Robert Colescott, 83

Robert Colescott Dies at 83: Painter's Take on Classics Tackled Social Ills

Robert Colescott painted
Robert Colescott painted "April in Paris" in 1998. "My painting makes fun of the culture of tokenism," he said of his works. (Courtesy Of Phyllis Kind Gallery)
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By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

Robert Colescott, a painter whose wild brush strokes across sprawling canvases depicted the ugly ironies of race in America, died June 4 at his home in Tucson. He was 83 and suffered from Parkinson's disease, according to his brother, Warrington Colescott.

In 1997, at age 71, Mr. Colescott became the first African American to represent the United States in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition. He compared the event to the breaking of the baseball color line when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"It was a grand symbolic event," Mr. Colescott told the Baltimore Sun at the time. "But like Jackie Robinson, I had to be good enough to be there. If I had dropped the ball too many times, I wouldn't have got there."

Mr. Colescott was known for his remakes of canonical paintings in which he replaced white figures with black ones. In his most famous work, "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook" (1975), Mr. Colescott showed the black scientist in Gen. George Washington's place, forging the same icy waters. Standing in for the ragtag rebels of the Revolutionary War were cartoonish stock figures -- a banjo player, a fisherman, a cook.

"My painting makes fun of the culture of tokenism," Mr. Colescott told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "I juxtaposed the dignity of George Washington Carver with the buffoons in the boat. It's like the culture was saying, 'Here's a little kiss for you.' What's left were the funny, silly people in the boat, doing menial tasks, remaining uneducated."

In "Eat Dem Taters" (1975), Mr. Colescott replaced the white peasants of Vincent van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" (1885) with black sharecroppers. Ten years later, he recast Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) as "Les Demoiselles d'Alabama."

"Your first reaction on seeing Robert Colescott's paintings is to laugh out loud," wrote Washington Post art critic Paul Richard in 1988. "Your second -- if you're white, and reasonably sensitized -- is to swallow your guffaws. If you choke upon your giggles, Colescott's got you where he wants you."

Robert Hutton Colescott was born in Oakland, Calif., on Aug. 26, 1925. His mother was a pianist, his father a railroad dining car waiter who received no salary and supported his wife and children on tips. A talented violinist from New Orleans -- he played with Louis Armstrong -- Mr. Colescott's father had moved the family to California several years before Mr. Colescott was born to escape the indignities of life in the segregated South.

Even as a boy, Mr. Colescott liked to draw. His first exposure to the fine arts came through Sargent Johnson, a sculptor who was active in the Harlem Renaissance and a close friend of his parents. When he was 11, Mr. Colescott happened to see the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painting from scaffolding in San Francisco.

"That early exposure to Rivera may have something to do with my belief that art should address social ills, because his art certainly did that," Mr. Colescott said.

In 1942, at age 17, Mr. Colescott joined the Army. World War II took him to the Pacific and to Europe -- most important to Paris, a city to which he returned throughout his career. It was there that he studied with artist Fernand Léger, who taught him to question faddish abstract expression.

Mr. Colescott also met his first wife, Zdenka, in Paris. That marriage, as well as those to Sally Manchester, Susan Ables and Colleen Hench, ended in divorce. In addition to his brother, he is survived by his wife, Jandava Cattron of Tucson; five sons from previous marriages, Alex of Napa, Calif., Cooper of Tucson, Daniel of Modesto, Calif., Dennett of San Rafael, Calif., and Nicolas of Portland, Ore.; and a grandson.

After the war, Mr. Colescott availed himself of the benefits of the GI Bill and enrolled at San Francisco State University, planning to study international relations. Only when a counselor told him that a black man was unlikely to be hired into the U.S. Foreign Service did Mr. Colescott decide to take up art. He received bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, both in painting and drawing.

In 1964, Mr. Colescott won a grant that allowed him to teach and study in Egypt. It became to be a turning point in his career.

"I . . . was influenced . . . by three thousand years of a 'non-white' art tradition and by living in a culture that is strictly 'non-white,' " he said. "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."

With the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, Mr. Colescott no longer felt safe in Egypt and left for Paris, returning to the United States in 1970. At that time, he began remaking the war horses, from van Gogh to Picasso to Édouard Manet.

"I was one of the first to use appropriation in a way that might be called postmodern," he told the Times-Picayune. "But most artists who appropriate do it as some sort of homage to an artist they admire. Mine was no homage. I wanted to dominate that other artist."


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