PRINT March 1984


The humor is the bait. It’s the price you pay to get in.1
—Joe Lewis, 1982

ALTHOUGH ROBERT COLESCOTT’S WORK is impelled by one overriding purpose—to interject black people into Western art—an important component of his art is consistent with the satirical approach. If we perceive a marked defensiveness in such a stance, a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude regarding official “culture,” then we can have a handle on Colescott’s work. His esthetic affinities are with Dada, Surrealism, and Pop art; the prediction of the phenomenon that Marcia Tucker isolated as “bad painting” is key. The politics are those of exclusion:

If George Washington crossing the Delaware is Carver, should I cry for the solitary hero and history because it allowed only one or maybe two heroes, but a multitude of buffoons (me included?). Or, on the other hand, how about all the hat-changing, no-boat-rocking soft shoe, no-wave-making ball-jiggling routines “everybody’s man” might be doing to be “everybody’s man”? . . . Now that’s entertainment.2

The methodology involves devising quotations from masterpieces of art history and inserting his figures in these compositions, or transposing racial and sexual identities within images from the popular market. A physical distance from the political and intellectual centers of black life in America may have allowed Colescott (who lives in Arizona) to feel freer about taking on such “difficult” issues as sex, black stereotypes, and the more embarrassing aspects of bourgeois American life, both white and black. The satirical digs and twists that imbue his imagery have rendered it suspect in more orthodox black political circles; in addition, his representation of women has raised eyebrows where there is feminist consciousness.

Colescott himself is the interlocutor in his work—not as the master of ceremonies or the choral commentator of Greek theater, but as the buffoon/jester. Exercising a voyeuristic license as artist, he provokes an unmasking, an exposure—of the burnt-cork makeup of the black minstrel or the obsequious deference of an Uncle Tom/Stepin Fetchit, both of which mask their true selves. This protective camouflage (wrought in the wake of repression during the post-Reconstruction era) was so successful that the blacks did indeed become invisible. So when Colescott seeks to render blacks visible again he takes the viewer through a deciphering of an elaborate system of messages encoded as the secret communication of an underground culture.

One of Colescott’s most successful paintings, which may be used as a paradigm, is George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware, 1975. On the most elementary level the humor is sourced by a familiarity with Emmanuel Leutze’s original 1851 composition; Colescott replaces the white male revolutionaries (including one black man) with a boatload of black cooks, sporting lifes, mammies, and banjo players, under the leadership of a scholarly, bespectacled “colored gentleman.” The title also refers to the black American custom of naming male children after American presidents. On a deeper level, though, it is an angry protest against the tokenism of traditional American history, which allows only one black hero (Crispus Attucks) and buries the rest. It goes on to illuminate the existence of George Washington Carver, a botanist at Tuskegee Institute who distilled more uses out of the common peanut than it took to put Jimmy Carter in the White House. By taking on the contrasting images predicated by the American class system, Colescott makes a hero of the ordinary man and woman (even these stereotypes) and takes note of the social pressures on the “super niggers” isolated from each generation by the power structures as tokens to “represent the race.” And finally, as the artist points out, this painting presents one of the few depictions of a blow job in the history of art. The dialectics of this methodology succeed according to the famous conjunction proposed by Lautréamont and celebrated by the Surrealists, but Colescott’s version of the “encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table” need involve only the most straightforward and basic juxtapositions—male and female, black and white. By rendering his compositions in a raucous style seemingly borrowed from Screw magazine but closely related to Philip Guston’s figurative expressionism, Colescott participates in what John Russell has described as the “deliberate incongruity . . . and aesthetic bad manners of postmodernism.”3

Colescott’s presentation of the black American male reflects not the actively violent self-righteousness of an Eldridge Cleaver, but rather the intellectual distress of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), who feels manipulated by society and his times.4 The contemporary rise of consciousness about women’s issues has provoked in Colescott a rather frank treatment of the male dilemma which is further complicated by the overlay of racial nuances. In fact, Colescott is at his most provocative in depicting women. The political dilemma of the black American male is encapsulated in Colescott’s 1970 painting, Miss American Pie in the Sky, inspired by the refrain of Don McLean’s popular ballad from the same year, “American Pie.” A bosomy blonde with a pie hovering over her head like a halo symbolizes the great American dream. The slice we all have come to expect forms her pubic triangle. But the words “Bye Bye” flank the floating pie. The appearance of a black G.I. blasting away with his gun on the lower left is replete with irony: at the time, veterans of the Vietnam war were returning “home” to find not only that their participation in the war was a matter of public shame, but also that the rewards of the American system—which they had fought to protect—still eluded them, especially if they were black. Colescott makes us uncomfortably aware of the implicit potential for arousal in female personifications of great American values such as Liberty, and at the same time exposes the raw nerve of interracial sexual politics and of blatant machismo (is it necessary to belabor the metaphor of the gun as phallus provided by the image of the black G.I. in this painting?), and expresses antiwar sentiment. Within the Vietnam context woman is the enemy that seduces and lulls—as, for example, in his painting of a bar girl, Nam Boogie, 1969—and the victim, the subject of a displaced retaliation against an increasingly inaccessible Vietcong (remember My Lai?).

This complex imagery also alludes to the legacy of the time of slavery, when only white men had access to all females—black and white. It is a defiance of the sexually charged social control of Jim Crow laws, with the threats of lynching that accompanied them.6 The white female has been displayed and fleshed out in the media, tantalizing, provocative, and yet for the most part has remained socially out of the reach of the black male. It is easy to see how her attainment has been perceived as a way to grasp at power. (The irony is that it remained exactly that, a grab. Ultimately the white male might relinquish sexual exclusivity with regard to white women, but he would fight vigorously against sharing his economic and political power with black men, black women, and white women.) One other aspect of this situation cannot be ignored: the political and economic aspirations of the black male often exist in direct conflict with the black female’s own aspirations and the increased opportunities she may have as a result of feminist and affirmative-action efforts. This new position, coupled with the traditional role of intermediary and representative into which the black woman has been cast by the legacy of Jim Crow, continuing patterns of massive unemployment, and the effects of the welfare system have created unbearable tensions between black men and women. The “two-for” potential of hiring a black female to fulfill quotas for both minorities and women has been seen as a means to exclude black men from economic and political power. This pattern of corporate hiring seems also to fit in with the longstanding assumption that the black female has been especially accessible to the white male—willingly or not. Therefore she has been placed in an untenable position between white and black males. It ain’t easy being a “colored girl.”

Colescott’s way of wading through these dilemmas is to perversely exaggerate the sexual nuances of these relationships and thereby to flaunt the hypocrisy of American bourgeois Puritanism, and at the same time by quoting from “masterpieces” of art history, to confront the pretensions to culture implicit in the notion of “high art.” As he has written,

Take another look at the territory. There are a few overlooked corners and maybe it’s what nobody wanted anyway. There are leftovers like hog jowls, mustard weed, and Ann Sheridan’s underwear. It’s the stuff that gets rendered to soap, chopped to fertilizer, or sold to a Houston panty collector. Maybe there’s some good in used underwear, popular trash, studio sweepings, or works that didn’t pass art history. I’d like to know what happens to Veronese when he’s consumed like pornography. What happens to “high art” when its artistry is directed against “high art”? If I am Courbet’s angel, can I paint myself on the head of a pin?6

What is also involved in our deciphering of the visual elements in Colescott’s work is their provocative juncture with deeply rooted ideas of female modesty, male propriety, good versus bad girls, etc. In fact our ideas about female purity seem ironic given the exhibitionism that is part and parcel of such American institutions as cheerleaders, the beauty contests, and Hollywood sex symbols. The resulting confusion of reality with media-hyped images and roles has resulted in personal misery and conflict on the part of individuals looking for an ideal to aspire to, as well as the very individuals who have been chosen to embody that ideal. As Rita Hayworth was quoted in her recently published biography, “They fell in love with Gilda—and woke up with me.”7

Two paintings from 1972, Beauty Queen and Olympic Event, present contrasting female types, but both implicate women in their own sexual exploitation—by implying, in Beauty Queen, the use of sex for obvious personal gain, and, in Olympic Event, that rape fantasies can persist in even the most “liberated” woman, despite her assertions of self-determination. Colescott tackles the complex issue of temptation/seduction in Susanna and the Elders, 1980, in which he turns the biblical story of the nude woman surprised in the bath into a great flirtation, a scene of triple voyeurism. Susanna uses the scanty concealment provided by the shower curtain in her deliberate frolic before two old men; as usual the artist himself can be seen as well, here peeking through an open window. Of course, we as viewers are implicated in the scene in a more than usual way.

The persistence of the misogynous virgin/whore dichotomy is reflected in recent rulings in American courts, where criminal charges against a rapist have been dismissed because of doubt in the mind of the judge and the jury about the victim’s culpability in instigating the rape. A rapist may thus be transformed from a hostile aggressor to a hapless, unwitting male seduced by his victim through provocative dress or demeanor. Similar ambivalence and double messages may be perceived in other female apparitions of Colescott’s from the 1970s. Three paintings from 1977—Two by Four, Cactus Gal, and Tin Gal—parody liberated women. The replacement of flesh-and-blood women with surrogates of wood, prickly plants, and metal, all in the guise of gunslingers, suggests the tough, aggressive stance of the new woman which Colescott found intimidating. In The Spell, 1979, and Shot in the Dark, 1981, the other guise of the threatening woman—the temptress—appears, in the first instance as an old white woman (evoking the witch of fairytales) preying on a much younger, guileless black youth, and in the latter image as a larger-than-life figure, lounging expectantly while the smaller man shoots his gun out the window. Both images imply the unequal power relationship between an older woman and a younger man—especially with regard to sexual initiation; in Shot in the Dark the discharging of the gun suggests sexual disorders, such as impotence or premature ejaculation, which might be induced by the man’s feeling of social intimidation. Colescott’s reprisal is cynical and cuts to the quick. The legend beneath the Tin Gal reads “Her Only Weakness is Coming Unscrewed,” expressing not only the feeling that in adopting politics of liberation women might forgo traditional sexual relationships with men, but also that men in turn might utilize the withholding of sex as a means of controlling liberated women.8

The most elusive character in Colescott’s cast is the black woman, but her persona has been gradually illuminated over a ten-year period. Her earliest permutation (after the “Valley of Queens” series of the 1960s), Havana Corona, 1970, is as an exotic trademark, hinting at hedonistic pleasures to be found in southern climes. This “dusky maiden”—exalted by Charles Baudelaire, orientalized by Delacroix, Gerôme, and Matisse, ennobled by Gauguin in his search for Paradise Lost—has become in this century the Caribbean minx, a la Dorothy Dandridge of Hollywood. Subsequent apparitions of black women in Colescott’s work have been no less unsatisfying and disconcerting; to the deeply romantic and alluring clichés of these earlier artists, Colescott counterposes the crudest, most blatantly racist (and sexist) stereotypes from popular culture. As a Dutch girl substitute in Dutch Chocolate: Rejected Idea for Drostes Chocolate Advertisement, 1974, Colescott depicts her as coyly passive, seemingly unaware of the white male’s obvious sexual interest in her. She is singularly unmovable also in Ecole de Fontainebleau, 1978, where he capitalizes on the suggestiveness of the gesture in the original composition (Gabrielle d’Estes and the Dutchess of Villiars, ca. 1594, artist unknown) to make the relationship between the two women explicitly lesbian. (The white woman wears pants, sits astride the bench and wears a gun—ouch! The black woman wears a skirt and sits sidesaddle.)9 In Cafe au Lait, 1974, and other compositions that feature a Colonel Sanders–like figure, the black woman plays a part in the duplicity of the across-the-tracks morality of the Southern male. And she is the regrettable mammy figure in the “Cactus Jack” series, 1977, catering to the needs of the scruffy white miner.

Colescott blows the toughness and strength and subversion behind his elusive postures wide open in I Gets a Thrill Too When I Sees de Koo, 1978. Here he creates a brilliant transposition of the image of Aunt Jemima while in turn playing off of Mel Ramos’ I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill, 1977, a slick pinup reinterpretation of the gestural, grimacing women of Willem de Kooning. It is exceptionally effective. If it had been a firsthand transposition, it would have merely equated the overwhelming presence of the black mammy with de Kooning’s ferocious, devouring women. But with this double critique—of Ramos’ penthouse pet and of de Kooning’s grimacing women—he suggests a radical change in the imagery of all women, and in particular, liberates the asexual, ultramaternal Aunt Jemima image of black women, who have been subject to the most deeply victimising imagery of any group in our culture.

Colescott evokes yet another aspect of sex and race relations in Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White, 1980; Shirley Temple is depicted here as a little black girl, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson has become white. The switch forces us to wonder at the nature of this movie relationship; would it have been presented as quite so chaste and nurturing if the kindly, dependable butler and the curly-haired tyke had changed race? The Uncle Tom stereotype was so effectively emasculated that he presented no sexual threat to American white women, and indeed could be entrusted with their welfare. We all remember that it was saintly, white-haired old Uncle Tom who saved another curly-haired tyke, Little Eva, from the unsavory intentions of Simon Legree. But surely by now we know better than to be completely suckered into this “bad guy/good guy,” “them” and “us” distinction. In an earlier composition, Tom and Eva, 1974, Colescott shows the saintly colored gentleman surreptitiously fondling his charge’s bare buttocks as she reads a book at his knee. In gestures such as this he suggests the menacing subversion that lurked beneath the servile demeanor of black slaves and servants, which periodically exploded into a violent grab for freedom. It was this misreading of reality, fostered by popular images of blacks, that caused white Americans to be taken aback at the inception of organized black demands for social, political, and economic equity during the post-World War II era.

By 1980, the black woman achieved an exalted persona in Lady Liberty, 1979. In retrospect it would seem that Colescott predicted the ascension of the first black Miss America, depicted here in a star-studded gown, set against a multicolored map of the United States. His sense of satire and irony triumphs once again, for her celestial domain is strewn with garbage, the “popular trash, studio sweepings, or works that didn’t pass art history.”10 In Christina’s Day Off, 1983, that detritus heaps high behind an elegant black woman, offering references to her life in a surprisingly blatant political commentary. At the top of the heap, for example, we can glimpse a hammer, a sickle, a dove ofpeace whose breast is pierced by an arrow, the “guns and butter” of Lyndon Johnson’s phrase; in fact, one could isolate each element and conjure an accompanying political and social interpretation. The most delicious element (pardon the pun) is the reincarnation of the American pie, which appears behind Christina’s head with one slice gone.

Colescott’s recent work is marked by a new assuredness. The stylistic tentativeness is gone, and there is an ease in the way in which he compiles his complex and complicated rosters of allusions and symbols. The narratives are more subtle and allusive, the palette has gotten richer and deeper; works such as Lost in the Jardin des Plantes, 1982, evoke the exotic fantasies of the Douanier Rousseau, as well as the recent lushly defined collages of Romare Bearden. The works verge delicately close to leaving the realm of “bad” art forever, but the content is still there equivocating any tendency the artist may perceive on his own part of succumbing to the easy life. He keeps right on asking the toughest of questions. Besides being an incisive social commentator, Colescott has a consummate eye for visual composition. For example, the wheatfield in Auvers sur Oise: Crow in the Wheatfield, 1981, the mound of cake in Le Cubisme: Chocolate Cakescape, 1982, and the piles of discarded junk in Down in the Dumps, 1983, and Christina’s Day Off all dominate the greater part of the canvases, compressing the space against the picture plane. In interior scenes such as Walking Man and Woman: After Hours in a California Art Studio, 1982, Listening to Amos ’n’ Andy, 1982, and Bad Habits, 1983, Colescott continues to tilt the space up in order to enhance the physical presence of the scene. He allows the path thrown by the light on the studio, in the first of these, and the cutaway scene exposing the illusion, in the last one, to divide the compositions into discrete abstract shapes.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the transformation that has occurred in Colescott’s work is his depiction of himself in these paintings. He is no longer the voyeuristic observer on the periphery of the composition. As if to show that he feels less invisible in the work he now places himself squarely in the composition, as an integral character. He is the man in the studio encounter of Walking Man and Woman . . . , the familiar artist in Bad Habits, a dejected lover in Down in the Dumps, a hermlike stone sculpture in The Three Graces, 1981, the heir to Van Gogh in Auvers sur Oise . . .—where he depicts himself wearing stereophonic earphones, as Van Gogh himself casts a baleful glance on the scene, the stump of his own severed ear securely bandaged under a straw hat.

Colescott’s paintings can be seen as a chronicle of his feelings, which are inextricably caught up in his perceptions of himself as a black male and as an artist in America today. It is the hypocrisy of the American Ideal in particular that is his prey, and like the outlaws of Saturday afternoon westerns, he raids the “sacred cows” of the “high culture” corral, and subverts it through the artful transposition of icons. He exploits kitsch and popular clichés to expose the greater vulgarity that lies, menacing, beneath the veneer of cultivation that affords America’s upper class (and those who aspire to it) an illusory sense of superiority. Even more importantly, Colescott flouts taboos in art, sex, race, money, power, and politics. That his methodology involves the skillful manipulation of culturally enshrined visual messages demonstrates his shrewd perception of the role these images play in reinforcing this country’s tenuous sense of identity, and defining the power relationships of our social order. By exchanging the racial and sexual identities within familiar compositions, exalting or debasing one group for another, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, Colescott wreaks havoc with the accepted social and sexual order in a manner more cogent—and perhaps in the long run more effective—than more overtly destructive social protest.

Lowery S. Sims is Associate Curator for 20th-Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.



1. Joe Lewis, “Those Africans Look Like White Elephants: An Interview with Robert Colescott,” East Village Eye, October, 1983, p. 18 (reprinted from handout for exhibition at Semaphore Gallery, New York, Fall 1982).

2. Robert Colescott, catalogue statement in Not Just for Laughs: The Art of Subversion, by Marcia Tucker, New York: The New Museum, 1981, p. 29.

3. John Russell, “Modernism to Postmodernism: A New World Once Again,” New York Times, August 22, 1982.

4. “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me . . . That invisibility . . . occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes. those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.”
(Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, New York: Signet Books, 1952, p. 7.)

5. The specter has recently been evoked in a sentence for rape imposed by a white judge on three black men. His alternative to prolonged incarceration. surgical castration—removal of the testicles—has been protested even by feminists, not only because of its particularly barbarous implications vis-a-vis the history of American race relations. but also because of the inadequacy of this measure to prevent future acts of rape, i.e., the penetration of the female body. See, for example, William E. Schmidt, “Rape Sentence of 30 Years,” New York Times, November 26, 1983.

6. Colescott, ibid.

7. Joseph Morella and Edward Z. Epstein, Rita: The Life of Rita Hayworth, New York: Delacourt Press, 1983.

8. An idea expressed in Daisy Voigt, “A Colored Love Story,” unpublished manuscript, 1981.

9. Jan Butterfield, “Robert Colescott,” Arts, April, 1979, p. 10.

10. Colescott, ibid.