Robert Colescott Rocks the Boat

By Fitzgerald, Sharon | American Visions, June-July 1997 | Go to article overview

Robert Colescott Rocks the Boat


Fitzgerald, Sharon, American Visions


When the 47th Venice Biennale commences in mid-June, the U.S. pavilion will offer the world's oldest, most Prestigious festival a display of 18 artworks by Robert Colescott. At the last three Biennales, the United States awarded this opportunity for solo exhibition to sculptors. The 71-year-old Colescott is the first painter to represent the United States since Jasper Johns was chosen in 1288, and he is the first African American.

"It is obviously a great honor to be selected. I have that feeling," Colescott says. "I also have a hard time internalizing it in terms of what it means to me. I have gone through so many thing -- ups and downs. This time, when it's all positive, I really don't know how to deal with it. So I just go day by day and try to do things that people ask me to do, if I think it's appropriate."

When asked what message he thinks his art will convey to this international audience, his response is unequivocal "Change is constant."

It has been 22 years since Colescott painted "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook" (1975) and set sail upon a tumultuous sea of artistic notoriety. To the image-conscious mainstream art world, his blackfaced recasting of the 19th-century painting by Emanuel Leutz was a satiric thunderbolt, directed not only at a revered icon of the American Revolution but at the highbrow realm of masterworks. Among the image-conscious, stereotype-sensitive guardians of black art, there was mutinous appreciation, but also respect-yourself concern that Colescott's penchant for tomfoolery veered into treacherous waters.

Hovering at the horizon were unsettling questions about the vision of artists and the dominion of satire. Who is impressed by caricatur -- culture's elite or its disenfranchised? By ousting a symbol of American heroism and replacing it with a cavorting crew of smilin' strummin' and swiggin' minstrels, Colescott had unwittingly unleashed a maelstrom.

"To tell the truth, everybody has liked it and everybody has disliked it," says Colescott. "And those are different people at different times. You get some people who didn't like it at the beginning, and they ended up liking it at the end, and there are some people who liked it in the beginning and didn't like it later on. It has been a crisscrossing and overlapping of people.

"When I first got the idea for that painting, I thought that everybody would get it. I just thought, This is ridiculous@ this is funny. There is a layer about tokenism and another about education, and everybody will get it. It never occurred to me that there would be those who wouldn't get it and who might even take offense at it. I just did it with the assumption that this was going to be my historical painting, my bicentennial statement about American history."

Those who "got it" lauded Colescott's daring double-entendres, his manipulation of images meant to insult and demean. Detractors remained unconvinced that fusing racist images with social commentary could diminish the meanspiritedness of such portraits. Remarkably, the artist's reservations cut both ways. "I never painted them with that in mind, that I was offering somebody salvation or offering somebody something to laugh at or to be sad about or anything," he explains. "I just did it as an expression of myself.

"These works became popular because they challenged you. They challenged you to understand them or get mad -- one of the two. People dealt with that dichotomy, I think, from a very intelligent and responsive platform.

"It [GWC] took on controversial dimensions, which over the long haul is good. That painting has been shown so much. In fact, it has been overexposed. There are a lot of people who don't even know the original painting, `George Washington Crossing the Delaware.' That ain't bad, in a certain funny, backwards way. If some people had their way, they would have burned it up, and it would have never had a chance. …

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