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Our Man in Venice

Robert Colescott, a student of Leger who transformed art classics into sendups of blackstereotypes, is Biennale bound.

June 15, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

TUCSON — "Everyone keeps asking me, 'Aren't you thrilled,' but being thrilled is for amateurs," says artist Robert Colescott, who'll represent the U.S. at the 47th Venice Biennale, which opens today. "This is what I do, and Venice is a job."

That's not entirely accurate. Colescott's presence at the prestigious Italian international exhibition is also something of an honor in that it is the result of a rigorous screening process conducted by the Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals, a joint partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Information Agency.

The fund solicits proposals from curators throughout the country for U.S. representation at the Biennale, then arrives at a selection through a process of competitive peer review. Colescott's name was put in the hat by Miriam Roberts, an independent curator who organized a survey of the artist's work for the San Jose Museum of Art in 1987.

"No one embodies the vitality of contemporary American art better than Colescott, and it's exciting to be presenting his work to an international audience for the first time," Roberts says.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that his work has been widely known for decades, Colescott was a longshot for Venice. The 71-year-old African American artist has never even had a full-dress retrospective and is a staunchly traditional figurative painter whose work combines a flamboyant sense of color worthy of Matisse, an approach to line evocative of Philip Guston and the bawdy humor of R. Crumb.

Best known for a series of paintings completed in the '70s wherein he "borrowed" classic works by Van Gogh, Picasso and De Kooning, among others, and transformed them into sendups of black stereotypes, Colescott has long made a subversive take on racism central to his work--which, curiously enough, went largely unmentioned in the early '90s when political correctness was all the rage.

"The European art world likes to pigeonhole American art, and right now their favorite pigeonhole is Conceptualism. My work isn't known in Europe, and I have no idea how they'll fit it into that template," Colescott says of the 19 paintings selected for the Biennale from his production of the last 10 years.

As the artist speaks at his home here, the Biennale seems worlds away. It's early morning in late spring, but the blazing heat already holds the land in a state of siege. Colescott's brown adobe house is at the end of a winding dirt road and is nestled deep in a stretch of scrubby land dotted with an occasional house and a dazzling array of plant life.

"I settled here in 1985 because I had a job, and at first I didn't like it all, but I've come to love it," says the artist, who has been a professor at the University of Arizona for 12 years. "It's a backwater where nobody knows me and I don't have to talk to anybody about art. I like being out here looking at the cactus, and this building I live in reminds me of a church, which suits me. It's a romantic environment."

Recently divorced from his fourth wife, Colescott is very much the lord of this castle. One room of his simple studio is dominated by his rowing machine and drum kit, while the larger room is devoted to painting. Colescott comes off as gracious and soft-spoken. However, lest one doubt that he is also a man of ferocious drive, one need only hear the story of his life. He's traveled a long way from humble beginnings.

Colescott, who was born in Oakland in 1925, recalls: "The Depression was on when I was young, so everybody was poor. My dad was a waiter in the dining car on the Southern Pacific, but he didn't have a salary and we lived on tips. My father was a gifted violinist, and I think he felt some bitterness that because he was black he couldn't make a living as a violinist.

"Oakland was a fairly racist community then and West Oakland was the black ghetto," he continues. "We lived in East Oakland, though, because my father managed to buy property from a black realtor in a non-neighborhood where people of various races lived. We all kept to ourselves, and it was comfortable until a white neighborhood grew up around us--there were difficulties then."

His parents had come from New Orleans, and those Southern roots also influenced Colescott's early years.

"They left to escape the segregation of the South, but they missed Louisiana, and I grew up hearing stories of New Orleans," Colescott says, offering a clue as to the source of the raucous spirit that courses through his work. "When I visited relatives there, I always found myself thinking, 'Gee, everybody has fun all the time.' My parents were very conservative, but Louisiana is a place of contradictions, and my father's family was crazy. They had a good time and spent every penny they made on clothes.

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