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 Robert H. Colescott  (1925 - 2009)

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Lived/Active: Arizona/California      Known for: mod satire-genre, crowds-objects

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Ad Code: 3
Robert H Colescott
from Auction House Records.
A Legend Dimly Told
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Robert H. Colescott, born in Oakland, California in 1925, was a painter of Afro-American life and social commentary in a semi-abstract, antic, cartoon, anecdotal style related in composition to the early Cubism of French artists Marc Chagall and Fernand Leger, with whom he studied in Paris for a year.

Of his figurative painting, it was written that his "garishly, powerful canvases lampooned racial and sexual stereotypes with rakish imagery, lurid colors, and almost tangible glee.  . . .People of all colors haunt Mr. Colescott's paintings, mostly as chimerical stereotypes that exchange attributes freely.  Their mottled skin tones often suggest one race seeping through another.  Their  tumultuous interaction evoke a volatile mixture of suspicion, desire, pain and vitality.  His slurred shapes, wobbly drawing and patchy brushwork imply that no truths can be held to be self-evident, that life is mired in slippery layers of false piety, self-interest and greed, but also lust, pleasure and irreverence." (Smith)

Colescott became a controversial artist because he used exaggerated, even stereotyped, images of blacks in his paintings.  He used satirical themes as shocking social commentary, particularly in his parodies of classic European paintings with minstrel-like black characters.

As an older artist, he was described as continuing "to produce vitally significant work which has become more and more biting, provocative and, at times, even savage.  "No one has been more important as a role model for a younger generation of African-American artists exploring the relationship between the self and the impediments of its realization.  In this way, he has created one of the most powerful bodies of work in recent American art, employing a highly personal brand of narrative figuration laced with enough irony to expose the still on-going racial inequity of our culture." (

Living in Cairo, Egypt in 1964 as part of a teaching residency, Colescott was much influenced by culture beyond Western canon.  He returned to America which was in the throes of the Civil Rights movement.  He spent time on the West Coast, where he associated with Roy De Forest, Joan Brown and Robert Arneson in the Bay Area and played a part in the revival of figurative painting in the 1960s.  In the mid-1970s, he began using images from popular culture and making racial parodies of masterpieces from art history, which presaged the emergence of "appropriation" in the 1980s.

His work is in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Massachusetts; Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Robert Colescott represented the United States at the 47th Venice Biennale.  A catalog, Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings, with an essay by Miriam Roberts, was published by the U.S. Government in 1997.

A video on the artist, Robert Colescott, "One-Two Punch", has been produced, as part of their African-American Artists Series, by L & S Video for Academic Media Services, Boulder, Colorado.

The artist received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985, and was elected an Academician of the National Academy of Design, New York City, in 1999.  A teacher at the University of Arizona, Tucson, he became Regents' Professor Emeritus of Art.  He was a visiting lecturer at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Robert Colescott, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, died in Tucson, Arizona on June 4, 2009.

Sources include:

Roberta Smith, "Robert Colescott, 83, Artist Who Toyed with Stereotypes", The New York Times, Obituaries, June 10, 2009, A25

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Robert Colescott is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists

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