Regents' Professor Emeritus Robert H. Colescott Dies at 83

Robert H. Colescott, a UA Regents' Professor emeritus known around the world as one of the most important and critical painters of his generation, has died.
July 3, 2009
Robert Colescott used acrylic on canvas for his "Auvers-sur-Oise (Crow in the Wheat Field)," which was painted in 1981. (Photo courtesy of the Gift of the Women's Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)
Robert Colescott used acrylic on canvas for his "Auvers-sur-Oise (Crow in the Wheat Field)," which was painted in 1981. (Photo courtesy of the Gift of the Women's Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)
Robert H. Colescott (Photo courtesy of Kravets/Wehby Gallery, New York)
Robert H. Colescott (Photo courtesy of Kravets/Wehby Gallery, New York)
The work of Robert H. Colescott always had an air of satire and wit, yet he was creating art around highly sensitive social and political issues. (Photo courtesy of Kravets/Wehby Gallery, New York)
The work of Robert H. Colescott always had an air of satire and wit, yet he was creating art around highly sensitive social and political issues. (Photo courtesy of Kravets/Wehby Gallery, New York)

Robert H. Colescott, an internationally known University of Arizona emeritus professor and expressionist figurative artist whose paintings portrayed the social and political conflicts in history and contemporary times, has died.

Colescott, a Regents' Professor emeritus at the UA School of Art, died last month in Tucson at the age of 83 after a long struggle with Parkinsonian Syndrome.

His work – which dealt with issues related to miscegenation and mixed race identity, among other racial issues, as well as gender, sex and sexuality, history and politics – has often been described as provocative and progressive, always containing a bit of satire, joviality and wit.

His friends and colleagues have said Colescott attempted to force viewers to consider and reflect upon the oft-ignored controversies and complexities in life through elaborate layering of imagery and stories of hierarchy and hegemony, both of the past and contemporary times.

"There is always a depth that invites reflection and promotes the exchange of wisdom," said Jandava Cattron, Colescott's wife, adding that while paintings are inanimate objects, "people who have lived with his work are still learning new things from it."

The New York Times, The Washington Post and are among the publications that have written about the death of Colescott, who has long been revered as one of the most important American painters of his time. Public memorial services to honor his memory are being planned by family and supporters in San Francisco, New York and Tucson.

Colescott composed and illustrated his paintings with striking colors and depictions often drawn blatantly from racial and sexual stereotypes in the form of caricatured images, at times also satirizing historic figures, such as George Washington, and the work of classically revered artists, such as Vincent van Gogh.

He was unafraid of making people uncomfortable and, in a way, his work served that exact purpose by exposing taboo subjects in the hopes of a visceral reaction. 

"I first found his work lumpy and distorted and didn't understand it," said Mikelle Smith Omari-Tunkara, a UA School of Arts professor in the area of theory, method and the history of African and Diaspora arts.

"But when he explained what he was doing, I thought it was a cool way to critique what was going on in our society," said Omari-Tunkara, noting that she invited Colescott to speak with her students on numerous occasions.

"He wasn't malevolent. He said this is how things are, they need to be different, they need to be better," she added. "I think he used his work as text, and as poignant critiques. I think he was a genius and ahead of his time."

In fact, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson honored Colescott and five others earlier this year with its 2009 "Local Genius" award. The award recognizes the "economic, social, and cultural value of innovative thinkers in the fabric of our daily lives."

Colescott was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1925 to a pianist and a classically trained violinist, and his parents eventually moved the family to New Orleans. As a child, Colescott began playing the drums and also painting having seen Diego Rivera paint frescoes at the San Francisco World's Fair.

He went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley – the first in 1949 and the second in 1952. During his undergraduate years he also studied in Paris under Fernand Léger, a renowned French painter and printmaker.

Throughout his career, Colescott received numerous honors and awards, including being chosen as a resident artist at the Tamarind Institute; being honored during "Robert Colescott Day" in Houston on Dec. 2, 1988; receiving a Roswell Foundation artist's residency; earning numerous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; receiving a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant; and being asked to be the first in residence while studying Egyptian contemporary art at the American Research Center in Egypt.

Throughout his professional career, Colescott participated in dozens of solo and group exhibitions across the United States and in Canada, Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere. By that point, Colescott had already mastered his signature style, which he continued to produce, even during his illness.

He arrived at the UA in 1983 as a visiting professor of art, having already taught at institutions in California, Oregon, in Paris and in Cairo, Egypt.

It was then that Alfred Quiroz, a UA graduate student at the time, met Colescott and asked that he serve on his graduate committee. Quiroz was struggling to put his committee together because he could not find faculty willing to support his art, which was racially and politically charged like Colescott's.

"It was verification of what I was doing. He provided that verification and instructed me to continue," Quiroz, now a UA art professor, said, adding that Colescott became his mentor.

"We both had viewpoints of how we've been treated individually and the subtle forms of racism we've tried to put in our work, but making it more overt," he said.

"The key, though, is that he used humor as a way of getting the viewer to get their defenses down a bit," Quiroz added. "It was a hook, a kind of way to get people to look at Colescott's paintings. They looked frivolous and funny, but there is always a very serious undertone."

In 1985, Colescott was promoted to the rank of professor in the art department, where he remained until 1995. In 1990, he was honored with the title of Regents' Professor, becoming the first in his department to receive the designation.

His great venture came in 1997. That year, Colescott represented the United States in a solo art exhibition at the Venice Biennale, becoming the first African American to represent the nation during the major global biannual show. The following year, he became the first painter to show at the U.S. Pavillion since Jasper Johns in 1988.

"Robert's work has an almost mystical bent that winds around a self-effacing and humorous core," Cattron said. She said Colescott's work and the weight of his contribution is hard to describe; that his paintings must be experienced.

"Just looking at his paintings isn't enough. Just thinking about them isn't enough either. There are reservoirs of meaning," Cattron said.

"It's one of those things you don't tell people about; you just look forward to having the experience, like most good things," she said, adding that his paintings "have the power of call and response acknowledged around the world as legendary in African American musical and oral traditions."

Cattron added that it is this "power of call and response that creates a dynamic exchange - one that can yield insight." Such reverberations, she said, can lead to "continuing echoed responses."

In that regard, Colescott's work will live indefinitely, she said.

"The best audience for Robert's work hasn't even been born yet," Cattron said, nothing that Colescott continued to produce during his last years of life. "It's because we are still living in the throes of the events in world history and American history and in art history that are the recurrent themes in Robert's work."

And his work continues to circulate. 

The Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans, which has hosted Colescott's work on numerous occasion, noted that his "combination of master artistry and incisive social criticism has elevated the artist to the first rank of this country's social commentators." The gallery is showcasing his work in October.

Also, the Meridian Gallery held an exhibition in 2007 titled "Troubled Goods: Robert Colescott, A Ten Year Survey," in San Francisco. The exhibition then traveled to Alabama. And Colescott's work opened the major exhibition "30 Americans" in December in Miami alongside the work of Xaviera Simmons, another internationally known artist.

"He never stopped working, never. He was always working," Cattron said. "This doesn't mean, necessarily, that he was standing in front of the canvas, but painting was an integral part of who he was and, because there are his paintings, we can say that it is a in integral part of who he is."

Omari-Tunkara agreed that Colescott's contribution has long been pervasive, and that it will continue.

"Really, it was great for Tucson that we had someone who was so special living here," she said. "He's left a wonderful legacy for painters and artists of all ages and ethnicities.

Colescott is survived by his wife; his brother, Warrington Colescott Jr. of Wisconsin; five sons; and one grandson.