SFAI Community Mourns The Passing of Bob Colescott

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

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Colescott working in print media at Crown Point Press

Robert Colescott was outrageous, courageous, prolific, a pioneer, an activist, gentle, and loving. He was an important historical figure in the world of painting in the shifts from Modernism to Postmodernism from the late 20th Century to the present. In 1997, the entire American pavilion at the Venice Bienale was dedicated to Colescott’s work, an unprecedented yet merited honor.

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Master of Ceremonies, Leon Dockery, remembered Robert Colescott as a teacher and mentor.

Remembering Colescott’s life and years on the faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, colleagues, art world friends and family gathered in the auditorium on December 2, to pay homage to one of the Bay Area’s most successful and renown artists. I knew Bob in the seventies when we both taught there. Memories of his warm and unassuming personality stand out in the context of the SFAI style of teaching with tough love, and the big egos and often macho characters of that epoch. Master of Ceremonies, Leon Dockery, recalled the years of 1979-83 when Colescott was his faithful mentor. “He was not narcissistic. He genuinely cared about the well-being of his students.” Colescott’s son, Dennett, described his father as a true humanitarian, and a lover. “He taught me to communicate and get along with people. He always kissed warmly. There was never blame or judgment.”

Born in 1925, the challenges of his family and his times were major influences on Robert Colescott’s life journey and the form and content of his art. His father was a black jazz musician and his mother a pianist. To create a more nurturing environment for their family, they moved from New Orleans (where his father had famously played on Lake Ponchartrain with Louis Armstrong) to Oakland, where his father then worked as a Pullman Porter and his mother taught school.

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Colescott’s Atom Bomb: The impact of war recurred in his painting over the years.

Dennett Colescott shared details of his father’s life. At age seventeen, just out of school, Colescott joined the army. His company was one of the first to cross the Rhine in WWII, an experience that he never wished to discuss. Yet his art revealed that his experience in the army as well as the history of art, social politics, and jazz were all influential and they continued to appear in one way or another in his painting.

Dennett recalled incidents as a boy, abroad with his father. Robert Colescott had received an appointment as Professor of Art at American University in Cairo. At four years of age Dennett rode a donkey on the sands of Egypt, watching his parents disappear ahead, into the desert on their horses. Soon, the urgent installation of anti-aircraft guns was seen around Cairo in anticipation of the “Six Day War” with Israel. The Colescott family raced to catch the last ship sailing out of Cairo, and managed to board as the gangplank was pulling up.

Robert Colescott’s life was greatly influenced by experiences in Europe and especially, France. After receiving his BA in art from UC Berkeley, Colescott made his first and most significant trip to Paris where he studied with Fernand Leger. His commitment to figurative and narrative painting was sealed later in the experience of viewing Egyptian historical painting. He later returned to Berkeley for his graduate degree.

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Carlos Villa and Jeremy Morgan remembered Bob Colescott with affection.

Colescott taught at American University in both Cairo and Paris, then in New York and on to San Francisco. His last appointment was at the University of Arizona in Tucson. On Robert’s passing, Carlos Villa offered, “He wasn’t loved enough.” Yes, he was under-appreciated at the time and he might have stayed in the Bay Area if local art programs had foreseen his importance and made the effort to keep him with us.

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Robert Colescott’s Venus

Sculptor, Richard Berger, recalling the years Colescott was at SFAI, said, “He was an outsider.” Yes, I was too, and identified with his marginalization. But Berger’s point was not about being black, (nor anything about the role of women or such budding issues as feminism at SFAI). In the seventies, in spite of the success of Bay Area Funk and Bay Area Figurative painting, a battle for the legitimacy of postmodern style and values was played out in new and part-time appointments to the faculty, in the exhibition spaces and guest artists that traveled through SFAI. There was still a pretty tight fraternity of expressionist guys, with many modernist notions on the limitations of media, and unease with the figurative, narrative and political. As Berger himself confessed, “His work made people squirm.” Many of Colescott’s colleagues only began to take his work seriously as they started to see his in-your-face imagery in their own faculty shows, and soon after, in significant galleries and museums across the country.

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Colescott appropriated Van Gogh in Eat Dem Taters

Ultimately, Colescott’s paintings have been collected by such prestigious museums as the Corcoran, the Hirshhorn and the Whitney among many others. From the sixties and seventies to the present, his material has been groundbreaking: bawdy, raucus, aggressive, funny, satirical, brightly colored, and deadly serious in portrayal of our fears of the mixed racial experience. Berger described it as “between pratfall and chaos.” Dewey Crumpler spoke of Colescott as “trickster and beast-slayer”, ascending to the house of the gods through the clever, ingenious and original new path he forged. Kim Anno credited Colescott with opening a path for other black artists who have dared to burlesque or critique their own culture, and to speak of race and sex. His paint quality and compositions have always appealed to my love of rich painterly surfaces, full energetic shapes and movements, and brilliant irreverent color.

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Colescott burlesqued the inflated critique of art history in the “Mocumentary” he created to painstakingly examine details of his own appropriated history painting Liberty Leading the People.

Noted historian and curator Peter Selz called Colescott’s exhibition at the 47th Venice Bienale “an artworld event like the election of Barak Obama. He was perhaps the most important figurative painter of his generation.” Selz and art historian Jarrett Earnest examined Colescott’s appropriated history paintings, in which major moments of history, depicted by historic painters are repainted in Colescott’s unique style, inserting black figures for many of the white figures. George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware is important, of course, for highlighting our failed documentation of blacks in the formation of the United States. Colescott applies the same approach to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, van Eyck’s Arnofini Wedding and Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, inserting the question of blacks into the political history of the western world and black artists into the history of art. Earnest concluded his performance/lecture with Colescott’s film, Dulacrow’s Masterwork: A Mocumentary Film, in which the artist as art historian painstakingly analyzes the oeuvre of the imaginary Dulacrow, and his masterwork Liberty Leading the People, with exagerated seriousness and wry humor.

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Ann Brodsky and Tony Williams recalled the impact of their recent retrospective presentation of Colescott’s work at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco

Ann Brodsky and Tony Williams, who presented Troubled Goods: Robert Colescott, A Ten Year Survey at the Meridian Gallery in 2007 in San Francisco, recalled the importance of this exhibition. Curated by Peter Selz, the work reflected Colescott’s direction since the Venice Bienale and what were to be his final years of painting. All the sociopolitical concerns that drove his subject matter continued to appear, and the surfaces were as lush as ever. Yet his last work became increasingly abstract and something in the compositions that were once boldly frontal, with a jigsaw of fun shapes, seemed to become more diagonal and employ more figure/ground dynamic. The show traveled to Fountain Gallery in Portland, Prescott College in Arizona and then to sites in the South, where Brodsky characterizes the impact as potent. At the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, earlier history paintings were added to the exhibition, making the retrospective a large and memorable acknowledgment of Colescott’s contributions the ongoing saga of race relations. He demanded attention to an injustice with good humor, bravery and through media that had long ignored certain truths.

Robert Colescott died this year as a Professor Emeritus from the University of Arizona and an historical artist of international caliber. He suffered for more than two years with increased debilitation from an induced form of Parkinson’s disease, possibly caused by an accidental mixing of incompatible medications. His wife, siblings and five sons survive him. Ultimately he is to be laid to rest in the historic P√©re Lachaise Cemetery in his beloved Paris, with many of the heroic figures of France: a well-deserved recognition of his importance.

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