ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991

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Lot 6W
Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)

Sold for US$ 1,410,312 inc. premium
Property From A Prominent American Collection
Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)

signed and dated 91; signed, titled and dated may-june 1991 on the stretcher
acrylic on canvas

90 by 114 in.
228.6 by 289.7 cm.


  • Provenance
    Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1997

    New York, Thread Waxing Space, I Am the Enunciator, 1993, p.6, 84, illustrated
    Westchester County, Katonah Museum of Art, The Re-Constructed Figure, The Human Image In Contemporary Art, 1995
    Venice, 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; Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings 1987-1997, 1998-2000, p. 8, 20, 22, 23, 40, 50, illustrated

    Vivien Raynor, Multiculturalism is Stressed in 'The Reconstructed Figure', New York Times, 9 July 1995
    Ellen Willis, The Up and Up: On the Limits of Optimism, Transition, No. 74, Indiana University Press, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research Harvard University, 1997, p.50, illustrated
    Margaret Regan, African Odyssey, Tucson Weekly, 23 November 1998
    Brooke M. Lampley, Analyzing the Abstract with Colescott, The Harvard Crimson, 4 December 1998
    Danell McCoy, Using Humor, Artist Draws Viewers to Images of Racism, Daily Nebraskan, 4 September 1999

    Exploding off the canvas in a riot of color and detail, Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo) (1991), is a rare masterpiece and one of the most important works by the artist to ever be offered at auction. Incorporating Colescott's unique visual iconography combined with his personal lived experience of politics, sexuality and race, the present work, exhibited widely including at the Venice Biennale in 1997, is a superlative painting by one of the most influential and visionary artists of the Twentieth Century.

    Born in Oakland, California, Robert Colescott was raised in a creative environment. With musicians, (including his parents), and artists as mentors and role models from childhood, Colescott's interest in art was already firmly in place when he was drafted as a teenager into the US Army to serve out the end of World War II in Europe. After achieving a bachelor's degree from University of California, Berkeley, in 1949, Colescott returned to Europe and studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. Colescott's year at the Atelier Léger established theories of Cubism and figuration as foundations of his mature work. During the early 1960s, Colescott's continuing interest in figuration was also influenced by his contemporaries in Northern California who were working in the Bay Area Figurative style. The expressive colors and strong emotive tones characteristic of the Bay Area Figurative movement became yet another fundamental element in Colescott's artistic practice. His work evolved into his celebrated exaggerated style soon after.

    Colescott's work is typified by pairing his colorful and charming visual style with content that is often direct, and sometimes crude. This dichotomy challenges the viewer to engage with their own perspectives, ideologies and attitudes towards topics as incendiary as race, politics, money and sex. Colescott's stylistic approach has been recognized as both controversial and enlightening, but ultimately, it is the friction within this coexisting duality that imbues the artist's work with a multitude of resonant interpretations.

    Colescott's exemplary visionary style is on full display in Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo). As with all of Colescott's most historically significant works, the present painting references and upends
    iconic tropes of American and European art history and literature: in this case, taking Victor Hugo's 1833 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as its ostensible subject. A tale of social and political inequality, the Hunchback of Notre Dame is a quintessential outcast story. The reclusive Quasimodo, the titular Hunchback of Notre Dame, is only able to communicate through ringing the bells of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Though the Parisians fear and loathe Quasimodo for his appearance, they admire his songs and the sounding of the bells. Colescott's parable of contemporary society's treatment of Black communities is clear.

    At the heart of the swirling and dynamic composition, Colescott portrays a Black Quasimodo carrying a nude white woman: a recurring star character in the artist's work exploring interracial relationships. This central image is surrounded by vignettes portraying a variety of references in Colescott's signature visual language. The viewer is enticed with familiar images of a Black football player from Notre Dame University and a blindfolded female symbol of Justice, while the artist delves into the quotidian and grotesque use and abuse of Black bodies: in sports for mass entertainment or ignored and devoured by the criminal justice system. Interjecting European traditions with Black figures, Colescott upends familiar (and predominantly white) cultural touchstones with new methods of reading and engagement. Comparisons can be draw with Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500) (Fig. 1). The Netherlandish painter's masterpiece of a hellish landscape is peppered with surreal and chaotic vignettes of recognizable elements of contemporary life, putting a mirror to society that is equal parts enlightening and terrifying.

    The narrative through lines of Colescott's paintings are punctuated with satirical moments that unveil and grapple with complex comments and skewering criticisms on race, identity, social politics, and culture. As Colescott astutely notes, "If you decide to laugh, don't forget the humor is the bait, and once you've bitten, you may have to do some serious chewing." More pertinent than ever, Colescott's work is embedded with context and history that challenge the viewer to consider and confront a myriad of social and political issues. As Miriam Roberts describes Colescott's body of work, "Above all, it is a world of ironies, where people, things, and events are never quite what they first seem." (Miriam Roberts,La Biennale di Venezia XLVII Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte General Catalogue, 1997, p.567). The present lot is an enrapturing example of the tensions and delights that are enveloped in Colescott's multivalent visual and narrative universe. Colescott's intellectual explorations and lived experiences bring these many painterly influences together into a style that remains singular, unique, instantly recognizable, and unbound by any one school of painting.

    Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo) is particularly significant within Colescott's oeuvre as it was selected by the artist for his installation at the Venice Biennale in 1997. The invitation to the prestigious 47th Venice Biennale was a watershed moment for Colescott, who became the first African American artist to represent the United States at the international event. Notably, his exhibition was the first solo American installation at the Biennale since Jasper Johns' presentation in 1988. The present lot was one of only nineteen works, all from the preceding decade, chosen to be included in the landmark exhibition. The work was later exhibited at additional prestigious institutions including the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis; Portland Art Museum and Queens Museum of Art, New York among many others.

    Colescott continues to inspire artists today and he has been cited by Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, and David Hammons as an inspirational figure. He was the focus of important retrospectives at the San Jose Museum of Art in 1987, the Whitney Museum of Art, New York, in 1989, and the first comprehensive survey show of the artist's life and career spanning fifty years is currently on view now. The seminal retrospective began at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 2020 and will travel to the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, the Chicago Cultural Center, Illinois, the Akron Art Museum, Ohio and the Sarasota Art Museum, Florida.

    Robert Colescott's work is included in the permanent collections of many notable institutions such as 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; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Art, Boston; de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Colescott's work has been the subject of over twenty solo exhibitions in the past twenty years with countless others since his first solo show in 1953.
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hommage to Victor Hugo)1991
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