A raucous retrospective at the New Museum, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott promises to be fun for virtually everyone who sees it, though some are plagued by hunches that they shouldn’t. For more than three decades, until he was slowed down to the two-thousanders by health problems – he died in 2009 at the age of eighty-three – the impetuous figurative painter danced over minefields of racist and sexual provocations, celebrating libertine romance and cannibalization of canonical art history as an appreciative parody. He was born in California to musicians from New Orleans. Sure, his mother and possibly his father, who worked as a railroad porter, had enslaved ancestors, but both – and Colescott – could pass for white. As Matthew Weseley, the show’s co-curator with Lowery Stokes Sims, recounts in the magnificent catalogue, Colescott’s mother insisted on the ruse he employed. The gentle modernity of his early works sampled in the Neues Museum gives no indication of the contrary.
This changed explosively when Colescott turned forty during a stay in Egypt between 1964 and 1967 where he absorbed ancient and new African cultures. From that epiphanic moment, he went all-in on the complexities of his racial identity. Being an American black man, whatever else he was, became the dominant conceit – and permissiveness – of his later art, which he imbued with perhaps rueful, palpably vengeful irony for the rest of his life. In sparing himself a spectacle of cartoonish taunts, he offered no detachment, much less an escape from the fault lines of race in American democracy. As a bonus, he was freed to burlesque with incredible energy motifs from the Western art of the past that he had always revered.
In the mood to get shaken up? Consider Eat Dem Taters (1975), an all-black reimagining of van Gogh’s early tableau of impoverished Dutch peasants sharing a frugal meal, The Potato Eaters (1885), with an aura of minstrels. How could Colescott – or anyone really – have expected to get away with it, or, of the same year, a race-shifting imitation of Emanuel Leutze’s nationalistic maroon Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851)? A bespectacled George Washington Carver, the pioneering botanist, represents the nation-founding hero of the Revolutionary War. A happy fisherman at the bow of the boat reels in a catch. A banjo player strums in the stern.
Not hurt enough yet? Throw in “A Winning Combination” (1974), in which a cheeky white majorette backed by a rippling stars and stripes is nude from the waist down. Add Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder (1979), a self-portrait of the artist distracted by an undressing white model while repainting Matisse’s hedonistic 1910 masterpiece Dance. Still with me? How about The Judgment of Paris (1984), in which a clothed black protagonist is lasciviously vamped by a nude white Venus, to the displeasure of white and black rival goddesses? Instead of angry or sad criticism of racial stereotypes and associated taboos, Colescott shot to the moon with them.
A lot happens in these images, starting with their execution, fast and loose, juicy expressionist and through a blazing palette that extends to rich pinks and magentas and thundering blues. Along the way, Colescott plunders the distinctive hues of Willem de Kooning’s iconic Woman I (1951) with I Gets a Thrill, Too, When I Sees De Koo (1978), which features the face of a grinning black woman wearing a headscarf replaces that of the Dutchman’s generic white woman. (The title satirized a previous year’s reimagining of de Kooning, pop artist Mel Ramos’ “I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill.”) Colescott shrugged off the abstract and conceptual fads of the late ’60s and early ’70s. as off-flavor or, shall we say, anti-flavor secures marginal status in the mainstream art world. As if in sweet revenge, his atavistic style and damn nerve began influencing younger artists from all backgrounds in the late ’70s, and continue to do so to this day. Without the spur of his groundbreaking audacity, it’s hard to imagine the recent and enduring triumphs of fearlessly satirical artists Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker, among others.
Colescott’s election to represent the United States at the 1997 Venice Biennale heralded a general capitulation to his inescapable power, though most of America’s upper-class institutions have yet to capitulate. The presentation of “Art and Race Matters” at the New Museum is a previously unplanned addition to a tour that debuted in Cincinnati and was scheduled to end in Chicago after Portland and Sarasota. Roberta Smith, who reviewed the show in the Timesrightly declared the implied squeamishness a disgrace to our great New York museums, whose lip service to diversity characteristically shuns what is not respectably theorized and perhaps all too mischievously disrespectful.
As free roaming in life as he was on screen, Colescott married six times, twice to the same woman, whom he accordingly divorced twice while studying and then teaching at a number of schools and colleges on the West Coast and Southwest. After military service in the army, he attended a class in Paris taught by Fernand Léger and received a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1951. Learning, wit and wisdom characterize a lively selection of his occasional writings in the catalogue, in which he proves himself to be the most astute critic. His last position before retiring in 1995 was a full professorship at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Can anything be said against Colescott’s unbridled boldness? If you want – I’m open to discussion for my part – but resistance isn’t easy when you’re feeling blown away like a sensitized pinball machine in rooms full of the artist’s most aggressive creations. The effect is comical in a key that transcends the outrageous. Outrageous? metaary? It reminds me of the liberating shock of Mel Brooks’ stunning 1967 film The Producers, which happened to coincide with the start of Colescott’s painterly uprising. He undeniably rang liberty while crushing American injustices and insulting compensatory inhibitions—or, more accurately, at a volume to wake the dead.
“Women at War” amazed at the Fridman Gallery. I wish everyone could see it. The exhibition brings together drawings, photographs, paintings, a print and video installations by a dozen excellent Ukrainian artists, none of whom I know of. All are women, many of them young. Several come from the devastated Donbass region. Two remain in Ukraine. Others have only recently left the country. Apart from one historical piece – a 1963 linocut portrait of nationalist poet Ivan Svitlychny by Alla Horska, an artist and activist allegedly assassinated by the KGB in 1970 – all show, dated after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, examples of ennobled steel Discipline dramas of suffering and defiance.
An oversized oil painting that Lesia Khomenko created in March this year, “Max in the Army”, tenderly shows the partner she had to leave behind on her flight first to Poland and then to the USA. He looks both determined and terribly vulnerable, and is lovable. She loves him. To see three beautiful watercolors of forest landscapes by Anna Scherbyna — one painted a year from 2016 to 2018, almost subtly depicting ruins in the Donbas, an airport, and two hospitals — you have to lift little drab curtains. Olia Fedorova’s photo “Defense” (2017) shows a line of white anti-tank obstacles or “hedgehogs” lined up along a snowy slope. They are made of paper, which betrays both a hunch of futility – premature, as it has impressively proved – and a lion-hearted will.
These are hardened creators whose morals should humble those of us comfortably distant from a cataclysm that adapts repertoires of international art to the lived truths of a shattered, actual place. Some disturb. The most disturbing of Dana Kavelina are intentionally crude pencil drawings executed on crumpled white paper punctuated by blood-red tears inside. Some of them allude to rape. A sketch of a woman using a fetus’s own umbilical cord to hang it is titled Woman Kills the Enemy’s Son (2019). A climax image hints at the birth of an assault rifle.
But the versatile Kavelina, a rising star in her late twenties, has also created an elegiac, desperately moving video projection. The nearly twenty-one-minute widescreen film “Letter to a Turtledove” (2020) assembles archive footage of miners in the Donbass with expressive female faces and hypnotically stylized, almost meditative fire explosions. The work engulfs the viewer in a sort of visual minor cadence that rings out the heart and soul of a nation that has become aware of itself – past, present, unknown future – under unspeakable conditions. Its beauty becomes a Ukrainian weapon as disturbing, if not as practical, as a donated howitzer.
Nothing in the show is cautionary or sentimental, just hard-won, such as a series of drawings by Alevtina Kakhidze beginning in 2014, recounting her contact with her mother in the occupied Donetsk region. The mother died of a heart attack in 2019 while crossing the border to secure a Ukrainian state pension. Reminiscent in spirit to Kavelina’s video, a series of inkjet prints by Yevgenia Belorusets, Victories of the Defeated (2014-17), seeks melancholy solace in nocturnal or misty views of laborers toiling at various tasks in bleak circumstances. The subjects could be anyone, even ourselves, if our existence involved an endless state of exception.
The show is elegantly and, above all, eloquently installed by Monika Fabijanska, an independent art historian and avowed feminist curator, who is doing a cathartic service to Ukraine and to any of us who will listen. ♦
In an earlier version of the article, Monika Fabijanska’s country of origin was incorrectly stated.