Though Léger refused to look at Colescott’s portfolio because it consisted only of abstract work, he invited Colescott to join a small group of students working out of his studio. Léger would have a profound influence on Colescott, encouraging him to question the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and inspiring his return to figuration. In 1950, Colescott returned to California to pursue his MFA at Berkeley, where he was one of only a few figural painters among such dedicated abstractionists as Jay DeFeo and Sam Francis.

In the early 1950s, Colescott finished his MFA and moved to Seattle, where he taught junior high school during the day and dedicated the rest of his time to painting: “After dinner I’d go down to my basement studio and paint until 2 and 3 in the morning. I accepted the fact that I taught, but I wouldn’t accept the fact of being a teacher… I wanted to solve the problems of paint. I kept trying to learn how to use my brush with some sense of strength and energy and personality, and so I painted all kinds of things: I painted figures, I painted still lifes, I painted flowers, I painted 22 landscapes. I just painted everything.”[2] Colescott began exhibiting in solo and group shows in the early 1950s, to favorable reviews, and in 1957, he moved to Portland, Oregon, joining the faculty at Portland State University. In 1961, he signed on with the Fountain Gallery of Art, and in 1963, the Portland Art Museum mounted a solo exhibition of his work.

It was in Portland that Colescott began working in a high-contrast, boldly colored figural style that would soon evolve to his mature style, a trajectory that was accelerated by his first trip to Egypt. In 1964, he became an artist-in-residence at the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt, an experience that had a profound impact on how he understood the history of art and the place of people of color within it. Living in Cairo for three years, Colescott explained he felt a profound influence from the “three thousand years of a ‘non-white’ art tradition and by living in a culture that is strictly ‘non-white,’” he stated. “I think that excited me about...some of the ideas about race and culture in our own country; I wanted to say something about it.”[3] In 1967, he left Cairo for Paris, where he taught for several years before returning to the United States in 1970. His residency in both cities coincided with the dismantling of the French empire as more and more former African colonies attained independence. He also witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the anti-war movement, and the rise of Black Nationalism from a vantage point beyond the scope of US media. These events propelled critiques of European colonial and racial domination into the mainstream, which found their way into Colescott’s subsequent work.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Colescott set out to challenge the canonical narratives of “Western civilization” through his paintings, arriving in the style for which he is best known. Developing a cartoonish approach to figuration inspired by his childhood love of comic strips, the artist set out to skewer social conventions pertaining to race and gender, and how each are represented in American visual culture. Using bright palettes and sinuously exaggerated figuration, Colescott created compositions centered on the juxtaposition of 

[1] Colescott quoted in Huey Copeland, “Truth to Power,” Artforum International vol.48, no. 2, October 2009, 59-60.

[2] Sharon Fitzgerald, “Robert Colescott Rocks the Boat, Painter’s work shown at June 1997 International Festival,” American Visions, June 21, 1991 as quoted in LeFalle-Collins.

[3] Colescott as quoted in Emily Langer, “Robert Colescott Dies at 83: Painter's Take on Classics Tackled Social Ills,” Washington Post, June 12, 2009.


white American and European aesthetic standards with the violently racist caricatures that occupied an equally pivotal—if unacknowledged—place in the history of Western art and popular media. Similar to his contemporary, the painter Bob Thompson, Colescott re-worked familiar compositions from masterworks of the European canon: Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, the ballerinas of Edgar Degas, and Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Painted on the eve of the American bicentennial, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975) levels an incisive critique of how the Black people who populated and shaped American history were historically perceived by their white contemporaries. By choosing an iconic painting that constitutes an ostensibly straightforward icon of American nationalism and replacing its figures with equally iconic caricatures reminiscent of blackface minstrelsy, Colescott highlights the central place white supremacy holds in the nation’s history. Colescott’s “black-facing” of masterworks functioned as “a sleight of hand that provided instant loaded content,” Jody B. Culter writes, “not least of all through the incongruity of contemporary humor through the revival of Jim Crow stereotypes…Colescott’s appropriations were part homage to artists he revered and part sharp cultural critique.” [4]

From 1976 to 1985, Colescott taught painting and drawing at the San Francisco Art Institute before moving to Tucson and becoming a professor of art at the University of Arizona in 1985. That same year, he began work on a series titled The Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future. Inspired by poet-philosopher George Santayana’s famous dictum, the prolific series consisted of large-scale compositions based on popular narratives from American history. The works “retained…an uncensored approach to imagery, now directly linked to themes of Western imperialism, overlooked African American and African heroes, capitalist consumption, youth violence, and the hypocrisy of religion.”[5] Around this time, Colescott’s style changed: his brushstrokes became more gestural; his colors brighter and more intense; his approach to compositional structure increasingly reminiscent of collage; and his figures even more hyperbolically caricatured.

Colescott’s love of process animated his work throughout his career, and often constituted the driving force that propelled the stylistic transformations recurrent throughout his oeuvre. His works of the 1990s continued to explore the painful subjects of racism, sexism, and oppression, but did so in increasingly animated compositions featuring eye-catching, “splashy surfaces,” delivering the “strong ‘one-two punch’” that Colescott saw as central to his overall aesthetic.[6] In 1987, the San José Museum of Art mounted the artist’s first major retrospective. Organized by Lowery Stokes Sims, then a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the exhibition traveled to venues throughout the country, including: the Baltimore Museum of Art, Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the New Museum in New York, and the Seattle Art Museum. Colescott was granted emeritus status at the University of Arizona Tucson in 1995, and two years later, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. Another major retrospective, organized by Peter Selz, opened at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery in 2007, two years before the artist’s death from Parkinson’s disease.

Colescott is represented in numerous public collections throughout the United States, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); Arkansas Art Center (AK); Berkely Art Museum (CA); Boise Art Museum (ID); Brooklyn Museum (NY); Bush House Museum, Salem Art Association (OR); California African American Museum (Los Angeles, CA); Chrysler Museum of Art (Norfolk, VA); The Cleveland Museum of Art (OH); Columbus Museum (GA); de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (CA); Delaware Art Museum (Wilmington, DE); Denver Art Museum (CO); Detroit Institute of Arts (MI); High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, DC); Greeneville Museum of Art (SC); Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon (Eugene, OR); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CA); Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (Los Angeles, CA); MAC (Dallas, TX); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles, CA); Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA); The Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); Nasher Sculpture Center (Dallas, TX); National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); New Orleans Museum of Art (LA); Oakland Museum of California; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Philadelphia, PA); Portland Art Museum (OR); Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University (Waltham, MA); Roswell Museum and Art Center (NM); Rubell Family Collection (Miami, FL); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (CA); Saint Louis Art Museum (MO); San Jose Museum of Art (CA); Seattle Art Museum (WA); Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln; Smart Museum of Art at The University of Chicago (IL); The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York, NY); Tacoma Art Museum (WA); Tucson Museum of Art (AZ); University of Arizona Museum of Art (Tucson, AZ); Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam, The Netherlands); Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN); Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Whatcom Museum (Bellingham, WA); Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY); and the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT).

[4] Jody B. Cutler, “Art Revolution: Politics and Pop in the Robert Colescott Painting George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture vol. 8, no. 2, Fall 2009, for an extended discussion of this painting,, accessed November 2017.

[5] Cutler, “The One-Two Punch: Robert Colescott 1925-2009,” International Review of African American Art vol. 22, no. 4, January 2009, p. 64.

[6] Ibid.