Like many others, I have often repeated the orthodoxy that the early 1980s saw a return to painting, a rediscovery of figuration, an embrace of dramatic content and an explicit engagement with art history. And, like everyone else who propagates this convenient formula, I have been deeply, unforgivably wrong. While it’s true that with the advent of Neo-Expressionism there was a much greater interest (at least for a little while) in figurative, art-history drenched, emotionally charged paintings, and more of such work being made, this simplistic. decadist version of events risks blinding us to the fact that several painters were working in this mode during the 1970s—wait, let me revise that last phrase—it risks making us forget (or never recognize in the first place) that several major painters of the period were already working in this mode during the 1970s. They included Malcolm Morley, Paul Georges, Peter Saul and, last but not least, Robert Colescott.
Colescott, whom I regret never having met, strikes me as a painter of incredible courage. He seems to leap into every painting as if it will be his last, determined to leave no inch of the canvas unactivated, no social taboo unchallenged, no occasion for painterly bravura unseized. His compositions pulse and throb with tightly packed figures and areas of impacted opulent color as if the canvas, no matter how large, isn’t big enough to contain his pictorial energy, or his urgent need to tackle head-on huge subjects. Colescott’s wager was doubly or maybe even triply daring: Was it possible to make great paintings from the crassest racial stereotypes in the American psyche? Was it possible to be a broad social satirist and a color-mad celebrant of painterly excess at the same time? Was it possible to reconcile the high-art legacy of Europe and the flashy, fleshy, rambunctious, loud energy of American vernacular culture?
Against all odds, Colescott won his artistic bets in canvas after canvas. Especially during the last 20 years of his life, he expertly deployed every possible device of painting with a Tarantino-like glee. Some viewers recoil from Colescott’s intensity, feeling equally uncomfortable with his racially (and sexually) charged scenarios and with his baroque, over-the-top style. Others relish this discomfort and are only too happy to let Colescott’s delirious pictorial power wash over them. The path by which Colescott arrived at his singular style was unusual. After the Second World War, he traveled from Berkeley to Paris to study with Fernand Léger, who encouraged him to forsake abstraction. In the mid 1960s he again left the States (he hadn’t stayed in Paris very long) for a fellowship at the American Research Center in Cairo. As he explained in 1985, “I spent a couple of years in Egypt and was influenced by the narrative form of Egyptian art, by 3,000 years of a ‘non-white’ art tradition, and by living in a culture that is strictly ‘non-white.’ I think that excited me about some of the ideas about race and culture in our own culture; I wanted to say something about it.” (I take this from Michael Lobel’s October 2004 Artforum article on Colescott; its original source is “Conversation with Robert Colescott” by Ann Shengold, in Robert Colescott: Another Judgment, Knight Gallery/Spirit Square Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1985.) Interstingly, Colescott isn’t the only African-American painter to be deeply affected by visiting Egypt; abstract painter Stanley Whitney also credits a trip to Egypt as crucial for the development of his work. Speaking of geography, it’s surely significant that as Colescott’s career got underway he lived and worked not in New York or Los Angeles but in San Francisco, Portland and Tucson.
As I write these lines it has been almost four years since Colescott died (in June, 2009), at the age of 83; 16 years since he represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale and 24 years since the last retrospective of his work (at New York’s New Museum). The only substantial museum show of his work in the last quarter century was a 10-year survey (1997-2007) curated by Peter Selz in 2007 for the San Francisco alternative space Meridian Gallery (this show traveled to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa). Kravets/Wehby Gallery in New York has also been a place to see Colescott’s work. The year of his death he was included in the Rubell Family Collection’s widely seen, much-discussed “30 Americans” exhibition. It certainly seems time for some major U.S. museum to mount a full Colescott retrospective.
As I sometimes do when I want to index the level of an artist’s standing in cool academic art history circles, I looked up Colescott in the second edition of Art Since 1900, that influential 1,000-page-plus history authored by Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh and David Joselit. The fact that Colescott isn’t given even a passing mention (Morley, Georges and Saul are similarly ignored) reminds me why I started The Silo in the first place, and why I feel there’s still much work to be done.