HARRY PYE’s POSTCARD FROM LONDON
NIGHT ON EARTH
ENCOUNTERS WITH POWER
MY VIDEO COLLECTION
SEDIMENTS OF SPACES AND STORIES
INTERVIEW WITH ANDRES EHIN
Independent from fashionable movements and gallery trends the work of Robert Colescott stands as an original manifestation of present-day American art, creative in its unique and often extravagant expressiveness and reaching to previously unknown levels of revealing an American identity. His major contributions challenge the various versions of contemporary art in America as well as the tradition of “Negro art” in America, the latter having flourished since the 1930’s. Successful to some extent, the accepted manifestations of this art form nevertheless perpetuated the borderlines between the races and accepted the divisions as they existed in American society. The isolation and ghettoising of black artists continued in most of these works the traditional inferior status in art as it existed in society.
This development continued into the 1990’s and was basically accepted by most critics and authors regarding the works of black Americans in spite of euphemistic proclamations, for example in the title of the book by Alain Locke: “The Negro Takes His Place in American Art” of 1933.
There are only few exceptions in this situation in exhibitions such as “Next Generation: Southern Black Artists” of 1990, “Facing History: The Black Image in American Art” of 1990, “The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism” of 1993. It is significant that in most of these exhibitions, and even in the revolutionary attempts in recent years, the works of Robert Colescott are not included. In spite of these omissions it was he who was selected to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale of 1997.
Robert Colescott was born in 1925 in Oakland, California. He began his studies at the University of California in Berkeley and in 1949 went to Paris where, after continuing his studies with Fernand Leger, he spent four years working in Paris and thereafter two years in Cairo, Egypt. His stay in Egypt brought him in contact with a Non-White tradition of art and gave him a self-affirmation in terms of his identity. One of the results of his Egyptian experience was the series of paintings under the title “Valley of the Queens”.
Consequently Colescott’s early work, such as “Negress by the Window” of 1963 and “Le nue blanc” of 1968, consequently deals with the “clash of African and European cultural standards of beauty”, as he defined the situation of his work at that time. But it was only after his return to America that Colescott’s mature work emerged and soon culminated in paintings such as “Eat Dem Taters” of 1975, “Sunday Afternoon with Joaquin Murietta” of 1980 and “The Demoiselles d’Alabama” of 1985.
In these and others from the 1970’s and early 1980’s Colescott achieved a new complexity of expression in which elements from art history and contemporary issues of American life are merged into a new creative unity. In dealing with historic masterpieces of Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Edouard Manet respectively he transformed their content matter into a new and contemporary dimension. In this sense he began a re-writing of art history under his own very specific conditions.
A comparison with works of other painters of the time who, as Colescott, were engaged in appropriating themes from the art of the past, proves to be instructive in regard to the way the artists proceed. Different than, for example, Erro’s “The Potato Eaters” of 1969, Colescott’s use of Van Gogh’s early painting “Potato Eaters” is not a formalistic sophisticated adaption, but the basic thematic transformation of the subject matter into a contemporary milieu replacing consequently the group of poor Dutch farmers into a group of poor black Americans. The similarity between poor people in the Netherlands in the 19th century and poor black sharecroppers in the south of the United States becomes visually evident.
In “Demoiselles d’Alabama” it is Picasso’s masterpiece in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is the point of departure for Colescott’s important new approach. Colescott distinguished his own view from that of Picasso when he wrote: “”Les Demoiselles d’Alabama” is about sources and ends. Picasso started with European art and abstracted through African art, producing ‘Africanism’ but keeping one foot in European art. I began with Picasso’s Africanism and moved toward European art, keeping one foot in Africanism. So the faces and bodies derived from it. The irony is partly that what most people (including me) know about African conventions comes from Cubist art. Could knowledge of European art be so derived as well?”
While still referring and deconstructing images from the past tradition of painting Colescott comments in creative terms on contemporary class, gender, race and the political hypocracy which continues to dominate wide areas of American culture. His work is an open door into a harmonious symbiosis of art and society as it still does not exist. It is in this regard that Ken Johnson wrote: “What Colescott is after, then, is antidiscrimination in the broadest sense, not only racially but aesthetically and psychologically. Every move he makes is to subvert a hierarchy”.
Colescott’s work is a strong and significant manifestation of contemporary American art, transcending the still existing borderlines of race and gender and offering an open-minded vision in itself that has the power of creating a new tradition.
Udo Kultermann, born in Germany, is Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of 35 books on art and architecture, including “New Directions in African Architecture” and “Art and Life – The Function of Intermedia”. See also his essays “Visible Cities – Invisible Cities” and “Noerdlingen” (Epifanio 1/2005, 2/2005).