Robert Colescott


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Painter and printmaker. Drawing on the history of art, cartooning, and popular culture, his high-spirited figuration points to African-American experiences. Frenetic, sometimes surrealistic satires include hilarious send-ups of canonical masterpieces. Les Demoiselles d'Alabama (Greenville County [South Carolina] Museum of Art, 1985] spoofs Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (Museum of Modern Art, 1907), which famously mined African sculpture as an aesthetic source for monumental Western painting. Colescott replaces three of the five figures with black female nudes, while reinterpreting as a white woman the Picasso figure who presents an African masklike face. As here, Colescott characteristically employed bright colors, compressed space, intricate patterning, and distorted drawing. Born in Oakland, Robert Hutton Colescott graduated from the nearby University of California at Berkeley in 1949. After additional training with Fernand Léger in Paris, he earned a master's degree from Berkeley in 1952. During the late 1950s and 1960s, he taught in Portland, spent a year in Egypt, and returned to Paris. His early narratives, affected by pop art and funk art, moved toward pointed social critique around 1970, after he had returned to California. Since the 1980s, while remaining centered on issues of race, his vision broadened as he addressed increasingly complex social considerations. His imagery became less explicit, while his style moved toward increased fluidity. In the early 1980s he moved permanently to Tucson, where he taught at the University of Arizona until his retirement in 1996. In 1997 he became the first African American to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.

Primarily a printmaker known particularly for technically accomplished intaglios, his brother Warrington Colescott (1921– ) employs animated figurative imagery in a more whimsical, less confrontational narrative mode. Although his commentaries on American history and society often originate in a critical point of view, they feature dry wit and imaginative interpretation. Also born in Oakland and preceding his brother to Berkeley, Warrington Wickham Colescott graduated in 1942. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1942 until 1946, he earned a master's degree at Berkeley in 1947, then pursued additional training in Paris and London. In 1949 he joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he remained throughout his career. Since retiring in 1986, he has continued to reside in the area. In 1971 he married Frances Myers (1938– ), also a printmaker. Born in Racine, she graduated from the University of Wisconsin, where she also earned an MFA degree in 1965 and has taught since 1988.

Subjects: Art.

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