Visual Arts

Arty Girl: Robert Colescott, African American Artist, Dies in Tucson

Much like the death of Michael Jackson overshadowed the loss of Farrah Fawcett, Bisbee, AZ artist Rose Johnson's untimely and tragic demise diverted attention from the June 4th passing of  83 year old Robert Colescott, an internationally known artist who lived his last days in Tucson, AZ.

We haven't heard too much buzz locally but the news of his death made the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.

Colescott, a painter known to poke at themes of race and gender in his works, boasts many accomplishments. Most notably, he was the first African American to represent the United States in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition. That was in 1997, when he was 71 years old.

In his most famous work, "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook," Colescott re-cast the famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze. The original shows a brave George Washington, as the Revolutionary War hero, at the helm of a small rowboat. Colescott put Carver, a pioneering African American agricultural chemist the in the place of Washington and replaced the crew with black cooks, maids and fisherman.

Colescott was born in Oakland, CA in 1925. His mother was a pianist and his father was a violinist who once played with Louis Armstrong. The family moved from New Orleans to Oakland before Colescott's birth to escape the segregated South.

The man had quite a life, to say the least. He joined the Army at age 17 and fought WWII in Europe and the Pacific. He visited Paris many times after the war and studied with artist Fernand Leger who encouraged him to refrain from Abstract Expressionism, the popular art movement of the time. He also met his first (of what would eventually amount to five wives) in Paris. All but his current marriage ended in divorce.

After the war, Colescott used his GI Bill to gain bachelor's and master's degrees in painting and drawing from Berkeley. He spent three years teaching in Egypt, where he relished in a non-white culture.

Upon his return in 1970, Colescott began the type of work that brought him fame. With a pioneering postmodernist spirit, he began combing art history for famous paintings in which to substitute characters with stereotypical depictions of black people. In an interview with Times-Picayune, the artist states, "But most artists who appropriate do it as some sort of homage to an artist they admire. Mine was no homage. I wanted to dominate that other artist."

A job offer at University of Arizona in 1983 initially brought him to Tucson. At first, he wasn't too crazy about the place. But he continued to teach until the late 1990's and eventually grew to find his home there. He once told a Times interviewer, "It's a backwater where nobody knows me and I don't have to talk to anybody about art."

Robert Colescott is survived by his wife, Jandava Cattron, five sons, and one grandson.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi