NEW YORK — The paintings of Robert Colescott, who died in 2009, refuse to behave. They are also difficult to love. A retrospective of his work at the New Museum, “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” confounds almost every piety about race and gender in operation today, sometimes with humor, though not the kind of humor that makes you laugh.
Colescott was born in the San Francisco Bay area in 1925, to parents of mixed race, both of whom “were light-skinned enough to pass for white,” the exhibition’s co-curator, Matthew Weseley, writes in a catalogue essay. According to a Colescott cousin, who contributed a reminiscence to the show’s documentary materials, there was conflict in the family over racial identity and whether to “pass” for White. In the mid-1960s, after spending time in Egypt, Robert Colescott broke with other family members, embraced his African American identity and took a radical turn with his painting.
In the early 1960s, he made moody landscapes, still lifes and stylized figurative work indebted to Fernand Leger, with whom he studied in Paris from 1949-1950. After his time in Cairo, he waded fearlessly into the Great American swamp of sexual taboos and racial stereotypes. He created boisterous, confrontational work that explored interracial desire, the crude stereotypes of minstrel shows, pop cultural cliches and pedophilia, all mashed up with references to American history, literature and the basic tropes of Western art.
Perhaps Colescott’s most famous painting is the 1975 “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” which riffs on the classic 1851 history painting by Emanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” But instead of the nation’s founder standing heroically in the prow of the boat, a blackface figure who presumably represents the famed agricultural scientist commands a boat crowded with other Black stereotypes — a banjo player, a chef, a man in a straw hat fishing and another drinking from a jug. Among the passengers is a mammie figure performing a sex act on the flag bearer standing just behind Carver.
Other works are equally or more explosive. A 1975 drawing, “Huck and Jim,” depicts the visibly aroused Black boy, Jim, saying to Huck, “Come back to the raft Huck Honey,” while the 1974 drawing “Tom and Eva” depicts Uncle Tom with his right hand caressing the naked buttocks of Little Eva, the frail and virginal White girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel.
The goal is maximal discomfort, rendered in the most vivid colors, with the blunt narrative panache of a comic book (thought and speech bubbles are frequently deployed). Underneath all that, there is also a vigorous and fairly traditional sensibility about how to construct an image: densely packed with incident, yet orderly, often with clear diagonals, a well-defined central focal point, and an electric engagement of the figures with each other and the viewer, who is struggling to make sense of all the tumult.
Mixed-race characters are sometimes rendered as bifurcated figures — White on one side, Black on the other. Black men ogle busty White women, and a White man reverses the dynamic in the 1984 painting “Laureate at the Bather’s Pool.” White and Black women also compete for the attention of men, a recurring narrative idea that seems to suggest the artist’s deeper fixation on his own desires and anxieties about race.
There’s an idea common among artists and critics that simply broaching an ugly idea is the same as analyzing it, that violating a taboo somehow diffuses it. Colescott’s work piles up the transgressions with such density that one sometimes wonders whether he wants to lead the viewer through the morass, or just deposit them in the quicksand of his own roiling id. The paintings he made after Cairo through the 1970s seem more intent on blowing things up, foregrounding his own confusion as he simultaneously embraced a new sense of identity and an alternative tradition of iconography and cultural reference, the “three thousand years of non-White art history,” as he described it in 1987.
“American society hit me like a ton of bricks,” Colescott wrote, and in these works of the 1970s, one senses the force of the blast.
Later works dig more deeply into the stereotypes and racial history that he had skewered earlier with more manic energy. People change races and look into mirrors only to see themselves with a different skin color. The artist himself appears in the 1979 “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder,” torn between a White woman undressing behind him and a reference to Matisse’s “La Danse,” in which the figures are being painted with ambiguous skin tones. The density of allusion increases, such that images team not just with cultural blasphemy and pop and commercial references, but also with linguistic and cultural allusions that cut across cultures.
Colescott’s importance as an artist is also ensured by his lasting influence on other artists, few if any of whom are so foolish or bold as to imitate him directly. Rather, younger artists tease out threads and elaborate on them. Kara Walker has focused on racial stereotypes, but with more subtlety and emotional poise. Hank Willis Thomas has meditated on the commercialization of Black stereotypes, in ways that are generally more clarifying than Colescott’s histrionic approach. Other artists explore the intersectionality of race and desire, disentangling the taboos.
But Colescott’s legacy may well be his humor, or rather, the unfulfilled promise of his humor. Throughout his career, one senses a progression from wanting to make people laugh with discomfort to simply laugh at the absurdity of the world. Those are very different kinds of laughter, one destabilizing and disconcerting, the other an affirmation of our species’ collective folly. Perhaps it takes the destabilizing laughter to get us to the wiser kind. Perhaps the goal of Colescott’s humor was to suggest a future in which the conflicts he felt so deeply within himself could be laughed to oblivion, with joy.
Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. Through Oct. 9 at the New Museum, New York. newmuseum.org.