Artist Provocateur

Robert Colescott, painter: 1925-2009

Tucson's most critically acclaimed artist was laid to rest in Sierra Vista last weekend.

Internationally known for explosive paintings that audaciously examined racial stereotypes, Robert Colescott, 83, died at his home on June 4. He had been in declining health for several years, said painter Alfred Quiroz, his friend and former student.

In 1997, Colescott became the first African American chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, the international art fair, and the first U.S. painter selected since Jasper Johns in 1988. But in his adopted hometown, he was almost unknown.

"I don't have any profile in Tucson, and I like it that way," he told the Tucson Weekly in 1997, weeks before he was to head to Venice and command the attention of art cognoscenti from around the world. "The local paper carrying me makes me a little queasy."

Colescott arrived in the Old Pueblo in 1983 to teach at the UA as a visiting art professor, and he returned in 1985 as a full-fledged professor with tenure. He was elevated to regents' professor in 1990. He retired in 1995, and lived on five peaceful desert acres on the southwest side until illness forced a move into midtown, Quiroz said.

He was already 58 when he first arrived in Tucson, an "art star, getting publicity all over the country," Quiroz said. "He had already been on the cover of Artforum."

The painter first rocketed to fame in 1975 with a series of jazzily painted art-history satires. Colescott reworked about a dozen famous paintings, converting them from icons of Western culture to lampoons of its worst racial tropes. His "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware" was helmed by the black scientist instead of the father of our country; crewing the boat were black caricatures drawn from popular culture, like Aunt Jemima and minstrels in blackface.

In "Eat Dem Taters," he appropriated Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters," replacing Van Gogh's glum peasants with happy-go-lucky black slaves. The daredevil paintings were laugh-out-loud funny and deadly serious.

"He was parodying everybody," Quiroz said. "He was satirical toward blacks, whites, everyone. His art was very funny."

Not everyone got the joke. Sometimes, viewers interpreted the paintings as embracing stereotypes that were too painful to be amusing. One time, Quiroz said, a woman at a gallery took offense at Colescott's take of the biblical story of Susannah and the elders. In the Bible, the aged Peeping Toms leer at her in her bath, but Colescott put his Susannah in the shower. Quiroz laughed out loud at the update, and the woman glared at him. "Do you think rape is funny?" she demanded.

Colescott was born in Oakland in 1925, the child of classically trained musicians who had fled to California from New Orleans "to get away from segregation," Colescott told me in 1997. Even so, the Golden State didn't offer his parents musical opportunities, and his violinist father made his living as a porter for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

"My dad was a poor working stiff," Colescott said. "He worked on the railroad in the dining car for 41 years. But he was very musical."

The Army was Colescott's ticket to college. He served in Europe during World War II, and at war's end got an art degree at the University of California at Berkeley on the GI Bill. He had passed through Paris during the war years and returned to study with Fernand Léger, a leading French cubist. The young painter was trying out abstraction, the cutting-edge style of the postwar years, but Léger helped push Colescott toward figuration.

"I brought him some geometric abstractions—he was not into abstraction anymore. He was very helpful. He got me to think more about the figure as a subject matter," Colescott remembered.

Once Colescott switched to figurative art, he merged his love of thick pigment, wild colors, jumpy lines and chaotic composition with outrageous social commentary. He credited a sabbatical year in Cairo, in 1964, with transforming his art yet again. In Africa, he was liberated from "the limitations of European art," he told the Los Angeles Times; he began to "draw on other sources. Race became part of my subject matter. It was the most crucial year of my life."

By the 1970s, when he began showing in New York, high-art tastes were shifting. Abstract "painting and sculpture had come to the end of the line, and expressive, narrative painting was the next step out the door. For me to show figurative work, it was the right time."

He nearly always held teaching jobs, first in the Seattle public schools and then at multiple universities, including Portland State University, the American University in Cairo, Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute.

At the UA, Colescott mentored Quiroz as a grad student. No other professors wanted to take on a Mexican-American artist intent on painting about racial injustices in U.S. history, Quiroz said. "We always discussed racial issues, the subtlety of racism."

After Quiroz joined the faculty, the two of them were the only minority professors. Colescott enlisted him in a seriocomic mini-protest when they had their work relegated to a back room—Colescott called it the "jungle room"—at the annual faculty show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. They carried "tiki mugs"—brown mugs decorated with Easter Island-type gods—to the opening to protest the segregation of their work, Quiroz said.

Colescott's Biennale show didn't come home to roost in Tucson until late 1998, a year and a half after it wowed the world in Venice. Exhibited at the UA museum, it was his first and only big show in town. In reviewing the 17 large acrylics on canvas, I wrote, "Colescott's work on a visceral level is a joyful, jazzy explosion of color, a delirious amalgam of thick paint and edgy lines; on the cerebral level, it's an attack on racism and all its works by an artist provocateur."

Robert Colescott is survived by his wife, Jandava Cattron, five sons from four previous marriages, and one grandson. His youngest son, Cooper, 22, lives in Tucson.