How appropriate are the fine arts as a medium for telling a joke? I’m not referring to wit, irony, or, for that matter, a general sense of humor—all of which have well served artists through the ages. Rather, I’m referring to the setup and punch line, a wisecrack or one-liner meant to point up or punctuate paradox and hypocrisy. Immediacy is an inherent part of joke-telling, which is why even the drollest New Yorker cartoon or a brilliant stand-up comedy routine appears limited in scope when revisited. We can appreciate the craft and cleverness that shaped the joke, but its initial impact, the laughter and surprise, has been blunted. There are exceptions, though once one begins to enumerate them—Juvenal, maybe; Daumier, much of the time; Wodehouse, absolutely—you can’t help but notice how truly exceptional they are. 

The best-known paintings of Robert Colescott (1925–2009), whose oeuvre is the subject of “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” are jokes. Pretty blunt jokes, to be honest, and kind of funny, even if they are predicated on matters of some consequence. The centerpiece of the New Museum show is George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from An American History Book (1975), a jape upon the famed painting by Emanuel Leutze. The original canvas, through its sheer and persistent iconicity, has proved a lumbering target for any number of parodists. Colescott’s version upends the original by replacing General Washington and his troops with the renowned agriculturist and inventor as well as an array of other African-American figures. And not just any figures, but stereotypes culled from popular culture. Writing in the catalogue, Matthew Weseley, the co-curator of the exhibition along with Lowery Stokes Sims, enumerates them: a man swilling moonshine, a shoeshine boy, a mammy.

Colescott, Eat Dem Taters, 1975, acrylic on canvas, Collection Rosenblum Family. © 2022 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / ARS. Photo: Adam Reich. 

Colescott’s riff on Leutze is a pointed jab at how unquestioning patriotism and national myth making can paper over historical fact. Hanging across the way at the New Museum is Eat Dem Taters (1975), a purposefully grotesque riff on Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters in which the Dutch peasants are supplanted by a grinning array of cartoonish black folk. Nearby is Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White (1980), a reimagining of a famous scene from the 1938 film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Toward the end of “Art and Race,” viewers come across a small picture—an atypical format for Colescott, who preferred sizable canvases—in which a black woman has been inserted within an image appropriated from the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. How tenable was the now-fashionable notion of “representation”—that is to say, the appearance of this or that marginalized people in a given context—back in the day? Certainly, it was a topic that dogged Colescott throughout his life.

Colescott was one of two sons born to Warrington and Lydia Hutton Colescott. Though the couple met in New Orleans, they moved to Oakland, California, because of Warrington’s job with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Both parents were avid, accomplished musicians, and, early on, Colescott evinced an interest in theater and music, particularly the drums. A subsequent pull toward the visual arts was prompted by Sargent Claude Johnson, a family friend and sculptor of considerable gifts. After serving in the military from 1942 to 1945, wherein a pivotal amount of time was spent in Paris, Colescott pursued a degree in art at the University of California, Berkeley. He returned to France upon graduating and continued his studies with Fernand Léger. Notwithstanding Léger’s role in the advent of abstraction, he told the young American to forget about it. “Abstraction,” Colescott was told, “didn’t communicate ideas to people.”

The vagaries of race were vital to Colescott’s art; they were also a matter of consternation during his lifetime. Both Colescott and his older brother Warrington were encouraged by their mixed-race parents to pass as white. It wasn’t until he was well into his forties that Colescott publicly identified as African-American. Why he chose to do so at that moment may be attributable to the times—this was the 1960s, after all—or, as some conjecture, a transformative trip to Egypt. Whatever the case, Colescott is forever an artist defined by conflicting impulses. He enjoyed the attention that came with George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware but rued his subsequent fame as the painter of “old masters in black face.” Resignation to life’s absurdities likely accounts for the peculiar lack of rancor in an oeuvre that doesn’t exactly stint on scabrous imagery. For all its coloristic vibrancy and goofy vigor, Colescott’s art is more elegiac than is, at first, discernible. The upshot of “Art and Race Matters” may be that even the most pungent of jokes has a way of turning back in on itself.

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