Interviews

Remembering Robert Colescott as a Kind of Trickster Figure

Art historian and curator Lowery Stokes Sims discusses why she wanted to present as complete a picture of Colescott’s work as possible in this retrospective at Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati.

Installation view, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott (© Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019, photo by Tony Walsh)

If you’ve ever had a conversation with Lowery Stokes Sims about the work that she does and what she has seen in the course of doing this work, you are likely to feel as I did, that we could and should go on talking for at least another day. I only wanted more from Sims after we sat down on a couch in the lobby of the 21C Hotel in Cincinnati to discuss the exhibition that she had curated with Matthew Weseley: Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. But what we got from our conversation was a clear view into the ambitions and concerns that Sims had in approaching making this first comprehensive retrospective of the work of the deviously impish artist Robert Colescott. He is a difficult artist to handle and hold because while he feels the weight of race and racialized taxonomies — and conveys their heft to the viewer — he is also happy to shape that weight into a rock and hurl it through the nearest window pane of courteous propriety. And Colescott’s aim is true.

Robert Colescott, “1919” (1980) acrylic on canvas, 71 3/4 x 83 7/8 inches (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York, courtesy of the estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo; photo by Joshua White)

The show does more than demonstrate the iconoclasm of his practice; it shows the breadth of it as well. There are moments of serious exploration of color that delve into the language of abstraction in such a dramatic way that it feels like he was doing a pas de deux with Joan Mitchell, as in the painting “Sleeping Beauty?” (2002). In other works he is introspective, satirical, historically analytical, salacious, narrative, funny even if he doesn’t always read this way depending on the viewer’s sense of humor), and always, always self-aware. His self-awareness might have been, next to his painterly hand, his greatest asset. He’s always playing for more than seems apparent. I think he was trying to salt the wound of racism and expose it to sunlight that it might begin to heal. But in this nation we guard the wound, pretend it isn’t there. So Colescott may have felt he needed to lay bare the body of US popular culture so we could all see where the hurt is, see it as a tangle of revulsion and desire.

Robert Colescott, “Sleeping Beauty?” (2002) acrylic on Canvas, 85 1/4 x 145 1/8 inches (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York; courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo; photo by Joshua White)

I spoke with Sims about all of the above and listened as she told me what lay behind this massive effort to put all of the pieces of Robert Colescott in play in one exhibition so we might see what opaque glass houses really need to shatter.

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Lowery Stokes Sims (© Nita Lee Roberts)

Hyperallergic: When you first thought about the exhibition, what were you thinking you wanted to accomplish with it?

Lowery Stokes Sims: Presented with an opportunity to do an exhibition, in a setting that was receptive, I really wanted to do a complete survey of his work, instead of [looking] at parts of his career that had never been looked at before. Because all of the other ones were 10-year intervals; they were basically 10 years apart. It was like a half a generation hadn’t seen the other iteration of his work. If you weren’t in New York at the right time, and if you were in Chicago and in certain galleries in LA, you just couldn’t get a kind of complete sense of what his work was all about. I think what I wanted to do is to kind of disabuse people of their usual responses to Colescott, to really dig into what he was doing early on.

What happened was that beyond this rather prosaic aim — to look at his work from soup to nuts — was that we began, particularly after Blum & Poe organized the estate, and we had a catalog of things that were in storage, we not only found work that we couldn’t locate, but also earlier pieces that we weren’t aware of. [We discovered] that he was looking at Western art and doing riffs of it, well before the 1970s.

Installation view, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott (© Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019, photo by Tony Walsh)

H: The stuff where he mimics John Singer Sargent and where he …

LSS: The “Olympia” [the 1959 painting]. To an extent he wasn’t doing his full-blown, “I’m going to sort of interject Black people in art history, in this very provocative, transgressive, stereotypical way” — but it did. I was struck by the “Olympia”. First of all, the figures are on a more equal basis. It almost looks like the Black woman is bringing the flowers to herself, than to the reclining white figure. It provides this very provocative Colescott riff on what their relationship was.

I think that even in the Sargent, when you sort of look at the full composition, the way he took two isolated elements in the composition and brought them together: The daughter standing apart from the group of the other daughters with the base there. It was interesting to see the riff.

Installation view, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott (© Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019, photo by Tony Walsh)

[And] for me, the Leger drawings were confirmation that he studied with Leger. Because you know he went [to Europe] on the GI Bill, but you had no idea of what the impact was. For the first time, we were able to say to see what the impact was.

H: It’s the sort of the obvious question to ask: Why is it important to know that about Colescott? Why is it important to know that about this painter?

LSS: Well, whenever you do a show about a painter, you have to sort of think of him as at least a quasi-genius who’s worthy of attention. I suppose there was a personal dimension to it, because we were friends. I was introduced to his work early in my curatorial career. For me, the discovery of the works, particularly from the ’70s, was this kind of jolt to my view of the world, as a middle-class African-American girl, raised Catholic, coming from Queens (despite, having interacted with SDS and the women’s movement and the Black Student Union in college). I hew to [the idea] “Represent your race; go out and do the right thing; be respectable; don’t appear in public with ashy elbows.” [Laughs.]

I saw this work that just threw all that out the window. It was personally liberating for me. I guess it really kind of allowed me to find my sort of darker, sardonic humor that I might not have known existed, in my sort of Rebecca-of-Sunnybrook-Farms existence that I had.

Robert Colescott, “Eat Dem Taters” (1975) acrylic on canvas, 59 x 79 inches (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York. Rosenblum Family, photo by Adam Reich)

H: You said that you knew him personally, and that he rubbed off on you. What was that relationship like?

LSS: It was very amusing, because Bob was a generation older than me. He was born in 1925. I was born in 1949. I was this post-feminist generation. He was a prototypical Don Draper, Mad Men generation. We had a group of friends that we came to hang out with, for a period in the ’80s: Joe Lewis, Robert Becker, who I think was working at Interview Magazine. We used to just sort of enjoy each other’s company. I think that there may have been a kind of shared appreciation artists who had such a distinctive point of view.

H: Right, there was some mutual affection and appreciation for this badass artist, who made his own way in the world and refused to apologize to anyone for it. But also, there must’ve been a lot of respect for you, for someone who made her way into the Met. Right?

LSS: Right. I think in terms of how I saw myself, being at the Met, then I had to dig in and figure out how to get one of his pieces into the collection. It took me several tries, but we finally landed on one of the series in the Knowledge of the Past Is the Key to the Future. A lot of my relationships with artists were like that, particularly artists with whom I had a quasi-personal and professional relationship.

Robert Colescott, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Other Washingtons” (1987) acrylic on canvas, 90 x 114 inches. (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artist Rights Society [ARS], New York. Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Olga N. Sheldon Acquisition Trust)

I just thought that sweep of history and art history, with [a] kind critique and an attempt to expand the scope of what we understood of different events, I just found that really fascinating and recuperative. Because we’d all been reading, god, I’m forgetting the names now, all the Black authors who are sort of claiming the ascendancy of Black culture at a time when people were denying it.

Bob was enacting that. There was crazy, wacky stuff he’d thrown in, just to throw you off, make you laugh and understand how humor fit into the whole thing.

Robert Colescott, “Susanna and the Elders (Novelty Hotel)” (1980) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

H: I wonder whether we could make a case that there’s a missing ingredient in today’s art scene, generally, that kind of humor, that kind of biting wit.

LSS: I think that’s absolutely true. We can talk about his influence on a number of artists. But what they do is pick out parts of Bob. They’ll pick out the issue of putting black people into the compositions of art history. They pick up the flirting with Black faces and stereotypes. They pick up the aspect of sarcasm, but not in the same way.

I always said that, “People nowadays approach race and gender and everything in a very personal and sort of illuminating way.” But it does have a kind of defensive, abject quality to it. Bob is always optimistic. He’s the kind of his generation where you always had to say, no matter how bad it was, it was going to get better. I don’t think we have a sense of that now. In fact, we know, those of us who grew up with that ethos, we know that’s not necessarily true.

H: Given all of that, what you see now, now that you have a show manifested, out of these conversations that you have with Matthew, out of these long collaborations with designers and with the staff at CAC. Does the show fulfill your expectations, desires?

LSS: I think it does, but I can also see that because of logistics, in terms of space and size, that what we’ve laid out is just the beginning of … a lot of more delving into the subject matter. I mean, for example, there needs to be a really extended look at what happens between, say, the Valley paintings and the mid-1970s [new paintings that Colescott made while on a residency at the America Research Center in Cairo, paintings that were influenced by his discovery of the ruins at the ancient Egyptian burial site, the Valley of the Queens]. I mean, this process as those forms that we see floating in those color morasses in the Valley of the Queens, begin to coalesce with a semi-cartoon flavor, but with this extraordinarily dense narrative that he pares down around ’74 through ’79, and then ramps up again in the ’80s and ’90s.

Robert Colescott, “Nubian Queen” (1966) acrylic on canvas, 78 x 59 inches (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott /
Artists Rights Society [ARS] New York. Private Collection; New York City, NY., photo by Adam Reich)

There’s one called … It’s something like “Kawana World War II,” and it’s kind of like “Miss [Black] Oakland,” [c. 1967] in the fact that he’s still suspending the figures in this kind of non-perspectival space. But it’s a woman in an army uniform. It’s really a kind of homage to all the women who served in World War II.

[Also] for example, Blum & Poe, had a lot of the paintings with secretaries perched on their bosses’ [desks]. But when you put them all together, it’s not really sexual exploitation. It’s them taking agency over their sexuality, like in “Susanna and the Elders” [1980]. I think that’s something that can really begin to parse what he’s doing, both in terms of coalescing the figure into something that is much more recognizable, and the kinds of narratives that he’s setting up with the figures, in the period, say, from ’68 to ’73, ’74 need to be looked at again.

Robert Colescott, “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” (1971) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic

H: I also think in contemporary art discourse we like to talk about the figure of the trickster. But I think we don’t take that talk to its logical extreme, which is, I think Colescott. I think what happens is, in certain canvases, you do have women asserting a kind of agency through their sexuality, but in other canvases, he’s actually just exploiting them. I think in other canvases, he’s expressing frustration with their sexuality. I think in other canvases he’s doing other things. So there’s a range.

LSS: I think you’re absolutely right about that. Yeah, one of the most powerful representations of women is “[The] Judgment of Paris” [1984]. The first one, where it’s him and his wife, his second to last wife Colleen [Dena Hench], and she’s got her hand raised. I mean, he’s just like totally enthralled with her physically, mentally — you can tell — to the exclusion of any other women. It’s right there. I mean, I can’t think about a time I’ve seen a man reveal himself to be so vulnerable to a woman’s charms and hold over him, as in that painting.

See, the other thing that we couldn’t do, [and] it would be really great to recreate: the 1984, ’85 exhibition of his Bathers series, because there’s a whole sequence with the first one, presumably where this white woman washes up on an island. She’s rescued by these brown and Black women, and then the next couple of canvases, you begin to sort of see how she disrupts their sense of well-being and self-affirmation. But then he sort of twists it around, and he inserts a white male, as sort of the arbiter of, an appreciator of, the Black female, and the white female disappears. Then it goes into a couple of paintings that are dealing with these kind of primordial Egypt, fertility god figures too.

I would sort of basically say that, despite the fact that he’s made these bosomy girls, bursting out in their bras, that Colescott does have a weird kind of appreciation for women. But I think it’s an appreciation that’s fed by Playboy and Hollywood. There is a kind of voyeuristic, sort of quasi-dirty old man aspect to it. But there is definitely a specific appreciation for women, even if it’s not the way we women think that we should be appreciated.

Robert Colescott, “School Days” (1988) acrylic on canvas, 90 x 114 inches (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott /Artists Rights Society, (ARS), New York. Denver Art; Museum Collection: Funds from NBTFoundation, 1991.56 (photograph courtesy of the Denver Art Museum)

H: One of the things that occurs to me about his work when you talk about hanging those figures in a non-perspectival amorphous space, is Marc Chagall, because there’s a way in which the figuration is angelic; there’s something kind of myth making about it. 

LSS: I’ve never sort of thought of it in that terms, but I think that that’s really true. His practice of disregarding shape, proportion, space, in a kind of Renaissance sense, also creates a kind of all over composition of shapes and body parts and forms, that keeps the compositions right up on the picture plane. Without the details that would make them human, it could be seen as the abstract play of space and form.

H: In that sense too, he’s a kind of a trickster.

LSS: Yeah. I think you’ve hit on it.

The exhibition Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott continues at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (44 East 6th Street, Cincinnati, OH) through January 12. It was curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley. 

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