An African-American Colors His Canvas With Social Insight

Painter Robert Colescott is the first black to represent the US at the Venice Biennale

The funny, irreverent, intensely hued canvases of internationally noted African-American painter Robert Colescott are in the permanent collections of nearly every major world and American museum, including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, and the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His rsum might well be weighed as read.

In spring 1996, Mr. Colescott became the first black artist selected to represent the United States at the prestigious Venice Biennale art competition, scheduled to take place in Italy this June.

Colescott beat out 17 applicants to snare the honor. He is also the first painter to capture the American slot since Jasper Johns was selected in 1988 - a fact that speaks to a Biennale known for favoring very avant-garde, nontraditional mediums over conventional canvas painting.

Speaking from his home and studio in Tucson, Ariz., the silver-haired Colescott is thrilled.

"I was not chosen because I am a black artist - that is a fact that has an inevitable bearing on my art, my life, how I see the world - but I would hope that I was chosen on the quality of the work," he says.

Venice Biennale's tradition

Now 101 years old, the Venice Biennale invites representatives from 27 countries and world regions to display the best of their art.

Every other year, each country's most respected arts professionals evaluate proposals, mount an exhibition of entries from June to October, and then select a grand-prize winner.

This undisputed plum for Colescott is not without its blemishes. In more than 100 years of the Biennale's existence, a black artist has never been chosen to represent the US - despite the longtime presence of gifted black artists like Colescott, sculptor Martin Puryear, and assemblagist Betye Saar.

One thing is certain: Colescott was definitely not chosen because he makes polite or emotionally neutral mainstream art. His large figurative works, built from raw paint quickly worked in deep, almost assaultive colors, are painted in a caricaturish, biting style and have been likened (somewhat incorrectly) to Pop Art. This may be because the artist's buxom blondes, his nondescript, multiethnic heroes, and their sidekicks look cartoonish and sport comic-strip bubbles over their heads spelling out loaded non sequiturs in street slang like "No mo' buffalo."

It looks Pop-like, but Colescott's work is more accurately aligned with the roots of German Expressionism, that school of art appropriating crude, often graphic common culture to take a visceral punch at human foibles and social ills.

And deliver a punch Colescott does, at race, sexuality, at Shakespeare's pigeon-holing of dark-skinned archetypes like Othello and Cleopatra, at history's whitewashing of written record, at the superficial presumptions that underlie our favorite role myths from Cinderella to George Washington.

Path to painting

Colescott was born in Berkeley, Calif., to an artistic family that encouraged him in the unlikely pursuit of art at a time when blacks were fortunate to get menial jobs.

The artist's father was a classical violinist who resorted to waiting tables. Colescott got a BA and an MA from the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1949 went off to study with noted modernist Fernand Lger in Paris.

Through the 1960s, Colescott lived between Paris and Cairo, slowly molding the wry, mordant work that won him this Biennale honor. Today Colescott is represented by some of the most blue-chip international galleries, and is regent's professor of painting at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Colescott's American pavilion at the 1997 Biennale will be organized by Mimi Roberts, former curator at the San Jose Museum and independent arts professional now working out of Santa Fe, N.M.

The Biennale is sure to include Colescott classics like "Cinderella Meets the Prince" (1994), in which the artist takes on both gender and racial stereotypes with a voluptuous Cinderella sitting at a lounge gawking at a dark-skinned prince wearing a white face.

The tendency has been to evaluate and interpret Colescott canvases mainly in terms of their racial content, but Ms. Roberts has said that the Biennale show will cull 24 works from the last decade that stress Colescott the artist, not the racial commentator.

Whatever else is said, most agree Colescott's visual satires are deftly painted, emotionally charged, and open-ended, forcing viewers via humor and confrontation to form (and check) their own conclusions.

We'll have to wait until next month to see just what Biennale judges conclude.

Colescott delivers a punch at race, sexuality, at history's whitewashing of written record, at the superficial presumptions that underlie our favorite role myths from Cinderella to George Washington.

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