As I walk through Robert Colescott’s exhibition Art and Racial Affairs, currently on display at the New Museum in New York, a line from Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead” unexpectedly came to mind: “Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat.” I can think of many suitable ones Introduce substitutes for “city maw,” from “art world” to museums and the people who proclaimed that the painting was dead by the time Colescott wrote his best-known work, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” ( 1975). I would even say that the fishbone metaphor applies to those in the 1980s who proclaimed that painting had returned, as if it had ever disappeared or been lost, like a dog that couldn’t find its way home, until Julian Schnabel showed up.
Rather than depicting what older black artist Charles White called “images of dignity,” Colescott chose to depict white America’s stereotypes of black people, images routinely perpetuated by mainstream media, from daily news to advertising to to movies and television. Using these stereotypes as themes and humor as a vehicle, Colescott arrived at an uncomfortable truth: racism and racial hierarchy are deeply embedded in every aspect of American life, from its cartoons to its laws. Racism was (and is) literally everywhere. By basing their evaluation of art on formal innovation while ignoring subject matter, the gatekeepers of the avant-garde assumed they were color-blind rather than wearing blinders and trudging along, privileged in their ignorance of the many connections between art and life.
Despite claims to the contrary, this narrow-minded way of thinking persists, as many (mostly white) Americans see the country as a tale of us and them, of good and evil. The civil war did not end in 1865 and his many-headed hydra took various forms. Colescott’s use of stereotypes and humor continues to make viewers uncomfortable as he rudely denounces our complicity. What I love about his work: It’s absurd, raunchy, tactless, vulgar, rude, badly mannered, funny, unexpectedly tender, aware of gradations and tones, angry, wildly imaginative and disturbing.
Sitting in a room surrounded by Colescott’s paintings, about 40 of which are on display Arts and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott at the New Museum, co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley, I once again realized why so many people oppose the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. It’s not about the kids, it’s about the adults. Who wants to tell their children that they are happily benefiting from a racist system and don’t want it to change? Who is to say that they believe racial genocide and enslavement have been good for the United States and that its legacy must be upheld?
In Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White (1980), Colescott used the childhood star’s married name to make a switch, portraying her as a young black girl and black tap dancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as White. which is a comment on the happy subservience he projected in films. Colescott’s portrayal of Robinson as a white man in blue overalls and a red shirt, holding a bucket of raspberries and singing to a smiling black girl with exaggeratedly red lips, who stares at him with wide eyes, is delightfully ridiculous. The theatrical setting, with a bubblegum pink and blue sky and blue tree trunks as a backdrop, demonstrates the artist’s masterful use of color.
For some artists, color is merely a means of conveying their message. Other painters love what paint and color can do. Colescott falls into the latter category and created some of his greatest works when many were proclaiming painting dead. In retrospect it is clear that – enlightened and liberal as some of these critics were – the notion that a great black painter was at work during this ‘sparse’ period was something they could not get their heads around.
Colescott was one of two sons who could pass as white from a Louisiana Creole family, as we learn in a touching text by his cousin Laura McIntosh Walrod, included in the must-see exhibition catalogue. When he decided to declare himself African American rather than Creole, he caused an irreparable rift in his family. He and his older brother, the artist Warrington Colescott, who believed himself to be white, never spoke to each other again. Colescott does not shy away from the subject. In A Visit from Uncle Charlie (1995), he superimposes a nude middle-aged black man over a white couple about to enjoy a night on the town. The woman, wearing a fur-trimmed coat, asks in a thought bubble nearby, “And the children?” Another thought bubble next to her tall, smartly dressed husband reads, “Don’t tell them!!”
The black man, in three-quarter profile, wears white socks and brown and white saddle shoes, his genitals clearly visible. He has one hand on his back hip as if slightly perplexed. Behind him is a grinning skeleton in an open closet. Colescott wasn’t trying to be subtle. In the lower right corner of the painting we see the torsos of a man and a woman in different shades of brown.
Colescott hated idealization of any kind, probably because he knew how destructive it was to the individual. In A Visit from Uncle Charlie (1995), he invites viewers to reflect on the story of a multiracial family in which some members could pass for white and others could not. The artist captivates the viewer with a spatially complex composition that features many different areas of attention. We witness a world where secrets, shame, duplicity and anger simmer just beneath the surface. At no point does the painting seem like an anecdote from Colescott’s own life; he has always exceeded these limits. Thinking about Colescott’s biography, I have no problem sympathizing with his indecency. Why should the person who was never invited to the party be expected to behave politely?
Arts and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott continues through October 9 at The New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley.