Robert Colescott

Robert Colescott at the New Museum

It’s become so easy to become one of the spineless pieces of online shitposter. Making online comments without ramifications or actually believing it has become an American pastime. This has been parlayed into entire careers for politicians and the quiet neighbors alike. Anonymous ‘alpha males’ defend their mindless rhetoric with a simple ‘it’s just a joke’ or passive, know-it-all ‘just sayin’. The ease in which the world’s discourse has been reduced to simple memes and simpler, knee jerk ideas is still shocking. Robert Colescott’s paintings predated this mess by decades. He uses chaos and absurdity to make the viewer actually confront their own thoughts and prejudices. Robert Colescott was an artist who looked at society and the art world and simply screamed, ‘fuck it all’.

Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott

In this wide ranging show of his work at New York’s New Museum, his bold work does nothing but surprise and shock. The paintings on display still carry a fresh, raw intensity that doesn’t let up its grip on the viewer. While so much of today’s trash society/social media minefield is designed to shock and appall, very little actually does. Built into every shocking statement is a premade audience, ready to go along with the schtick. You know the line of twitter users, corporate overlords and scummy politicians who desperately wield the truth as poorly as they handle their limp dicks.

Robert Colescott is the real deal. Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott is on display at the New Museum in New York City. The exhibition follows his work from earnest painting through loose cannon illustrations to grandiose visions mocking society and the art world. Loose copies of Sargent and Manet appear in his early works. These large, thickly layered, lumbering canvases possessed an impressionist haze over the imagery. They felt like odes to his idols but were really the training wheels to his own later masterful oeuvre.

The Early Works

The exhibition featured a room of drawings based of old songbook lyrics with minstrel figures injected in usually appalling ways. A little dutch boy with his finger in a dyke looks on aghast at the other boy fingering the dutch woman’s little pussy. Above the scene are the bold letters ‘GOD DAMN YOU’. Another drawing replaces a white girl’s shadow with a blackfaced minstrel. “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me’ are some of the words of Robert Louis Stevenson. The easy, juvenile nature of these works are the building blocks for his later works. His confidence in upending sweet narratives with crass statements, he found a way to force race and racism to the forefront of his works.

The Mature Works

Soon, the exhibition started to spotlight more of his mature works. These works featured large canvases painted with carefree, thick brushmarks. The loose technique is not sloppy, but unbothered. That’s a hug difference speaking to his immense talent. The thick use of nontraditional acrylic paint to riff off the staid halls of art history was very much intentional. Titles filled with wordplay, images with blackfaced characters interacting in a formerly white (canvas) world, all bring the absurd humor and pointed intent into clear focus. By replacing the largely white iconography of the original works, and bending the limits with wordplay, Colescott makes the existence of the black world an undeniable reality. 

Colescott vs. Art History

Suddenly, traditional and largely stale paintings like Washington Crossing the Delaware become fused with an entirely new meaning when George Washington Carver is crossing the Delaware in a boat full of minstrels. In ‘Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White’, Colescott adroitly puts blackface and racial stereotypes front and center. Putting Shirley Temple Black into blackface makes for an uncomfortable experience, putting her beside Bill Robinson, who appeared in movies accepting wildly racist roles as a black man, makes the viewer reconsider their complicity in the images, beyond the clever Black/White wordplay.

Throughout his works, Robert Colescott stood the art world on its ears. He transformed Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters into ‘Eat Dem Taters’, and painted the aftermath of Gericault’s epic Raft of the Medusa complete with a pimped out blackfaced man swimming towards a white buxom blonde with large breasts. 

‘Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder’ is a large self portrait that adds to the mocking of the art world. Colescott is painting Matisse’s Dance while a white woman undresses in a bra and stockings, complete with a garter. He pensively looks out from the canvas, the woman’s half bare ass doing the same, mimicked by an unfinished ass in the painting. 

Once seen, Colescott’s work cannot be ignored. He interjects the oft repeated, whitewashed version of history. By painting unabashedly racist characters and flipping narratives on their head, Colescott opened the door for a new wave of black artists – from Kara Walker to Kerry James Marshall to Kehinde Wiley

Robert Colescott at the New Museum

Appropriation and the Reaction

Colescott’s appropriation of art history is seen in Wiley’s re-contextualized images. His blackface characters pop up throughout Walker’s and Marshall’s work. Working without a guardrail and throwing caution to the wind, Colescott toyed with making the audience uncomfortable. He used the discomfort to make the audience reconsider their thoughts to existing works and inherent racism in society. Appropriation was the quickest route to blaze these new paths. Using images and motifs from art history allowed Colescott a familiar framework for his treatise. Constant use of blackface and caricatures, Colescott again forces acknowledgment of the past and reconsider both present and future. 

This comprehensive exhibition proves Robert Colescott as a genius ahead of his time. By wielding racist tropes, art history, puns and visual and word play, he uses the bonds of the oppressors. Colescott takes no prisoners. It’s hard not to take delight in the shock and awe his work creates. Unlike today’s weak minded, trolling politicians, there is nothing passive nor performative about his works. He channels his anger with an acute sense of history and perfectly placed punches. There is no empty virtue signalling, no victim card played here. Colescott breaks out his paints, lands his blows and lets the audience ponder what they were thinking. Art and Race Matters is an intense show, and one not to miss.