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(1925 – 2009), USA

Robert Colescott Biography

Robert Colescott was an American artist whose works blend an electrifying palette and painterly bravura with social critique. Over his nearly six-decade career, Colescott became known for his satirical compositions that lampooned racial and sexual stereotypes, while critiquing painting's failure to reflect the Black American experience. In 1997, Colescott became the first Black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.

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Born in California, Robert Colescott served in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, later receiving his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1949, Colescott arrived in Paris and sought tutelage in the studio of French Modernist Fernand Léger. Léger encouraged the artist to abandon his early abstractions for figuration, a suggestion that proved instructive when Colescott travelled to Egypt in 1964 on a fellowship with the American Research Centre in Cairo. There, he became enamoured with the eroded relief sculptures in the Valley of the Queens, a 3000-year-old narrative form removed from the Western canon of art history, which allowed him to experiment with lyrical, attenuated forms that border on abstraction.

In the period that followed, Robert Colescott began exploring narrative paintings and racial identity. He and his family were forced to evacuate Cairo during the Six-Day War, escaping to Paris where he taught art during the student demonstrations of 1968. In 1970, he returned to Oakland, California, which only a few years earlier had seen the birth of the Black Panther Party. Shaped by these external forces, Colescott shifted from his vibrantly saturated canvases, typified by their undulating, interlocked figures, to a more refined palette. Colescott's paintings gave way to caricature and pastiche, often appropriating compositions from European masters and the American avant-garde to comment on historical representation, race, and sexual politics.

His seminal George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975) reinterpreted Emmanuel Leutze's renowned painting of George Washington by placing the African American agricultural scientist in the centre, surrounded by racist stereotypes including a shoeshine, cook, and Aunt Jemima figure. Eat Dem Taters (1975) was a notorious rendition of Vincent van Gogh's Potato Eaters, substituting its French peasants with cartoon-ish minstrel figures to challenge 'the myth of the happy darky.' In these works, Colescott's characteristically crude brushwork, lumpen figures, and caustic humour seek to destabilise institutional forms of racism as well as provoke a deeper understanding of the complexities of identity, assimilation, and alienation.

His works defy categorisation, instead sharing in and anticipating the developments of Pop Art, appropriation art, and Neo-Expressionism. In his obituary in The New York Times, art critic Roberta Smith noted, 'In his disregard for simplistic dualities regarding race and sex, he helped set the stage for transgressive work by painters like Ellen Gallagher, Kerry James Marshall, Sue Williams and Carroll Dunham and multimedia artists like Kara Walker, William Pope.L and Kalup Linzy.'

Robert Colescott Selected Solo Exhibitions

Robert Colescott: The Cairo Years, Tahrir Cultural Center, Cairo (2021); Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (2019); Recent Paintings, 19871997, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1998); The One Two Punch, Scottsdale Center for the Arts, Scottsdale (1995); A Retrospective, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle (1989).

Amy Weng | Ocula | 2021

Robert Colescott Featured Artworks

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Lydia, Life, Death and Transfiguration by Robert Colescott contemporary artwork painting
Robert ColescottLydia, Life, Death and Transfiguration, 1967Acrylic on canvas
201.3 x 149.9 x 3.8 cm
Blum & Poe
Untitled by Robert Colescott contemporary artwork painting
Robert ColescottUntitled, c. 1967Acrylic on canvas
162.6 x 129.9 x 3.8 cm
Blum & Poe Contact Gallery
DREAM by Robert Colescott contemporary artwork painting
Robert ColescottDREAM, c. 1965Oil on canvas
193 x 145.1 x 3.8 cm
Blum & Poe
WHiTE GODDESS etc. by Robert Colescott contemporary artwork painting
Robert ColescottWHiTE GODDESS etc., 1968Acrylic on canvas
162.2 x 129.5 x 3.8 cm
Blum & Poe Contact Gallery
Afterthoughts on the Warren Commission by Robert Colescott contemporary artwork painting
Robert ColescottAfterthoughts on the Warren Commission, 1968Acrylic on canvas
200.3 x 149.9 x 3.8 cm
Blum & Poe
Our Totem Has a Sphinx on Top (Jean Baptiste Blues) by Robert Colescott contemporary artwork painting
Robert ColescottOur Totem Has a Sphinx on Top (Jean Baptiste Blues), 1968Acrylic on canvas
200.7 x 149.9 x 3.8 cm
Blum & Poe Contact Gallery
Cactus Jack by Robert Colescott contemporary artwork painting
Robert ColescottCactus Jack, 1977Acrylic on canvas
83 1/4 x 64 x 1 5/8 inches
Blum & Poe
Kitchen Assassination by Robert Colescott contemporary artwork painting
Robert ColescottKitchen Assassination, 1971Acrylic on Egyptian linen
78 5/8 x 59 x 1 3/4 inches
Blum & Poe

Robert Colescott Recent Exhibitions

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Robert Colescott Represented By

Blum & Poe contemporary art gallery in Tokyo, Japan Blum & Poe Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo

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