Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White, 1980, Acrylic on Canvas, 84 x 72 inches Credit: © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Robert Colescott, Shirley Temple Black, Bill Robinson White, 1980, acrylic on canvas, Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon. Collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer, © 1980 Robert Colescott, L2000.5.3

A couple of couches and a video player have been set up in the little balcony lobby outside the fourth floor exhibition hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. If you plop down there for a few minutes before entering the galleries to see “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” a retrospective spanning five decades of the late artist’s work, you’ll see Colescott making mincemeat of art critics, art history, and anyone who presumes to explain, describe, assess, or pontificate about art.

So I should probably stop right here and get to the point about this show, which was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati: it’s thoroughly offensive.  

As Colescott, who died in 2009, would have intended.

It’s also both painterly and cartoonish, full of raucous color and raunchy humor, satirical, erudite, and deadly serious. Eye candy, but not for kids.  

Think bare-bottomed, flag-waving beauty queens and iconic images from the pages of art history, repopulated with characters from a minstrel show. Tom with a hard-on for Huck.

You won’t want to miss it.

“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” 
Through 5/29, daily 10 AM-5 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Randolph, chicagocultural, free.
Daniel Schulman, DCASE Director of Visual Arts, Gallery Talk
Wed 2/16, 12:15 PM
“It’s the satire that kills the serpent, you know . . . ”: Robert Colescott and the Art of Racial Irony
A virtual conversation with Duke University’s Richard J. Powell, School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Jefferson Pinder, and University of Chicago’s Tina Post, Thu 2/17, 7 PM, free (ASL interpretation provided).

Colescott was a painter, but in 1976 he wrote, produced, and starred in Dulacrow’s Masterwork: A Mockumentary Film, which is what’s running on that lobby video screen. A send-up purporting to expose the hidden origin of Eugène Delacroix’s famous 19th-century painting Liberty Leading the People, it runs about 40 minutes and is worth sitting through. But my guess is you won’t, at least not on arrival, because from that lobby you can see directly into the gallery where Colescott’s popsicle-hued, nearly life-size canvases are beckoning.

As in the Western art canon (a critique of which is the point), there are a whole lot of unclothed women here. Walk in and you’ll be confronted with Colescott’s versions of the Judgement of Paris and the Three Graces—either of which can stop you in your tracks. But take a right and keep going: the exhibition spans work from the late 1940s to 2002, and it’s hung in generally chronological order. If you start in the far-right gallery, you’ll see the young artist working his way through various styles, including abstraction, before he went to Paris in 1949 to study with Fernand Léger and began to hone in on something more meaningful to the public.    

Eventually, Colescott’s own uniquely American experience would become central to his work. He was born in 1925, to parents of mixed racial heritage who’d moved from the New Orleans area to California, where they identified as white. Colescott fought in World War II, and then attended college, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art from UC Berkeley. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, after spending time as an artist in residence and visiting professor in Egypt, that he began to identify publicly as Black. His older brother, Warrington Colescott Jr., an accomplished printmaker and longtime professor at the University of Wisconsin, never did, and this difference apparently caused a permanent rupture in their relationship.  

By the 1970s, Robert Colescott had taken the representation of Black people in history and culture as his major subject, fearlessly appropriating and subverting sentimental fictions like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom (in Colescott’s hands, a pedophile), and riffing on the Western art canon with parodies of famous paintings that include blackface caricatures. In one of the most effective of these cultural appropriations—a lushly painted 1980 version of a movie still, Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White—the racial identities of the two characters are simply reversed.  

In the 1980s, Colescott, who had five wives and six marriages (one a repeat), turned, in part, to more autobiographical subject matter. The six large paintings spread across the main wall of the central gallery depict the artist himself, at work or struggling to work, often distracted by one or another pair of breasts or buttocks, mostly pink or peachy. But it was never only about him (even in those images). Other work from that decade includes, for example, the chaotic School Days, in which a student levels the barrel of a gun directly at the viewer while a skull-faced figure of Justice balances the life of a Black boy against a pile of cash, and a woman, likely a mother, mourns over the body of a young man who’s taken a bullet to the heart.

Colescott represented America in the 1997 Venice Biennale, the first Black American to solo at the U.S. pavilion. But his fierce, bullet-to-the-heart satire also brought him a lifetime of criticism from every quarter, including African Americans. Now, as Lowery Stokes Sims, who curated this exhibit with Matthew Weseley, has pointed out, Colescott is recognized as a forerunner to artists like Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, and Kehinde Wiley. In the richly illustrated exhibit catalog Sims and Raphaela Platow edited, Sims notes that “his career has never been more relevant than at this present moment in time.”