In Never-Before-Seen Drawings, Robert Colescott Satirizes Art History

Robert Colescott, “ROBERT’S complete HiSTORY of WORLD ART: from the pyramids in Egypt to the modern era” (1979), watercolor and graphite on Arches paper, 29 3/4 x 22 1/8 inches (© the Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo)

LOS ANGELES — “I kind of blew apart abstract painting and put it back together again,” says the late artist Robert Colescott. That may be a bit of an understatement. Colescott didn’t just “kind of” blow apart painting, he exploded the entire conceit of art history itself — and in putting it back together again with his trademark sense of satire, he revealed cracks in how art history tells its own story. This is the subject of Colescott’s never-before-seen series of works on paper ROBERT’S complete HiSTORY of WORLD ART, now on view for the first time at Blum & Poe.

Robert Colescott, installation view (2021), Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (© the Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy the Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo, photo by Dan Finlayson)
Robert Colescott, “art history 3: ROME” (1979), watercolor and graphite on Arches paper, 29 3/4 x 22 1/8 inches (© the Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo)

The way Colescott chooses to begin says it all: kicking off the series are four buxom, fleshy women dressed in thigh highs and garters, each holding a cigarette between her fingers. Though each one is supposed to represent an early art historical period, you’d hardly know it from first glance. Rome, for example, is personified by a woman with her legs splayed, puffs of cigarette smoke wrapped around herself as if it were a feather boa. Only after looking at the contortions of her body entwined in smoke does it recall the famous Roman sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons.Similarly, Islam is portrayed by a Black woman with a mound of pubic hair peeking out from behind her salacious getup. The only indication that she is supposed to represent Islam is her veil, and perhaps the arabesque clouds of smoke that descend in curlicues around the figure. The false modesty of the veil pokes fun at, if not outright mocks, the caution surrounding nudity and representation of the figure within traditions of Islamic art.

Robert Colescott, “art history 4: Islam” (1979), watercolor and graphite on Arches paper, 29 3/4 x 22 1/8 inches (© the Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo)

Throughout the series, Colescott does much more than just insert his own version of the art historical isms. He takes the yearning to see oneself reflected in art history and, wary of that instinct, challenges the viewer’s idea of how things should look like, skewering notions around propriety, race, beauty, and art. Rather than offer a single message of celebration or critique, the drawings refuse an easy reading. Despite the fact that the body of work represents nothing less than the grandiose attempt to critique the entirety of art history, it never loses sight of the ridiculousness of it all.

Robert Colescott, “art history 16: AMERICAN ART” (1979), watercolor and graphite on Arches paper, 22 1/8 x 29 3/4 inches (© the Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy the Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo)
Robert Colescott, “art history 18: BLACK ART” (1979), watercolor and graphite on Arches paper, 29 3/4 x 22 1/8 inches (© the Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo)

Robert Colescott, “art history 19: CONCEPTUAL” (1979), watercolor and graphite on Arches paper, 30 x 22 inches (© the Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy of the Trust and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo)

Robert Colescott: Two Drawing Sweets continues by appointment at Blum & Poe (2727 South La Cienega Boulevard, Culver City) through March 6.

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