Robert Colescott, “Tea for Two (The Collector)” (1980), acrylic on canvas, 84 13/16 x 72 13/16 inches. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of Agnes Gund given in honor of Darren Walker (photography courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art © 2022 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

When I walking through Robert Colescott’s exhibition Art and Race Matters, currently on view at the New Museum in New York, I was unexpectedly reminded of a line from Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead”: “Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat.” I can think of many appropriate substitutes for “city’s throat,” starting with “art world” and working down to museums and the individuals who proclaimed that painting was dead around the time Colescott exhibited his best-known work, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” (1975). I would even say that the fishbone metaphor applies to those in the 1980s who announced that painting had returned, as if it had ever gone away or gotten lost, like a dog that could not find its way home until Julian Schnabel came along. 

Rather than portraying what the older Black artist Charles White called “images of dignity,” Colescott chose to represent White America’s stereotypes of Black people, images routinely perpetuated by the mass media, from the daily news to advertising to movies and television. By using these stereotypes as subjects, and humor as a means of delivery, Colescott got at an uncomfortable truth: racism and racial hierarchy are deeply embedded in every aspect of American life, from its cartoons to its laws. Racism was (and continues to be) literally everywhere. By basing their evaluation of art on formal innovation, while ignoring subject matter, the gatekeepers of the avant-garde assumed that they were being color blind, rather than wearing blinders and plodding along, privileged in their ignorance of the many connections between art and life. 

Robert Colescott, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” (1975), acrylic on canvas, 78 1/2 x 98 1/4 inches. Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles (© 2022 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Despite claims to the contrary, that narrow mindset still persists since many (mostly White) Americans see the country as a story of us and them, good and evil. The Civil War did not end in 1865, and its many-headed hydra took on various forms. Colescott’s use of stereotypes and humor continues to make viewers feel uncomfortable because it jabs indelicately at our complicity. This is what I love about his work: It is preposterous, slippery, tactless, vulgar, rude, badly behaved, funny, unexpectedly tender, conscious of color gradations and tones, angry, wildly imaginative, and unsettling. 

As I sat in a room surrounded by Colescott’s paintings, around 40 of which can be seen in Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott at the New Museum, co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley, I realized once again why so many people are against the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools. It is not about the children, but the adults. Who wants to tell their children that they have been happily profiting from a racist system and don’t want it to change? Who wants to say that they believe racial genocide and enslavement were good for the United States and their legacy needs to be maintained?

In “Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White” (1980), Colescott took advantage of the childhood star’s married name to make a switch, depicting her as a young Black girl and the Black tap dancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as White, which is a comment on the happy subservience he projected in films. Colescott’s depiction of Robinson as a White man in blue coveralls and a red shirt, holding a pail of raspberries and singing to a smiling Black girl with exaggerated red lips, looking up at him with wide eyes, is beautifully ludicrous. The stage-like setting, with a bubblegum pink and blue sky and blue tree trunks forming a backdrop, attests to the artist’s masterful use of color.

Robert Colescott, “Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White” (1980), acrylic on canvas, 84 x 72 inches. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer (© 2022 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

For some artists paint is merely a means to deliver their message. Other painters love what paint and color can do. Colescott belongs in the latter category and was making some of his greatest works when many proclaimed painting to be dead. In retrospect, it is clear that — enlightened and liberal as some of these critics were — the idea that a great Black painter was working at that “barren” time was something they could not wrap their heads around.  

Colescott was one of two sons who could pass as White from a Louisiana Creole family, as we learn in a touching text by his cousin, Laura McIntosh Walrod, included in the indispensable exhibition catalogue. When he chose to declare that he was African American, rather than Creole, he caused an irreparable rift in his family. He and his older brother, the artist Warrington Colescott, who considered himself White, never spoke again. Colescott does not shy away from the subject. In “A Visit from Uncle Charlie” (1995), he superimposes a nude, middle-aged Black man over a White couple about to enjoy a night on the town. The woman, who wears a fur-trimmed coat, asks in a thought balloon nearby, “and the children?” Another thought balloon, next to her tall, stylishly dressed husband, reads, “Don’t tell ’em!!”

The Black man, in three-quarter profile, is wearing white socks and brown and white saddle shoes, his genitals clearly visible. He has one hand on his rear hip as if slightly perplexed. Behind him, a grinning skeleton stands in an open closet. Colescott didn’t try to be subtle. In the painting’s lower right-hand corner, we see the upper torso of a man and a woman rendered in different shades of brown.

Robert Colescott, “A Visit from Uncle Charlie” (1995), acrylic on canvas, 84 x 72 inches. Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Museum purchase with funds from the Benefactors Fund, 1997 (image courtesy of The Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNC Greensboro © 2022 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York) 

Colescott hated idealizations of any sort likely because he knew how destructive they were to the individual. In “A Visit from Uncle Charlie” (1995) he invites viewers to consider the history of an interracial family in which some members could pass for White and others couldn’t. The artist pulls viewers in with a spatially complex composition that features many different areas of attention. We become witnesses to a world in which secrets, shame, duplicity, and anger bubble just below the surface. At no point does the painting seem like an anecdote from Colescott’s own life; he always transcended those boundaries. Thinking about Colescott’s biography, I have no trouble sympathizing with his indecorousness. Why should the person who was never invited to the party be expected to act polite? 

Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 9. The exhibition was co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley and organized by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati .

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...