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Our Man in Venice

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

“Everyone keeps asking me, ‘Aren’t you thrilled,’ but being thrilled is for amateurs,” says artist Robert Colescott, who’ll represent the U.S. at the 47th Venice Biennale, which opens today. “This is what I do, and Venice is a job.”

That’s not entirely accurate. Colescott’s presence at the prestigious Italian international exhibition is also something of an honor in that it is the result of a rigorous screening process conducted by the Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals, a joint partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Information Agency.

The fund solicits proposals from curators throughout the country for U.S. representation at the Biennale, then arrives at a selection through a process of competitive peer review. Colescott’s name was put in the hat by Miriam Roberts, an independent curator who organized a survey of the artist’s work for the San Jose Museum of Art in 1987.

“No one embodies the vitality of contemporary American art better than Colescott, and it’s exciting to be presenting his work to an international audience for the first time,” Roberts says.

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Nonetheless, despite the fact that his work has been widely known for decades, Colescott was a longshot for Venice. The 71-year-old African American artist has never even had a full-dress retrospective and is a staunchly traditional figurative painter whose work combines a flamboyant sense of color worthy of Matisse, an approach to line evocative of Philip Guston and the bawdy humor of R. Crumb.

Best known for a series of paintings completed in the ‘70s wherein he “borrowed” classic works by Van Gogh, Picasso and De Kooning, among others, and transformed them into sendups of black stereotypes, Colescott has long made a subversive take on racism central to his work--which, curiously enough, went largely unmentioned in the early ‘90s when political correctness was all the rage.

“The European art world likes to pigeonhole American art, and right now their favorite pigeonhole is Conceptualism. My work isn’t known in Europe, and I have no idea how they’ll fit it into that template,” Colescott says of the 19 paintings selected for the Biennale from his production of the last 10 years.

As the artist speaks at his home here, the Biennale seems worlds away. It’s early morning in late spring, but the blazing heat already holds the land in a state of siege. Colescott’s brown adobe house is at the end of a winding dirt road and is nestled deep in a stretch of scrubby land dotted with an occasional house and a dazzling array of plant life.

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“I settled here in 1985 because I had a job, and at first I didn’t like it all, but I’ve come to love it,” says the artist, who has been a professor at the University of Arizona for 12 years. “It’s a backwater where nobody knows me and I don’t have to talk to anybody about art. I like being out here looking at the cactus, and this building I live in reminds me of a church, which suits me. It’s a romantic environment.”

Recently divorced from his fourth wife, Colescott is very much the lord of this castle. One room of his simple studio is dominated by his rowing machine and drum kit, while the larger room is devoted to painting. Colescott comes off as gracious and soft-spoken. However, lest one doubt that he is also a man of ferocious drive, one need only hear the story of his life. He’s traveled a long way from humble beginnings.

Colescott, who was born in Oakland in 1925, recalls: “The Depression was on when I was young, so everybody was poor. My dad was a waiter in the dining car on the Southern Pacific, but he didn’t have a salary and we lived on tips. My father was a gifted violinist, and I think he felt some bitterness that because he was black he couldn’t make a living as a violinist.

“Oakland was a fairly racist community then and West Oakland was the black ghetto,” he continues. “We lived in East Oakland, though, because my father managed to buy property from a black realtor in a non-neighborhood where people of various races lived. We all kept to ourselves, and it was comfortable until a white neighborhood grew up around us--there were difficulties then.”

His parents had come from New Orleans, and those Southern roots also influenced Colescott’s early years.

“They left to escape the segregation of the South, but they missed Louisiana, and I grew up hearing stories of New Orleans,” Colescott says, offering a clue as to the source of the raucous spirit that courses through his work. “When I visited relatives there, I always found myself thinking, ‘Gee, everybody has fun all the time.’ My parents were very conservative, but Louisiana is a place of contradictions, and my father’s family was crazy. They had a good time and spent every penny they made on clothes.

“Like all kids, I liked to draw, but it never occurred to me I could do that for a living. My father did have a friend named Sargent Johnson who was an artist, though, and whenever we visited him I’d see pieces of sculpture he was working on. That was the first art I remember seeing, and I think it was significant that it was made by a black man.”

Colescott has vivid memories of visiting the 1939-40 World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay: “Diego Rivera was there working on a mural while the fair was in progress, and he had a profound effect on the way people in the Bay Area drew and painted. His presence inspired a flurry of mural making and public projects that were funded by the WPA,” Colescott says, referring to the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. “That early exposure to Rivera may have something to do with my belief that art should address social ills, because his art certainly did that.”

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In 1942, Colescott was drafted and sent overseas.

“I was just 17, so needless to say that was a life-changing experience,” says Colescott, whose tour of duty took him to Germany and the Philippines. His travels with the Army inspired him to enroll at San Francisco State after he was discharged from the service, and he planned to study international relations there on the GI Bill. That plan was aborted after a career counselor told him it was unlikely, because of his race, that he would be hired into the U.S. diplomatic corps; at that point, Colescott concluded that he might as well study art.

From 1946 to 1949, Colescott took art classes at San Francisco State and at UC Berkeley, where he studied under Elmer Bischoff and would eventually earn his master of arts degree in 1952.

“Joan Brown and I were friends,” Colescott says. “I occasionally crossed paths with David Park, and Sam Francis was a classmate of mine in Berkeley. However, I’m not part of the Bay Area figuration school and never was. I just knew those people.”

In 1949, Colescott went to Paris to study with Fernand Leger, a French artist who came of age as a Cubist and was the first in his circle to experiment with nonfigurative abstraction.

“I was drawn to the simplicity of Leger’s art, which basically boiled down to strong drawing combined with simple, contrasting forms,” Colescott explains. “When I arrived in Paris I was making geometric abstractions, but Leger encouraged me to work from the figure.

“He confessed that for a period he too had been drawn to abstraction, but he abandoned it because he believed art had a responsibility to society and felt abstraction didn’t communicate with ordinary people,” Colescott recalls of Leger, whose experience as a soldier in World War I left him deeply sympathetic to issues of class struggle. “His simple criticisms made a big impression on me.”

Like most young artists in Paris, Colescott spent his free time at the Louvre, where he could usually be found in the galleries devoted to Eugene Delacroix, Theodore Gericault and Jacques-Louis David. “I love those big, monumental paintings and know them well,” says Colescott, who married his first wife in Paris in 1950.

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Colescott returned to Berkeley in 1952 and then moved the next year with his wife and two young sons to Seattle, where he taught grade school. In 1957 he moved to Portland for another teaching job; he divorced his first wife in 1962 and married again the following year. It was during his last year in Portland, in 1965, that the artist arrived at the beginning of what was to develop into his mature style.

“It was a painting of a figure that marked a break from the formalist issues of space that had dominated my art up to that point,” Colescott says of a work whose significance is reflected in the fact that it hangs to this day in his studio.

“When I first made that painting [a nude with movable flaps on the chest that conceal breasts], I thought it was silly and hence was not art. I’ve gotten past that bias against humor because I’ve learned what hard work it is to be funny.”

In 1964, Colescott received a grant from the American Research Center that took him to Cairo, where he lived for two years with his wife and third child.

“Spending time in Egypt enabled me to introduce the subject of race into my work,” he recalls. “Egyptian art, particularly that of the 18th Dynasty, has deep roots in narrative images painted to describe a way of life. I’d never thought of issues of race as having anything to do with art; moreover, narrative was completely forbidden in art at that point--form was everything and subject was irrelevant. The idea of challenging that convention appealed to me.”

Colescott and his family were abruptly forced to leave Cairo when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, so they headed for Paris, only to be met the next year by the student uprisings. As French students took to the streets, Pop art was taking America by storm; Colescott’s work has been described as “black Pop,” so one could assume that the dominance of Pop would have improved the market for his work.

“Not so,” says Colescott, whose work didn’t begin to sell until 1970, when he had his first solo show in New York. “I recently came across a drawing in one of my files and the price on the back said $15--and it still didn’t sell!”

Colescott lived in New York for six months in 1970, right after he returned to the U.S. from Paris.

“I was working full time in an art supply store and painting at night and it was exhausting,” recalls the artist, whose second marriage ended that year. “So when I was offered a teaching job at Stanislaus College in California I went. Returning to California was good for my work because it’s an open place where you can do things that would be dismissed as weird anyplace else, and I felt free there to follow my painting where it took me.”

Settling in Oakland, where he also had a studio, Colescott commuted to the Stanislaus campus in Turlock from 1970 to ’74, then taught at Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute. During this period he completed those irreverent remakes of classics from art history for which he’s best known.

The series, riddled with allusions to racial cliches such as Aunt Jemima and Stepin Fetchit, included “Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White,” a homage to the legendary tap-dancing team that finds them switching racial identities; “Eat Dem Taters,” wherein the glum Dutch miners of Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” are transformed into cheerful black slaves; and “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” a revamping of the Emanuel Leutze painting, which morphs the father of our country into the famous black agricultural chemist, who rides in a dinghy manned with a crew of fishing, banjo-playing blacks.

“I did those paintings 24 years ago, and that’s still the work people think of when they hear my name,” Colescott says with a sigh. “When an artist gets shackled to a signature series, people ignore everything else he does, so it’s not good to have a body of ‘hit’ paintings. People love that work, though, probably because it’s ballsy and easy to understand.

“A whole new vocabulary of black stereotypes have evolved since I made that work, but you can find the roots of all of them in any episode of ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy.’ I didn’t identify with those black stereotypes when I made those paintings. I had always been afraid of them, though, because I didn’t want people to think of me that way. Of course, stereotypical beliefs about blacks had been projected onto me on and off throughout my life. The art world is a bit more forward-thinking than the world at large, but racism manifests in subtle ways across the board.”

In 1980, Colescott married again and had his fourth child, but that marriage had ended by 1985, when he moved to Tucson and married his fourth wife. She and Colescott are divorced now too and share custody of their 10-year-old son.

Asked if America has progressed on the racial front over the course of his life, Colescott says: “In some ways, yes. Bill Cosby is practically a national hero, and that just wasn’t possible 40 years ago. Black people now have a real place in the culture--which is as it should be, considering that the most significant difference between the U.S. and Europe is black culture. Blacks have lived in the armpit of white people ever since slaves were brought here, and their presence has changed the identity of the place in fundamental ways. Most people don’t want to acknowledge how deep the debt goes, however, so the country is still divided.”

As to what shift has taken place that’s allowed his work to jump to the head of the class, Colescott shrugs his shoulders and laughs.

“Maybe I’ve just gotten so old I’m no longer a threat,” he says. “I can’t explain it, because the emotional content of my work hasn’t changed, nor have I changed in any dramatic way. I’ve always been kind of a nut.”

* After the closing of the Venice Biennale on Nov. 9, the Robert Colescott exhibition will begin a two-year tour of seven American cities, including a run at the UC Berkeley Art Museum starting May 12, 1999.


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