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Acquired by descent from the artist by the present owner
Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center; Portland, Portland Art Museum; Sarasota, Sarasota Art Museum; Chicago, Chicago Cultural Center; New York, New Museum, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,2019-2022, p. 14, back cover, illustrated in color
Barry Schwabsky, "Robert Colescott," Artforum.com, September 2019, illustrated in color
Victoria L. Valentine, "'Art & Race Matters': First Comprehensive Retrospective of Robert Colescott Opens at CAC Cincinnati This Week," CultureType.com, 18 September 2019, illustrated in color
Taylor Dafoe, "Robert Colescott Influenced a Generation of African American Artists. Now a Major Retrospective Puts His Irreverent Art Front and Center," News.Artnet.com, 24 September 2019, illustrated in color
Seph Rodney, "Remembering Robert Colescott as a Kind of Trickster Figure," Hyperallergic.com, 11 October 2019, illustrated in color
Erica Cardwell, "Consciousness, Conflict, and Contradiction in the Art of Robert Colescott, Hyperallergic.com, 27 November 2019, illustrated in color
Chad Scott, "Robert Colescott and the Florida Highwaymen in Sarasota, Florida," Forbes.com, 31 July 2021, illustrated in color
"New Sarasota Art Museum Exhibit Invites Discussion about Race," WTSP.com, 25 May 2021, illustrated in color
Marty Fugate, "Art Review: Sarasota Art Museum Explores Robert Colescott's Satiric View of Racism," HeraldTribune.com, 11 June 2021
Dennis Broe, "The Colescott Chronicles Part 2: Expanding Black Representation, Critiquing Consumerism and Colonialism," Peoplesworld.com, 25 June 2021
Jonathan Talit, "Art and Race matters: The Career of Robert Colescott," BayArtFiles.com, 8 August 2021, illustrated in color
Leah Gallant, "How Robert Colescott Used Art History to Force Viewers to Confront Their Prejudices," TheArtNewspaper.com, 1 April 2022, illustrated in color (titled Go West)
Pablo Nukuya-Petralia, "Satire and the Serpent: Painter Robert Colescott at the Chicago Culture Center," fnewsmagazine.com, 16 May 2022, illustrated (titled Go West)
Ariella Budick, "Robert Colescott, New Museum Review - Painter Who Used Racist Stereotypes to Make America Think," FT.com, 13 July 2022 (titled Go West)
Nolan Kelly, "Cruel Logic," Spike Art Magazine, no. 73, Autumn 2022, pp. 148-149, illustrated (titled Go West)
Maximilíno Durón, "Alice Walton's Art Bridges Foundation is Buyer of $4.5M Robert Colescott Painting Auctioned by Bonhams Last Week," ArtNews.com, 21 February 2023 (titled Go West)
Robert Colescott's 1919 is a full-blooded cornerstone of twentieth century American art, both a self-portrait through the prism of his parents but also a portrait of a country grappling with the foundational conflict at the heart of its identity. Through this, the artist's undoubted masterpiece, we are confronted by the dilemmas of race, heritage, family and nationhood, writ large over the landscape of the country itself. In 1919, Colescott captures an image that is almost operatic in its grandeur and pomp. The sheer theatricality of the two protagonists – his mother and father – adrift on clouds that cradle assorted signifiers of their lives, holding one another's gaze across the expanse of patchwork American states; it is bold and romantic. But it holds so much more meaning in the context of Colescott's practice at large, and is without doubt the most personal, intricate and honest, capturing the family's great journey westward, from New Orleans to Oakland, California, where Colescott would be born in 1925. It is a poetic statement of promise, a nod to heritage and the legacy of generations across America who challenged the social iniquity of their day; a paean to those forebears who redefined the political landscape of a country. Few paintings speak to the social history of twentieth century America like 1919, and still more so represent the overarching theme of Robert Colescott's career that pulled back the curtain on art and race.
Colescott's disruptive vision found a perfect vehicle in his painterly finesse, enabling him to produce images of searing truth and lucidity. The brushstrokes are fast and deliberate, moving with a zesty poise more akin to a political cartoonist with flutters of shading and line. His subject matter was similarly trenchant and artful in its dispatching of social mores and pop culture falsities. He whisked the rug out from underneath the mainstream; he spun De Kooning into Aunt Jemima; he recast Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon; he painted an African American woman as Miss America in Miss Liberty (1980). This last work is one of Colescott's seminal paintings and was sold by Bonhams in February 2023 for $4,500,375 to the Art Bridges Foundation. But the boldness of his creative spirit is rooted in his personal story and those events that guided his sense of identity in a changing world from his birth in 1925 to his passing in 2009. The unparalleled scope of Colescott's life and practice comes into full focus in the masterwork 1919, painted in 1980. A work that has been the centerpiece of the major exhibition Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott organized by the Contemporary Arts Centre, Cincinnati, that finished its countrywide tour at the New Museum, New York, in 2022, 1919 is a monumental ode to love and aspiration. It says so much more, however, of Colescott's origins, his warring sense of self, and the incredible career that truly stems from the ideational seed it depicts. It comes to market now, directly from the family of the artist, as arguably the most important canvas produced by Robert Colescott.
Colescott was undoubtedly a painter whose style had few equivalents; his subject matter often flaunted grotesquery and boorishness, deployed humor with unsettling fact, tackling headfirst the blatant hypocrisy entrenched in the social contract he had negotiated since birth and that was only resolved in his middle age. It took him many years to express these ideas outwardly in his painting, and 1919 marks a watershed moment for the artist – a personal nod to his parentage and those foundational ideas that grew into fully-formed narratives in his painting. To Colescott, the hegemonies and divisions he was raised under signified nothing more than thinly veiled absurdity. The works of the 1970s demonstrate the renewed vigor with which he now approached his subject matter – he was impassioned and audacious, leaving no room for misinterpretation. His record-setting painting George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook from 1975 demonstrates the heightened polemical voice Colescott had developed during this period. His satirical interventionism, recasting and caricaturing Emanuel Leutze's mythic painting of the father of the nation, is unapologetic; its humor designed to unseat and upend. The tonal shift in 1919 signifies a deepening relationship that Colescott had, not only with his own heritage, but also that of American history. His parents have become those same American icons that he parodied and replaced – the 'American history textbook' supplemented with an additional chapter, that of Colescott's own life. By 1980, the year the artist executed the present work, there is a palpable confidence and self-awareness. Colescott manipulates his subjects, his paint, his tropes and motifs, with a mastery that is at once tender and knowing, but nonetheless full of comedy and ribaldry.
Throughout his life and career, the personal was bound in the political, and Colescott never shied away from exposing the personal aspects of his life that posed the greatest destabilizer to his sense of self. The son of Warrington Wickham Colescott Sr. and Lydia Kenner Hutton – both depicted gallantly in 1919 – Colescott's parents were themselves mixed-race people navigating an America still largely segregated under Jim Crow laws. With very limited social mobility for those identified as black, the pressure to 'pass' as white was something deeply felt and confronted by every member of the family; perhaps most pointedly for Robert, the younger and darker skinned of the two sons of Warrington Sr. and Lydia. The painting serves, therefore, as a long-form self-portrait. It illuminates passages of Colescott's life that pre-date him, yet he inherited. The family tree – pictured centrally across the heart of the American continent, bearing a bird's nest being tended to by a mother and father – is the core symbol of 1919. It is tender and genuine, a timeless image of sacrifice and devotion. But Colescott's style and his unflinching treatment of perceived truths places the harmony of this image in question. The painting is littered with tropes and symbols, objects that are not so much cliché as they are theatrical devices – stand-ins for authenticity. In the Texan cowboy and California wines, Montana's mountains and the Floridian crocodile, Colescott points to an America as it appears to the outsider, to the superficial observer. Therein lies the key. In this way, his parents appear as such, presented as they were perceived and accorded status by society; as a white woman and a black man.
Stylistically, Colescott's approach to picture-making borders on the textbook graphic – a type of illustrative, quasi-cartoonish finish, whose primary function is to instruct and educate. In 1919, this feels sharply employed. The painting is not only a historical account of his parents' move from New Orleans to Oakland, California in 1919, some six years before the birth of the artist there, but it is executed with an authorial spin that emphasizes and disrupts that same family history. Lydia Kenner Hutton's appearance as a white woman is less a veritable portrait of her as much as it is an image of her in the mind of the artist, and indeed herself – she considered her own and her family's racial identity as white. Robert's father, Warrington Sr., was enlisted in a military regiment that comprised of "colored" soldiers during World War I, in which uniform he is depicted in 1919. It is worth noting that Colescott himself served in the 86th Infantry Division at the very end of World War II – on his official army separation document he was marked as white. These divergent racial identities were strongly felt by Colescott, not least as they likely contributed to a domestic tension between his mother and father whose social experiences and career opportunities were defined, and indeed restricted, by how they presented and were accorded status. The disquiet of his upbringing was a personal trauma that greatly affected Colescott, and the question of his own racial identity was only compounded by the television, films, comic books, and a school curriculum that affirmed black stereotypes in the mind of a young man.
Raised in Oakland, Colescott attended the San Francisco State College, before transferring to Berkeley where he majored in art. His early influences were chiefly abstract geometric painters, and his teachers at Berkeley, Ed Corbett and James McCray, were pivotal in setting in motion his passion for painting. On the advice of McCray, Colescott arrived in Paris in 1949 to study under Fernand Léger. His early works were characterized by a largeness of forms and a loose, freehand painterly sense, carving monolithic figures from muted colors and lines, echoing the compact compositions of Léger who himself had rejected pure abstraction. Upon moving to Seattle in the early 1950s, Colescott's style becomes more luscious and generous in its palette and paint application – emulating the watery, dappled surfaces of late Monet and Clyfford Still. Colescott was searching for style, but he never strayed far from the figure. The human experience was at the absolute core of his practice from the beginning. It was not until his successful application to be the first artist in residence at the American Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt, that his practice and style makes a significant leap in 1964. He was instantly enamored and influenced by the art and culture that he witnessed in Egypt. Finding himself in an environment where the color of his skin as a biracial man was not unusual posed a larger question to Colescott – one that further problematized America's perceived freedom in the eyes of the artist.
After briefly finding work in Paris and New York, Colescott returned to California where he found colleagues in several of the Bay Area Figurative Movement artists, including Joan Brown, Carlos Villa, Robert Arneson, and Roy DeForest. It was a period in which he was able to recenter his practice, not only through artists working in a figurative style, but more significantly revisiting his upbringing and confronting the divisive nature of his racial identity. Colescott began to appropriate images from popular culture, cartoons, book covers, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, changing the racial profiles of their subjects, creating jocular and lewd tableau that scratch at the surface of the culture and history he subverted. Colescott was wresting and reshaping a narrative; one that was not only deeply personal but was immensely poignant and timely over the course of the 1970s in the post-civil rights movement era. Culminating in 1980, what emerged at the end of this decade in California was an almost analytical mode of painting. Colescott had painted himself into several canvases, depicting an artist at the easel tormented by his models and unfinished paintings in the vein of Courbet. But in 1919 this develops a seriousness and personal profundity not seen elsewhere in Colescott's career. It is grand and complex; it speaks to his heritage and the nature of his familial relationships so fraught by internal conflicts and outward pressures. Whilst 1919 is undoubtedly a homage to his parents and the journey that fed opportunity to the two brothers, Warrington Jr. and Robert, his mother and father remain a divided pairing. They share one another's gaze, but little more. Colescott would leave California for Arizona in 1985, consigning this intense passage of his practice to history as arguably the most significant and definitive by the artist, and 1919 surely the most personal.
It would be difficult to list the most important painters of the twentieth century and omit Robert Colescott. Whilst his paintings shirk simple categorization, it is impossible not to read them as some of the most authentic and forceful works produced in the post-war period. As one of those extraordinary visionaries, he stands most closely to Philip Guston or Martin Kippenberger – figures so ahead of their time in their style and substance. His practice enables us to glimpse the dividing line between society as it was, as it is, and as it might be. He walked a singular path in pursuit of an artistic vision that ripped through the images of his day, rewrote the script of history to reveal the abuse of power, the absurdity of difference, and the tragicomedy of stereotype and a culture shepherded by imagery. In 1919 he delivers an emphatic and deeply felt painting that is the principle piece of his career; it is the root and source of his practice at large, and the motive for the paintings that came before and thence. Lowery Stokes Sims superbly sums Colescott's legacy up thusly: 'Colescott mobilized the theoretical, critical, and morphological elements we associate with the "modern" and the "avant-garde" as fodder for his critique of postmodernism. He not only represents but also indicates possible paths of resistance and creativity, for groups of artists who are marginalized or eliminated from the story of art because of their race, gender, economic condition, political and/or social status. [...] Given the crisis of race relations, image management, and political manipulation in the current American – indeed the global – landscape, Colescott's perspectives on race, life, social mores, historical heritage, and cultural hybridity allow us a means – if we are up to the task – the forthrightly confront what the state of global culture will be in the next decade.' (Lowery Stokes Sims, 'Colescott in the 1980s and '90s: Stranger in a Strange Land' in Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, New York 2019, p. 153). 1919 is the magnum opus of Robert Colescott's career – an exceptional painting that grants us an earnest look into the creative heart of one of America's great artists.