"Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings" at the Queens Museum of Art, Apr. 22-Aug. 30, 1998, and the Phyllis Kind Gallery, through June 7, 136 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.
The most interesting thing about Robert Colescott is that he paints beautifully. Everything else that is interesting about him is interesting in relation to that beautifulness. This includes his race, which is African American, and his visual stories on themes of race. Many people are African American, and all people have racial attitudes that, if poked, will emit stories. Colescott vests these unremarkable conditions in painterly bliss. How many people do that?
Few people singly represent the United States on a world stage, as Colescott did a year ago at the Venice Biennale with 19 paintings whose subsequent national tour has now come to Queens. With due respect for the Queens Museum, a splendid facility in eerie and ravishing Flushing Meadows (if you've never been there, go now), one might have expected a more prominent local venue for this honored work.
But then, local ambivalence about Colescott has always been intense. Not only is he a figurative expressionist of humanist persuasion -- a type rarely welcomed around here -- but he is a Northern Californian variant of the same. New York might as well have immune antibodies to Colescott's 1950s generation of Beat fellow travelers from the Bay Area: jokey-serious artists including Joan Brown, William Willey and Jay DeFeo, whose reputations have tended to drown in the Hudson while swimming to Manhattan.
Then there's the racial stuff. Or, rather, there is Colescott's nerve-wracking refusal to cast his art's racial provocations in any negotiable stance of political virtue. If only he didn't have so much fun with, say, subjects of interracial sex, which plainly excites as much as bemuses him. Predictable efforts to heroize him politically keep running up against the embarrassing insouciance of his Beatnik-esque, principled self-indulgence.
Colescott is a social comedian like halcyon Richard Pryor, not a social critic like any of a recent epoch's starchy little deconstructors. Though he may skewer this or that evil, his aim is not evil's demise but an increase of life force, a bonus vitality of glee. He is also a grown-up. At 72, living in Arizona, he looks back on much raw experience and simmered wisdom. This is apt to discomfit the sheltered children of all ages who staff most of the art world.
Colescott's father, from New Orleans, was a railroad porter, a jazz musician, and a friend of the Harlem Renaissance sculptor Sargent Johnson. Colescott's escape route to creative fulfillment, like that of James Baldwin and many black musicians, led through Paris. He soldiered in France during World War II and returned there in 1949 to study with Fernand Leger. A seasoned, raffish Gallicism feeds Colscott's rugged nonchalance about race and sex, and friendly quarrels with Picasso and other Parisian masters do not cease to percolate in his art.
From Leger, Colescott derived a big-painting model that, descended from the 19th-century Salon by way of Cubist analysis and Social Realist murals, predates the sprawl of Abstract Expressionism. With rigor and incessant invention, he has kept the mode daisy-fresh to this day. While loudly colored, juicily textured and cartoonishly emphatic, his pictures develop dense networks of internal balance and harmony. After announcing themselves with a bang, they draw us in for long, detailed perusal.
In the course of such perusal, any misgivings I have about Colescott fall away as I discover the nuanced sophistication in his raucous imagery. It's like hearing a jazz master transform some silly pop tune that, thus estranged, begins to seem not so silly after all. Colescott rips into crude iconography to free crazy energies it entombs.
Colescott's images are easy to describe and interpret, but it's hard to do so without making them sound lame. The Biennale paintings are accompanied by explanatory quotes from the artist. Though cogent and witty, the quotes are an overanxious, weak idea. They encourage standing back and thinking about the pictures, which is the least rewarding way to use them.
I guess you could say that Venus I thematizes problems of ideal beauty with visions of white and black womanflesh and painter's equipment cascading against a starry sky. The black females are stereotypically gross, and a lumpy white babe has nothing to recommend her except pinkness and blondness. But the payoff is not thematic. It's the disappearance of thought in sheerly looking, as gorgeous paint on canvas, slurring through a half-dozen demi-styles, pounds all possible ideals down into sensual pulp.
Colescott's recent work at Phyllis Kind is the best by him that I've seen. Its tenor, especially in the works on paper that display his talent most directly, is looser and more hilarious than ever with no loss of urgency. And a nine-foot-long canvas titled Ode to Joy (European Anthem) seems beyond serious doubt a masterpiece.
The four bars of Beethoven's incredible C-major theme appear as musical notation in a speech balloon linked to a black-faced, redheaded, yellow-bodied pizza-eating woman who emerges -- a genie -- from an Aladdin's lamp that is flanked by heaps of hamburgers. Two ghost-headed skeletons with beribboned Topsy braids attend, as do an African-looking archer (Cupid, I presume), a pot of gold coins, and a painter's palette like a rising sun. Red and yellow, sparked by green, predominate in paint that surges like surf.
What's going on here? Sonorous, tumbling, shady joy. Sex, love, money, music, art, memory and comfort food do it for Colescott. What rows your boat? Paint, perhaps. In the Colescott way, this work illustrates a heady allegory of high-spirited emotion, then delivers the emotion by hand: stroke after stroke, color after color, with textures good enough to eat. Don't worry. Be joyful -- in a state that, unlike mere happiness, keeps sorrow in view.
A trouble with bedeviled America is that either we do not talk about race or we talk about nothing else. Broach the subject and watch people, probably including yourself, instantly flatten into caricatures of aggressive or defensive, secondhand attitudes. Colescott, who never doesn't talk about race and never talks about it only, mocks our anxiety. He leads by example. Could we ever walk the walk as he does? We would be way ahead.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.