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Post-War & Contemporary Art / ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) White Boy, 1989

Property from a Prominent American Collection
Lot 6
White Boy, 1989
18 February 2022, 10:00 PST
Los Angeles

Sold for US$930,312.50 inc. premium

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White Boy, 1989

signed and dated 'R Colescott 89' (lower left); signed again, titled, inscribed and dated again '"WHiTE BOY" © Robert Colescott Tuscon AZ, July 1989' (on the stretcher)
acrylic on canvas

84 x 72 in.
213.4 x 182.9 cm.


Laura Russo Gallery, Portland, OR
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1996

New Orleans, Arthur Roger Gallery, Paintings, 1990
Venice, Italy, United States Pavilion, 47th Venice Biennale, 1997, p. 714
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; New York, Queens Museum of Art; Arizona, University of Arizona Museum of Art; Oregon, Portland Art Museum; California, University of California, Berkeley; Nebraska, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery & Sculpture Garden; New Mexico, SITE Santa Fe; Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans; The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu; Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings 1987-1997, 1998-2000, p. 18, 19, 55, illustrated

Brooke M. Lampley, Analyzing the Abstract with Colescott, The Harvard Crimson, 4 December 1998
L. Kent Wolgamott, Race, Sex, Social Politics at Center of Colescott's Art, Lincoln Journal Star, 3 October 1999

"His slurred shapes, wobbly drawing and patchy brushwork imply that no truths can be held to be self-evident, that life is mired in slippery layers of false piety, self-interest and greed, but also lust, pleasure and irreverence." (Roberta Smith, New York Times, 9 June 2009)

Robert Colescott's groundbreaking figuration and resonant artistic style have identified him as one of the most significant and compelling artists of the 20th century. Included in the seminal 1997 Venice Biennale, the present lot, White Boy, is a quintessential example from Colescott's oeuvre typifying his iconic and discordant style. Appearing bawdy and comical at first glance, Colescott's paintings are amassed with meaning that extends far beyond first impressions. Colescott activates his canvases with both cartoonish representations and erudite references to issues which loom large in society's consciousness, but whose reading is also dependent on the viewer and their lived experience. Tackling issues which have historically been some of the most challenging and persistent, Colescott deftly puts a spotlight on topics as subversive and universal as race, sex, gender, capitalism, and colonialism in paintings that are teeming with exuberant storytelling and sobering realities.

Born in Oakland California in 1925, Robert Colescott's parents supported his artistic aspirations. His father was a waiter on the railroad and worked with preeminent sculptor Sargent Johnson, who became one of Colescott's first creative influences. After serving in World War II and earning his bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Colescott moved to France to study on the GI bill. In Paris, Colescott attended the atelier of Modernist vanguard Fernand Léger who challenged abstraction in favor of a more accessible, yet equally avant-garde style, that eventually laid the groundwork for Pop Art.

Colescott's classical fine art training cemented his fluency in Western Art Historical traditions which became a through-line of his practice. Like Titian and other Venetian Renaissance painters, Colescott prepared his canvases with a layer of red paint. This ground brought a luminous quality to the figures and composition known as the "Venetian Glow." For Colescott, painting the canvas red provided the foundation on which to bring forms to life. Elaborating on his process, Colescott noted that "Michelangelo said the figures were already in the stone you just had to bring them out and to some extent, I feel like there's a kind of organism to the red paint [...] that creates layers that help create form." (Robert Colescott, One-Two-Punch, director: David Irving, 1992, 19:10)

This is particularly evident in the direct reference to Picasso's masterpiece, the 1907 painting Demoiselles d'Avignon. Controversial from the start, Demoiselles d'Avignon shocked viewers with its blunt and avant-garde portrayal of the female form. Further complicating the painting's iconography and meaning, Picasso depicts several of the women with faces that clearly reference African masks. In White Boy, Colescott reclaims this imagery and turns a critical eye to European artistic traditions to consider "aesthetic issues surrounding Black and brown women." (Portland Art Museum, Art and Race Matter: The Career of Robert Colescott)

Though Colescott's process is rooted in the European tradition, the nature of his work remains staunchly anti-academic and topically insurgent. This is evident in the present lot to compelling effect. The venetian-style warm red underpainting can be seen in the female figure recalling both African tribal statuary and once again draws parallels to Pablo Picasso's canonic Demoiselles de Avignon. Passages of red are left visible in between the brown and beige layers of overpaint, energizing the upper layers of paint with a vibrancy that draws in the viewer's eye and imbues the figure with warmth and agency. This technique brings this, relatively subtle, figure into the painting as a key player – she is not an inanimate dust covered relic from the past or entombed in western appropriative art history, rather, she is reaching her fist up in a gesture of power and reclaiming both cultural heritage and its representation. Colescott builds upon Picasso's language while remaining critical of his intentions, consequently depicting intersectional narratives that embrace the importance and ambiguity of identities and their portrayal. As Colescott articulates, "At this particular time people would like to feel a kind of intimacy in art. The move from the ideal and the classical, the need to feel and understand things and to identify things in the painting from their own lives." (Portland Art Museum, Art and Race Matter: The Career of Robert Colescott)

The figures in White Boy are unequivocally true to Colescott's unique style. Colescott makes tangible the fraught and complicated nature of identity politics, asking the viewer to consider the ramifications of unilateral thinking in the context of race, sex, and gender. Though the figures have characteristics rooted in the two-dimensionality of Cubism they are also layered and corporeal. This dimensional figuration coupled with a disorienting composition caters to the narrative centered around the myriad of interracial relationships that unfold across the canvas. Colescott's narrative and representational genius is on full display with the masterful interplay of interrelated couples. The couple at center right shows a Black woman in a significantly larger scale than her white male partner. Following Ancient Egyptian Hierarchical Scale, this depiction empowers the woman as the more important of the two. Furthermore, her bright yellow bikini brings attention to her femininity and sexuality, combined with her size, make her an enticing and powerful figure. This couple is replicated in a set of smaller figures, held by an even larger white woman. The small figures recall voodoo dolls and have pins stuck into them, presumably by the white woman, in the chest, back and groin. Voodoo is stereotypically associated with Black and Creole culture in the Southern US and here it is employed by an apparently jealous white woman, exemplifying how interracial relationships can be judged. The juxtaposed size of the two women, white and Black, further expose and explore not only the implications of public perception of interracial relationships, but also the many challenges women of color face in white hegemony. Colescott completes the circle of couples with a depiction of Adam and Eve as a white man and Black woman in the Garden of Eden at the upper right. The setting is idyllic with dreamy colors, mountains, and a rainbow. Although Adam is visibly aroused, he finds himself separated from Eve by a river. Colescott reminds the viewer that even in a private paradise, the outside world finds a way to insert challenges, particularly when race and sex are intermingled.

The present lot is one of a small group selected for inclusion in the ground-breaking 1997 Venice Biennale, in which Robert Colescott became the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition. The first such exhibition by an American artist since Jasper Johns in 1988, it cemented Robert Colescott's enduring importance and profound impact on the canon of art history. Serving as an influence on artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Henry Taylor, and Kara Walker, amongst countless others, Robert Colescott's work remains as relevant and as necessary as ever.

The subject of over twenty solo exhibitions in the past twenty years, with countless others since his first solo show in 1953, Robert Colescott's work is revered by many notable institutions. Works by Colescott are included in the public collections of the Whitney Museum of Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Fine Art, Boston; de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Seattle Art Museum amongst many others.

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