“In the twentieth century,” artist Robert Colescott wrote in 1990, “an archetype has developed that is designed to sell products—products that include war. Diabolically effective, she has big breasts, long legs, slender hips, and is usually blond with big blue eyes. She promises pleasure, active companionship, and social status.” While the painter’s satires of old masters and chestnuts—most famously, of Emanuel Leutze’s hagiographic Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851—have been celebrated as acidulous detournements of art history, his images of women (often the fetishized, aspirational type of white woman described above) are among his most challenging and unassimilable. Riding the coattails of the artist’s traveling retrospective that closed at New York’s New Museum this past October, Venus Over Manhattan’s “Robert Colescott: Women” touched upon this subject via twenty-nine paintings and drawings, from the racy spaghetti western of Pancho Villa, 1971 (showing the pistol-wagging Mexican revolutionary absconding with a buxom gringa in a lusty barroom brawl); to the postmodern allegorizing of Laureate at the Bather’s Pool, 1984 (which transposes the Judgment of Paris onto an interracial encounter in an imagined primordial Africa); to the good-natured smut of an untitled romp in colored pencil from 1977 (in which a bespectacled old lady in a rocking chair sets aside her knitting to receive cunnilingus).
In later works such as Death of a Mulatto Woman, 1991, and Black as Satan, 1992, Colescott eschews overt sexualization and stereotyping, taking up expressionist figuration to limn themes of hyphenate identity and double consciousness. These paintings mark a return, of sorts, to his “Valley Queen” series, 1964–67, whose lyrically abstracted female ciphers were inspired by ancient tomb paintings he saw while living in Cairo. Their spiritual orientation feels removed from the terrestrial politics of race and sex foregrounded elsewhere in the show. Nonetheless, Colescott’s time in Egypt would prove pivotal, prompting an identity crisis after which the painter, a white-passing Black man of Louisiana Creole descent, publicly lived and worked as a Black artist.
The outbreak of the Six-Day War in June 1967 brought a premature end to Colescott’s Egyptian expatriation. Two weeks after his escape to Italy, the US Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in Loving v. Virginia, striking down Jim Crow–era antimiscegenation laws. Colescott’s work in the decade following this landmark civil rights victory approaches the topic of interracial desire through a particularly virulent strain of camp. A racialized rape fantasy plays out across a grid of comic-book cells that function as the background for a pneumatic female runner in the painting Olympic Event, 1972. A white-haired, white-skinned matron lifts her housedress, cheerfully presenting her mons pubis to a Black child—who wears a pin on his cap imploring the viewer to VOTE—in one of several preliminary drawings for the canvas MOM’S OLD FASHION ROOT BEER, 1974 (the kid is supplanted by a grinning white paterfamilias in the finished piece). In the painting Old Crow on the Fence, 1978, a blonde “cutie pie” with perky tits and pink Daisy Dukes teases a tuxedoed, cigarillo-smoking blackbird in a green top hat. If the woman represented for Colescott, in his words, the illusory “reward” promised to men “for buying an expensive car or for killing Vietnamese,” the crow was a coded self-portrait, an exercise in polemical overidentification recalling the avian minstrelsy of Heckle and Jeckle and Dumbo’s scatting corvids. Such works have been variously interpreted as Rabelaisian carnivals of desublimation, libertarian revolts against political correctness, intersectional deconstructions of damaging tropes, and harmful amplifications of said tropes.
These works might be better understood as a response to the malaise and irresolution of the post–civil rights era, when the gains of the previous decade had stalled and the end of de jure discrimination failed to secure social and economic equality for Black Americans. Testing the limits of liberal antiracism and consensual narratives of social progress, these pictures bring to the surface, in a burlesque return of the repressed, the racist distortions of Jim Crow while anticipating the strands of critical race theory that would coalesce against the “end of history” (to borrow Francis Fukuyama’s sanguine coinage) heralding the millennium’s last decade. As Colescott would say in 1989, “The greatest lesson in history is that we don’t learn from it.”