BLUM & POE GALLERY is presenting a series of paintings and drawings made about a half a century ago by Robert Colescott (1925-2009) at this year’s FIAC fair, the International Fair of Contemporary Art at the Grand Palais in Paris (Oct. 18-21). The display is the artist’s first solo show in France and presents a rarely seen aspect of Colescott’s practice, which uses irony, humor, and acerbic images to probe and comment on issues of racism, sexism, and society’s social, cultural, and political structures.
The works were made in the 1970s, based on Colescott’s experiences in Paris in 1967. During the time, “he witnessed the rising social tensions that led to the 1968 riots and the conception of a moral and cultural shift,” according to the gallery’s account. The artist made the works on view at FIAC “in response to the upheaval in Paris and around the world …these works demonstrate a confluence of compositional and stylistic elements that came to maturity for Colescott in this decade, as well as his increasing focus on cultural critique.”
Paris had a critical influence on Colescott. He was studying in the city when he made an early shift in the direction of his practice.
The painter visited Paris throughout his career. He spent time there on three occasions during a two-decade period in the mid-20th century. He first discovered Paris as a U.S. Army soldier during World War II. After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley (1949), he returned to the French capital to study with artist Fernand Léger.
Berkeley was intensely focused on abstraction at the time and it was the style that Colescott favored, too. His 1949-50 stint in Paris was transformational. Léger convinced him to eschew abstraction, deeming it an inadequate means of communicating ideas to the viewer, particularly ordinary people.
In a 1999 oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Colescott referred to Léger as a “very strong important artist” and said “he changed my whole viewpoint about painting.”
Fernand Léger as a “very strong important artist. …he changed my whole view point about painting.” — Robert Colescott
ROBERT COLESCOTT, “The French Secretary II,” 1976 (colored pencil and graphite on paper, 28 x 20 inches / 71.1 x 50.8 centimeters). | © 2018 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
When Colescott re-entered Berkeley to earn his MFA (1950-52) he was among the few who concentrated on figurative painting. A dozen years later, he took advantage of another opportunity to hone his craft abroad.
Colescott was the first artist-in-residence at the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt (1964-65). He lived there for three years. According his obituary in the Washington Post, the experience was profound. “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.”
He left Cairo in 1967 and went to Paris to teach for a few years before returning to the United States 1970. In its biography of Colescott, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery cites the tumult of the time, with civil unrest and structural and legislative reform remaking the political landscape at home and abroad, and its impact on his work:
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.
BORN IN OAKLAND, CALIF, Colescott spent a good portion of his career in Portland, Ore. He died at age 83 at his home in Tucson, Ariz. Colescott was the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale with a solo exhibition in the American Pavilion in 1997.
He became known for large canvases crowded with symbolic bodies and recasting famous paintings, replacing white figures with black ones. He had a formidable career, but recognition of his work waned over the years. Like a number of his contemporaries, there is renewed interest in his unique perspective, and a new generation of curators and scholars is studying and bringing attention to his work.
In December 2017, Blum & Poe announced its representation of Colescott’s estate. This is the second year in a row the gallery is presenting a solo show of works by an African American artist at the Paris art fair. In 2017, Blum & Poe showed works by Los Angeles-based painter Henry Taylor.
The works on display this year by Colescott show suggestive interactions between blacks and whites in an office setting and at a public park or artist colony, depict black musicians in the role of entertainers, and as “Happy Darkies” joyfully laboring outdoors, and reference cowboy culture in the American west.
Blum & Poe notes the timeliness and significance of the works presented at FIAC: “While reaffirming the artist’s role as a pioneer for transgressive artists of later generations, these paintings and drawings connect Colescott’s practice and vision to the events currently shaping our social landscape, fifty years after they were created.” CT
TOP IMAGE: ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Darkies,” 1977 (watercolor and graphite on paper, 30 x 22 1/2 inches / 76.2 x 57.2 centimeters). | © 2018 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
LEARN MORE about Robert Colescott on Blue & Poe’s website
READ MORE about Figuring History at the exhibition website
“Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas,” accompanied the Seattle Art Museum exhibition. “Robert Colescott: A Retrospective, 1975-1986” was published to coincide with the artist’s 1987 retrospective. Several publications document earlier Colescott exhibitions, including “Robert Colescott: Troubled Goods, A Ten Year Survey (1997-2007)” and “Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings,” which complemented his history-making presentation at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997.
ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Satchmo at the Grove,” 1976 (graphite on paper, 28 x 20 inches / 71.1 x 50.8 centimeters). | © 2018 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Diana’s Secret (The Orchid Corsage),” 1976 (acrylic on canvas with wooden cutouts, 80 x 125 5/8 x 1 5/8 inches overall / 203.2 x 319.1 x 4.1 centimeters). | © 2018 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Isle of Art, 1977 (colored pencil and graphite on paper, 28 x 20 1/8 inches (71.1 x 51.1 centimeters). | © 2018 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Texas Chili,” 1976 (acrylic on canvas with wooden cutouts, 104 3/4 x 102 x 2 inches / 266.1 x 259.1 x 5.1 centimeters). | © 2018 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
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