Robert Colescott (Oakland, 1925 – Tucson, 2009) was an energetic painter who pushed his presence into the history of American art on his own terms. His prolific fifty-some-year oeuvre is characterized overall by a stew-like mix of crude figuration, splashy, garish color and uncensored sexual and racial themes, grounded in a deep attachment to past art but inspired more immediately by the popular, prosaic culture of his era. While his later works are increasingly complex in form and symbolic terms, he is best known for raw and cartoonish paintings of the 1970s, which impacted the art world significantly across spheres (studios, academia, markets, museums) by bringing the matter of race into the (traditionally white) mainstream in such blunt form that it could not be ignored.
In fact, Colescott’s posterity remains closely identified with one painting, first exhibited publicly in 1975 (John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco), titled purposefully, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1974-75, private collection).
Rendered in bright, flat acrylics, the composition is instantly apprehended as a bawdy, “blackface” take-off on the famous 19th-century painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emmanuel Leutze (1851).
In Colescott’s version, the rendering of the bespectacled agricultural scientist Carver, who replaces the standing Washington at the pinnacle of the foreground figure group, and his crew of servants, is obviously informed by historically racist popular imagery. Inserted in the top left corner in stenciled lettering is the beginning of the title, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware, which serves as an explanatory and identifying caption such as those found on postcards or published illustrations. It also suggests the innumerable reproductions of the “original” in circulation from Leutze’s time (beginning with several of his own prints) to the present, including history textbook illustrations, through which it has become both an icon and cliché of national identity (see Hutton).
Colescott’s “outing” of by then clandestine but still widely recognizable stereotypes in a contemporary art context was an affront to mainstream art cognoscenti. Since then, the Carver painting has achieved iconic status approaching that of its source, via several widely circulated survey texts on twentieth century art and art catalogues, where it is positioned as a harbinger of subsequent “postmodern” painting in its blend of self-investigation and committed social commentary (see Arnason; Heartney; Hunter, Jacobus, Wheeler; Phillips, et al.; Sandler). The painting has been exhibited intermittently across the country into the new millennium and featured in innumerable attendant periodical reviews. By the 1990s, its purview had expanded into the discourses of history as a kind of documentary image related to the United States Bicentennial (see Todd; Jaffe). It was usurped for a new edition of Ishmael Reed’s novel Flight to Canada (1976; Scribner’s, 1998), a sharp parody of ante-bellum slave narratives (Rushdy, Chapter 4), and for the cover of a reprint of Constance Rourke’s classic study American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931; Random House, 2004). Rourke’s work included among the first frank discussions of the appeal of black-face minstrelsy for whites in an interdisciplinary discourse of “race and representation” that has expanded exponentially in recent decades (a term search at www.worldcat.org yielded about 300 results from c. 1980 in an array of media). It would seem Colescott’s Carver painting was on the cutting edge.
Below I would like to flesh out the trajectory of the painting’s journey to its current somewhat ironic canonical status and the scope of its cultural meaning. The painting has proved malleable, in a heuristic sense, as art trends and changing race relations in American society have recast some of its fundamental aims in various ways. Most recently, the anticipation of an African-American president may be considered part of its latent content. President Obama, like Carver before him, has been associated with an elite, Du Boisian “talented tenth” somewhat distanced from the “black masses.” The Carver painting appeared in an exhibition of representations of presidents (on the basis of a race-changed Washington) that opened a few weeks before Obama announced his candidacy and well before most Americans believed an African American could win a national presidential election (Mr. President, University Art Museum of the University of Albany, 18 January to 1 April 2007).
Colescott explained the genesis of the Carver painting, briefly and intermittently, as a private exploration and personal statement on the forthcoming Bicentennial (see Colescott; Fitzgerald). Elsewhere, he has stressed autonomous artistic musing as his primary method of evolving imagery. Nonetheless, the stock caricatures employed cannot help but preconceive the mainstream (as noted, “white”) art audience in which he had already made inroads with earlier, more abstract work. The painting marked a definitive turning point in Colescott’s career from within and without.
Oakland to Egypt and Back Again
Colescott grew up in Oakland, where his father worked as a Pullman porter on the Southern Pacific Railroad, an industry subject to strict segregation in many parts of the country at the time. Well beyond the reaches of Jim Crow (his parents had relocated from Louisiana), the Bay Area was still characterized by extreme racial prejudice in some sectors. At the same time, it contained prospering African-American enclaves and growing integrated neighborhoods. Music and education were important in the artist’s early life. After serving in a segregated army in WWII, he entered UC Berkeley on the GI Bill, receiving B.A. and M.A. degrees in art (1949; 1952). He emerged with a lyrical, European-imported abstract style prevalent in the early 1950s especially on the West Coast, sometimes incorporating loose figurative elements (while more severe Abstract Expressionism was coalescing in New York). Relocating to the Pacific Northwest (Seattle; then Portland) where he spent the following decade, he established a regular exhibition career in a lively regional art scene populated by mainly white artists, curators, dealers, and collectors.
Evidence of the subject of race first appeared in Colescott’s art during an extended stay in Egypt in the mid-1960s (while teaching at the American University in Cairo) as stylized, color-changing figures blended into bright, very loosely Cubist backgrounds. As the artist stated in many interviews, his first experience beyond the European paradigm motivated new forms in his art in tandem with new insight into the “racialization” of “black” identity in America. From a distance, he saw more clearly his place in that movement. Colescott was of mixed European, Native American, and African heritage – “black” in America by a “one-drop rule” so entrenched that it was recouped as an expression of solidarity and pride by African Americans by the Civil Rights Movement (see Davis). Colescott’s exact chronological peer, Martiniquean psychiatrist and political activist Frantz Fanon, wrote in psychological terms about the split identity of the black “citizen” in the colonial order, who is never identified as French, informed by Jacques Lacan's then recent theories of self-construction through the gaze of others. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon described a sense of “third-person consciousness” in negotiating his bodily presence among whites, recalling strongly the notion of “double-consciousness” in the African-American (male) psyche formulated by W.E.B. Du Bois much earlier in the Souls of Black Folks. For Du Bois, self-identity was obscured as well by the pervasiveness of the white gaze and needed to be recovered; in some sense, this recovery for Colescott occurred in Egypt, which was liberating for his art.
Life in the Middle East facilitated an interest in politics by the time Colescott left at the onset of the Six-Day War and briefly moved to Paris. From there, he experienced the momentous events of 1968 (among them the escalation of involvement in the Vietnam War, the MLK and RFK assassinations and, presumably, news of race riots and heavy Black Panther Party activity at their headquarters in Oakland), perhaps generating a heightened sense of both American and African-American allegiances. By 1971, reestablished in the Bay Area, Colescott had turned to figuration and punning narratives focused clearly on the institutional exploitation of minorities in America.
A good example of the scathing visual tone Colescott developed is evident in Bye Bye Miss American Pie, which can now be seen in a public museum, unimaginable at the time it was created (1971; Akron Art Museum, Ohio). Taking its cue from the ambiguous American nostalgia invoked in the immensely popular hit song of the same year, the painting depicts a grotesque buxom blonde, naked save for a slice of pie strategically placed, hovering over a black soldier on a back-drop of red, white and blue. Whether Colescott's stint in the Army, which he spoke little about publically, informs the harsh sarcasm of this brash critique remains a point of conjecture. The subject of black soldiers being sent to the jungles of Vietnam disproportionately while civil rights remained elusive in many quarters at home was, in any case, up to minute, pushed into the public forum by the BBP and other black nationalist organizations.
Colescott had no official connection to black political or black arts groups but both had strong, overlapping presences in California well into the 1970s. Undoubtedly, he was informed by their ideologies. The graphic art of BPP Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas, which features bold caricatures, was distributed widely through the party newspaper and posters, while other African-American artists vocally committed to the cause, like Dana C. Chandler, were creating figurative murals on the streets of Oakland. Here and elsewhere in the state, some African-American artists were attempting to infiltrate related subject matter into formally experimental work, prominently Betye Saar and David Hammons. An expanding University of California system(now the largest in the country) provided student, teaching, and exhibition opportunities for African-American artists, including Colescott (who taught at UC Berkeley and California State College, Stanislaw through the 1970s).
Picking up on the product-conscious consumer themes of mainstream Pop Art, the Aunt Jemima brand character appeared across work by stylistically diverse African-American artists in the era. Now emblematic of the trend is Betye Saar’s renowned assemblage, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California), which used the then current figurative logo straight from the package, adding found elements such as a “mammy” figurine holding toy guns (see Harris; Lippard). Colescott incorporated the Jemima-mammy stereotype in several works before and after his Carver painting, as well as within it (a point to which I will return).
By 1974, Colescott had developed the idea of black-facing (Western) art masterpieces – a sleight of hand that provided instant loaded content, not least of all through the incongruity of contemporary humor through the revival of Jim Crow stereotypes. Taking on, in a faux-naïve coloring-book style, Van Eyck’s wedding portrait of Arnolfini (1434, National Gallery of Art, London), for example, perhaps the most fetishized oil painting in traditional art history, Colescott renders the pasty merchant’s companion very black and ramps up the bride's apparent pregnancy, a much-discussed detail of the original. Elsewhere, Vincent Van Gogh’s scraggy peasants are transformed into grinning black sharecroppers, Picasso’s Cubist, Africanized demoiselles become multi-colored modern prostitutes, and Willem de Kooning’s monstrous woman image becomes Aunt Jemima. Colescott’s appropriations were part homage to artists he revered and part sharp cultural critique. The turn to Leutze was about, rather, the wide popularity of an image beyond the art sphere, in which it held a respectable but not outstanding reputation as competent but essentially conventional (in composition and technique) Romantic work.
Through the 1970s, a number of mainstream artists on both coasts were mining art history for art laughs in late Pop Art gestures that would become associated with postmodernism, include peer San Francisco artist, Peter Saul. The Leutze itself was not uncommon fodder (see Lipman and Marshall). Colescott brought race literally into the big picture. The hook was humor, through which he baited viewers into the uncomfortable implications of his imagery, a sensibility he described as a “one-two punch.” Initially, he questioned his jokey impulse based on his own understanding of what serious painting should be. With the Carver painting especially, his idea was to expose the lack of real black faces in art history as well as American history through exaggeration – and it was personal.
Washington to Carver
The Bicentennial provocations that underlie Colescott’s choice and transcription of the Leutze have a long social and visual history related to the “dilemma of black patriotism” in light of slavery in America at the time of the Revolution (see Wilkins). Images of American flags have appeared prominently in twentieth-century art and popular culture (including photography in both cases) created by African Americans as expressions of American identity that evidence a deep engagement with constitutional issues and the ideals of American freedom. In early Pop Art, the flag developed as a banal symbol, beginning with a painted “duplicate” by Jaspar Johns (1954-55; Museum of Modern Art). By the Vietnam era, the flag became a politically charged motif, especially in work by prominent African-Americans artists such as Hammons, Faith Ringgold, and Benny Andrews, as well as Colescott in the Carver painting (Campbell 60-61; see Rubin). Many African-American visual artists were eager to respond to the Bicentennial so that their reflections were part of its visual discourse. Equally, they felt frustrated in terms of venues, as the art world remained highly segregated, in both museum and commercial gallery sectors. Within (mainly) separatist exhibitions, however, Bicentennial activities precipitated some national art shows and museum openings that exposed African American and African art to white audiences for the first time.
The most unique aspect of the Carver painting is its seemingly spontaneous visual and verbal parapraxis, similar to Freud’s description of the joke-work. The synthesis of several innuendos and the sense of recognition Colescott triggers evidences a well crafted, “good one.” Freud pointed out the difficulty of constructing an original, funny joke, one reason good jokes can often (though not always) be admired across diverse groups. The question Colescott seems to be forcing as the follow-up is why his joke-picture is funny. In the Western tradition, the comic has emerged predominantly as an expression of the subaltern, whether in terms of class or other identity, in reaction to dominant social conventions and cultural forms. In art history, the comic appears, for example, in northern graphic styles that compete with canonized classical (Mediterranean) “norms” or wry in-joking in exclusive avant-garde circles, as in the eccentric work of Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists. Colescott’s appeal for the laugh is transparent; he takes on the role of artist-entertainer – in his case a “trickster” as well, who pulls a fast one with his image switch. In African-American folklore such a figure has many incarnations, following the regional African variety from which it has evolved, and is common as well in one form or another in the popular spiritual traditions of many cultures.
"The ethnic joke [was] the in joke” at the time the Carver painting was first shown, according to a review of the exhibition in the San Francisco (Frankenstein). Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this was the immense popularity of the television show, All in the Family (1971-1979; created by Norman Lear), which brought discussion on racial, ethnic and gender stereotyping into American living rooms. In its early years, each episode was introduced with a warning: “The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family.’ It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show – in a mature fashion – just how absurd they are.”
More to the point for Colescott was the improvisational style, subjects, and cross-over celebrity of stand-up comic Richard Pryor through the 1970s, achieved without compromising his authentic, profane language or personal obsessions with race and sex. Colescott’s flamboyant use of stereotype images parallels the use of racial epithets by Pryor as a kind of aesthetic catharsis that might now be considered a postmodern retrieval and deconstruction of entrenched, objectifying “texts.” Because such activities are now off-limits to whites, they become exclusive to blacks, who, partly through the act itself, recast their messages. Further, any image of the black body in art of the 1970s indicated the "invisible" black body of the (black) artist, or, put another way, put the black body on double display. Colescott’s Carver painting predates the 1976 release of Pryor’s comedy album, Bicentennial Nigger (a Grammy Award winner), which further suggests a zeitgeist among African-American cultural workers (Cornel West’s term) at the time.
The Carver painting traveled to a solo exhibition and several group shows in New York in the next few years, noted briefly in reviews and catalogues. The definitive moment for its canonical fate was its appearance on the cover of the March 1984 issue of Artforum, considered the premier arbitrator of “advanced” contemporary art, to accompany a comprehensive article by Lowery Sims, then a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sims, through her particular insights as an African-American women on the “inside,” brought to the surface the racialized implications that had barely been mentioned by previous commentators and summarized its intention as an "angry protest against the tokenism of traditional American history" (Sims 57). In discussing the painting, Colescott himself noted that Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver remained tokens in American education that hardly off-set the many stereotypes familiar to Americans by name (Sims and Kahan 4). Naming, for these reasons and others related to African traditions, has been a highly coded, spiritual activity for African Americans from the beginning. The name Washington is the matrix around which Colescott’s art-and-history lesson is built.
Ex-slaves with lost personal histories and sometimes free blacks along with their children adopted the names of presidents as well as the birthday of July 4th, which revealed a belief in the American experiment. Through the Black Power era, with renewed interest in Afrocentrism, such practices were ridiculed, as in Cecil Brown’s “blaxploitation” novel, The Lives and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger (1969), where the main character takes on these attributes as an archetypal persona that helps him “get over.” The name Washington resonates differently for African Americans than for white American descendents (figuratively speaking) of President Washington. Colescott addressed this directly in a painting entitled The Other Washingtons (1986), in which Booker T. Washington is recognizable amid a crowd of black figures, some springing from a portrait bust of President Washington in reference to his legacy as a slave owner.
American Independence Day has had enormous significance for African Americans, historically. For free blacks of the antebellum period July 4th was an occasion of protest against slavery, epitomized by Frederick Douglass’s famous oratory, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (City Hall, Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852) in which he castigated whites for their brutality and hypocrisy with regard to African Americans. Before and after Emancipation, African Americans were typically barred de facto from public patriotic festivities throughout the country well into the twentieth century. Networks of enslaved and free blacks forged their own alternative freedom holidays, extending to and from the Caribbean, such as Pinkster, Jonkonnu, and the better known Juneteenth (see Wiggins; White). Colescott’s spirited image cuts both ways as a rousing indictment of exclusion and a private party celebrating and forging its own destiny. Displaying portraits of presidents in African-American homes was another symbolic trope of a coalescing “black patriotism” (as mentioned above) early on. Harriet Beecher Stowe notes, in her description of the protagonist’s cabin, a portrait of George Washington, "drawn and colored in a manner which would certainly have astonished that hero" (qtd. in Ammons 18; see Zwarg 572-578). The notion of a primitive, “black” copy after a “proper” version has particular resonance in the faux-naïve rendition of the Leutze by Colescott.
Beyond the crafty iconography, the Carver painting can also be taken as a commemoration of its subject in the elevated context of “history genre” epitomized by the Leutze, in which a “leader” is positioned hierarchically within a nationalistic narrative. In centralizing Carver by name, rather than likeness, he challenges the viewer’s familiarity with the “hero.” After all, many (most?) well-educated Americans would not recognize an unidentified, naturalistic portrait of Carver, even if they know of his acclaimed research with the breeding and usage of peanuts. And how did/do those people “picture” him? Asked and answered in Colescott’s rendition. Born into slavery to the Carver family in Missouri in 1864, orphaned young and raised after abolition by his previous owners, Carver achieved renown against all odds in the Depression era – the height of Jim Crow – for his contributions to agricultural development in the South. His lifelong professional affiliation at Tuskegee Institute, where he developed the agriculture program at the behest of founder, Booker T. Washington, began in 1896, the very year Plessy v. Ferguson officially ended Reconstruction and endorsed state rights to segregation already established. To pursue an education, Carver was forced to move around frequently, scraping together odd jobs. He took the middle name Washington while at Simpson College in Ohio (possibly to distinguish himself from a classmate with a similar name), where he studied art and music; he remained attached to both after establishing his career in science.
Like Booker, Carver’s politics were perceived to be “accomodationist” towards white society. At the same time, the relationship between the two men was tenuous. Carver’s views on social uplift aligned more with W.E.B. Dubois’s intellectualized, rather than Booker's vocational approach. As a northerner, Carver long associated mainly with whites, and could seem desirous of their affirmation as the measure of success, referring often to his enslaved beginnings. Whites nurtured his self-declared unique and divinely inspired persona and pointed to him as a “representative colored man” (Kremer 8), underpinning his reputation by many African Americans in the postwar years as a “Tom,” as well as a token.
In 1921, Carver testified at the White House for a tariff on peanuts, representing the United Peanut Growers’ Association, from which point he was recognized nationally as an “expert,” nearly unprecedented for an African American. At the same time, he could reproach the Association’s members for a proposed “pickanniny” peanut company logo (1929), imploring that, at the very least, it not be “an ugly cartoon,” and he took an active interest in educating youths about the accomplishments of blacks in history (Kremer 155). Only in the 1940s, into Colescott’s early adulthood, did Carver or Booker become prominent historical figures in the national consciousness, when commemorative postage stamps were issued for each and a national monument for Carver was established (initiated 1943, the year of his death; Diamond, Missouri). We hadn’t progressed very far in this vein by c. 1970, according to Colescott’s painting. The notion of an African-American art history was even dimmer at the time, limited mainly to artists and scholars at a small network of HBCUs. By the late 1940s, when Colescott began looking towards an art career, race was unspoken in the “modern” mainstream – avoided – kept invisible. Colescott himself had been duped, he implies, in his delayed painterly responses of the 1970s.
The significance of Colescott’s Washington-to-Carver transformation is inhered in the broader compositional parody, which implicitly brings attention back to the source. Once familiar with Colescott’s work, we inevitably conjure it when viewing the Leutze – as intended by the artist – which impacts the Leutze's meaning (Colescott 302). By the mid-1980s, Leutze’s inclusion of a black rower (lower left) in Washington’s boat was increasingly noted in emergent discussions of both representations of blacks in Western art (see Honour) and African-American military history (see Quarles; Holton; Lanning 1997 and 2000; Weir). The voluntary participation of free and enslaved blacks in militias and the Continental Army in the Revolution has become widely known in recent decades, which is suggested in the ready-made schema of the Carver painting. As was common in his time, Leutze drew on precedents that, not surprisingly, idealized the event but also encompassed certain details stemming back to historical reports, including the participation of blacks in the Battle of Trenton. An example is Thomas Sully's Washington's Passage of the Delaware, 1819 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, widely copied in paint and distributed in prints), which includes a black attendant on horseback with Washington at the embankment. (The figure in the Sully is usually identified as Washington’s slave, Billy Lee; in the Leutze, it has sometimes been identified as Prince Whipple, a slave to a close aide of Washington's, freed during the war.) Indeed, there was some recognition of this history, however peripheral.
Needless to say, white colonists were wary of arming blacks as slavery was consolidated, and Washington hesitated in condoning black troops. An important impetus for his doing so was an active campaign to recruit slaves by the Royalists with the explicit promise of freedom, at which they were quite successful. While many Africans in America latched onto the Revolutionary rhetoric of freedom and patriotic service with the goal of equal citizenship in a new nation, the role of blacks in the Revolution “can best be understood by realizing that his major loyalty was not to a place nor a people, but to a principle. . . . Whoever invoked the image of liberty, be he American or British, could count on a ready response from blacks" (Quarles xxvii).
After the Revolution, African Americans were barred from the military and a pattern was established that lasted through WWII of their acceptance and at times active recruitment, only when bodies were needed, with little chance of advancement in a military career despite the documented enthusiasm and bravery of many. In this period, those admitted were often steered to servile positions like those enacted by Colescott's sailors, especially in the Navy where conditions have been particularly harsh historically. Allusions to slavery through the juxtaposition of the black body with bodies of water in painting have been noted, a prominent example being John Singleton Copley's renowned painting Brook Watson and the Shark (1778; also ubiquitous through copies and reproductions). Copley’s painting features a black sailor at the apex of a figure group in a vessel approaching the notorious slave-trading harbor of Havana; while taking a swim, the young (white) crew member Watson is attacked by a shark in a complex moral allegory. In darkly humorous terms, Colescott’s packed boat suggests both a heroic voyage towards change and a visually garbled retracing of the Middle Passage.
Finally, there is the sex change in Colescott’s translation, which he turns into the most subversive element of the composition by slyly depicting the lone female character performing a sex act at its dense center. In the Leutze, a soldier kneels to support the flag bearer with a kind of embrace; in the Colescott, “she” offers other services. Certainly, the bare-bottomed mammy image may be interpreted as a male chauvinist view, conscious or not, of the potential role of women in any revolutionary endeavor; however, its sheer audacity even in comparison with all of the other offensive figures represented recalls the harsh historical stereotyping of black women as both mannish and lascivious, as well as the cruel fetishization of the African female body by Europeans evidenced especially in nineteenth century visual culture from anatomical drawings to the “progressive” paintings of Delacroix and Manet (Gilman). On the other hand, Colescott’s maid also "moons" the voyeurs of his painting – one can imagine, in his stream-of-consciousness knack for double entendres – a profane utterance that would support such a reading of her pose. Ultimately, viewer reaction to the figure may be most affected by private thoughts on the sexual act depicted, one highly politicized due to associations with deviancy generally and homosexuality specifically in Christian culture. Since the affair between ex-president Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, it has been publically re-defined in a new way. Colescott perhaps infers also that there is some hypocrisy in the vehement sexual Puritanism of American society in contrast with the horrors of racism that Colescott’s stereotypes signify. In other words, she may symbolize an extension of the theme of freedom into the sexual realm.
Loose Cannon to Canonization
Wide success as a contemporary artist happens in New York, as Colescott was well aware. With a respectable exhibition career out West, he had his first solo show in New York in 1973 at the artist-run Spectrum Gallery, where Faith Ringgold had broken ground as the first African-American member in the late 1960s. Included were several biting political satires along the lines of Bye, Bye Miss American Pie, including a “travesty of the Colonel Sanders operation” (Battcock 51). A senior art critic at the The New York Times wrote, "I found them, to my embarrassment, entertaining" (Canaday). From there, he followed up with two shows at another gallery that included some of the art history works. It is not clear whether the Carver painting was included in either of those, but it received wide exposure in a 1978 group exhibition at the Whitney Museum, Art about Art (as well as the accompanying catalogue) in the proximity of major (white) artists of the era (see Lipman and Marshall). Three years later in some of the same company, it appeared in an exhibition (and catalogue) on “subversive humor” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art (see Tucker). At roughly the same time, the East Village art scene was fomenting, and Colescott's aesthetic appeared anticipatory of a burst of raw figurative styles among the much younger artists at its epicenter. As pictorially rebellious as ever, he became the elder statesmen at an active East Village gallery, Semaphore. In 1983, he was included in the Whitney Biennial, traditionally and to the present an arbiter of “the best new art in America,” followed up by the appearance of the Carver painting the following year on the cover of Artforum (as mentioned) which, together with Sims’s accompanying article, sealed its fate and his own.
In 1987, Sims organized a ten-year retrospective for Colescott (covering 1975 – 1985) that travelled to galleries and museums across the country for two years, in which the Carver painting was clearly the star, according to the regional press along the way (see Sims and Kahan). In this context, the first public negative critiques of Colescott's black-face art strategy surfaced across racial lines, within and beyond the art world. Some felt Colescott was being too casual with the re-use of vulgar images of blacks and perhaps naïve with regard to the ready assimilation of this work by still mainly white curators and collectors (see Douglas), especially in the wake of conservative politics that infiltrated the 1980s, which challenged a number of recent gains, in terms of public policy, for African Americans. (It should be pointed out, many African-American collectors and institutions devoted to art by African Americans also own Colescott’s art.) Images become known as stereotypes through repetition, not through such inherent qualities as individual representations (even if offensive). To re-circulate them involves a calculated, paradoxical risk between erasing and trivializing history and reinforcing, at a subliminal level, deep misunderstandings among Americans – such as the one between Harvard professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge police department, which made it all the way to the White House.
In the post-Pop Art era, Colescott’s appropriation of stereotypes worked in one sense as a unique means through which to provide requisite shock and novelty associated with the historical avant-garde, with which he aligned himself in art school. Reiterated by his low-tech, folksy style, such images were as shocking as more graphic sexual and violent ones infiltrating mainstream contemporary art. While well aware of many ideas discussed above in the orbit of the Carver painting, Colescott’s approach is hardly intellectualized but “blurted out” abruptly to initiate a dialogue. The painting and several related ones did incite real social interaction in the form of a community protest when his 1987 retrospective opened at the Akron Art Museum. In response, the artist initiated a “town meeting” and follow-up group discussions. (As noted above, the Akron Art Museum now owns the sharp tongued, Bye Bye Miss American Pie.) In the following decade his paintings of the mid-1970s were recalled prominently when several young African-American artists, notably Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles, turned to historical stereotypes, placing Colescott in the thick of public debates among artists and scholars focused on the trend (See Stereotypes Subverted? or for Sale?; Newkirk; Harris, especially Chapter 6).
Arguably, the most impactful museum exhibition of contemporary American art of the 1990s was Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art, organized by Thelma Golden, then a young, African-American curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art (1994-95; travelled to the Armand Hammer Museum, UCLA), in which Colescott’s Carver painting appeared to be revolutionary surrounded by the recent work of mainly much younger artists dealing with similar ideas (see Golden, et al.). Coming full circle, the painting was reproduced on a postcard marketed in museums around the country on the occasion of the show (I purchased one at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1997) and was also featured in the free exhibition brochure as well as the catalogue. (As of November 2009, another postcard edition was displayed in the gift shop at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.) The most prevalent theme of the exhibition across works in diverse media and style was the continuing resonance, particularly among the black male artists included, of Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man (1952). For some, the idea of erasure through violence was expressed directly, on the heels of the Rodney King police beating and the subsequent legal fiasco in Los Angeles, which continued through the decade with incidents such as the shooting of Amidou Diallo and the brutal violation against Abner Louima by police in New York. Colescott’s stereotypes evoke physical and emotional violence in their distortions, beneath their child-like exteriors – forms and references rooted in white black-face, gender-changed minstrelsy. Colescott was on the cusp of a flood of popular and scholarly interest in its history, including its absorption of black performers, culminating in Spike Lee's 2000 film, Bamboozled, which lends to the continuing currency of the Carver painting (see Gubar; Rogin; Breon).
In 1997, Colescott was selected to represent the United States with a solo exhibition at the prestigious international Venice Biennale, by which time he had moved considerably away from his early Pop aesthetic to more complex visual narratives, both more transparently personal and more universal, but the Carver painting figured prominently in the follow-up press and has continued (as I began) to be published and distributed widely. Created in the midst of a burgeoning “revisionist” art history that challenged received canons based on an exclusionary lineage of white masters, Colescott’s painting has joined the club with its messages intact and expanding. At a time when Colescott was exploring represented African-American identity as well as artistic self-identity, the Leutze presented itself as an instant sign of American painting; the Carver painting it spawned now has the same distinction.
Ammons, Elizabeth, ed. Uncle Tom's Cabin: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.
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