More than half a century after Robert Colescott adopted a provocative new style, his paintings “continue to make people nervous,” Working with little support from the art world’s coastal elite, the Oakland native (1925–2009) wound up producing “one of the most compelling, simultaneously personal and socially relevant bodies of work in 20th-century American painting.” But it’s a measure of the discomfort his art creates that the largest retrospective of his work was shown in four smaller cities before it finally arrived in New York. Colescott, whose Louisianaborn parents identified as Creole, passed for white into adulthood and didn’t embrace his Blackness until the mid-1960s. From then on, he “made very few paintings that did not refer to race and racism in ways that startled, seduced, elucidated, amused, and horrified.” Still, “if there is one thing that Colescott did not do, it was stand still.”
“His best-known body of work is outrageous—and passionate,” “It catalogued and lampooned caustic Black stereotypes, often inserting them in classic paintings and chiding such art-world greats as Delacroix, Manet, and de Kooning for the invisibility of people of color in their works.” Consider 1975’s Eat Dem Taters, a “keen, bitter twist” on Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters in which a widely grinning Black family appears to be relishing eating table scraps. The centerpiece of the show is another large 1975 canvas, the “brilliant” George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware. Riffing on the iconic image of George Washington crossing the Delaware River in 1776, Colescott’s satirical painting fills its boat not with white soldiers but with common derogatory caricatures of Black Americans alongside a few of the token Black achievers mentioned in school textbooks, such as Carver. Recently sold at auction for $15.3 million, it is “a great American painting about the failures of America.”
“Is there an artist better suited than Colescott to test the limits of our current moment, when art institutions have become loath to offend?” asked Lori Waxman in the Chicago Tribune. Colescott, who studied in Paris with Fernand Léger, “painted formidably well” across a long career, “but he also painted pictures that can be incredibly uncomfortable to look at” because “he dealt head-on with racism and sexism, more often than not through the lens of crude, comedic exaggeration.” His later paintings weren’t as funny, but they, too, shouldn’t be missed. The final and “most gorgeous” work on display is a 12-footwide abstract diptych that Colescott created in 2002. In it, “raw canvas gives way to magenta fields graffitied with bits of figuration and small eruptions of contrasting color.” The effect is “as close to sheer beauty” as you’ll find.