The Colescott Chronicles Part I: breaking free of the shackles of colour blindness and abstract art
Saturday, 18 September 2021 00:58

The Colescott Chronicles Part I: breaking free of the shackles of colour blindness and abstract art

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe presents the first of a two-part topical study of Robert Colescott, whose politically committed art tackled issues of unequal racial and gender representation, and the history of racial exploitation and domination in the U.S.

One of the founding members of New Black Art just reaped the rewards of his painterly prowess. Robert Colescott’s monumental George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware (above) recently sold for $15.3 million and is thus far the highlight purchase of the George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art, scheduled to open in Los Angeles in 2023.

This was nearly 17 times what any previous Colescott painting sold for and unfortunately the artist, who died in 2009, will not reap the rewards.

The painting, which shows a ragtag band of black workers in their professions and at leisure in a ragged vessel with a patch that could at any moment spring a leak, is a satirical rendering of the 1851 staple of Americana Washington crossing the Delaware. Colescott’s humorous rendition was described by the Lucas Museum head as “racially, socially and historically charged” and “at once a contemporary and historical work of art.”

That description suits Colescott’s art as a whole, which emerges after a long and arduous journey out of the dominant mode of American painting when he entered the field, Abstract Expressionism, through his engagement with Egyptian art, and his own, sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful, observations and experience with the legacy of colonialism and racism. These insights led him to raid the treasure trove of Western art to imprint his own stamp on it in a way that was more expansion of Black representation in line with the work of artists, filmmakers and television showrunners today than simple “appropriation.”

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Colescott was born in Oakland in 1925 after a westward migration of his parents described in his painting 1919 (above). In it his mother, an African-American who identified as white, in white dress and green hat with a bow, and his father, with mixed African and Native American heritage in army fatigues bearing the mark of the Buffalo Soldier, face off on opposite sides of the country. His father was a jazz musician who was forced instead to work on the traditional Negro job as a Pullman conductor. Colescott, his mother’s favourite, as a teenager “passed” by enlisting into the army as white, fighting with a Caucasian unit in World War II. It wasn’t until an extended trip to Egypt, where he discovered a history of Black Art, that he stopped passing - denying his African-American heritage - at the same time as he definitively discontinued a flirtation with abstract art. 

A second major influence on Colescott was his study in Paris with the cubist Fernand Leger in 1949, courtesy of the G.I. Bill. After Leger returned from the U.S. after the war, he abandoned the abstract Cubist inheritance for a figurative style that was still highly stylized, with meticulous straight lines crisscrossing the composition. But the compositions themselves now incorporated some of the direct language of advertising, being stark oblongs of figures designed to be accessible to ordinary people. Leger refused to look at Colescott’s Cubist abstract renderings and instead steered the young painter toward the kind of representational exhibited in Leger’s own Construction Workers, a kaleidoscope of workers rebuilding France after the war, including an Algerian worker as a centrepiece. Colescott later reworked this motif in the American context as Hard Hats, showing the hierarchy of white American workers with black workers surrounding them and underpinning their labor.

The major change in Colescott’s work though occurred because of two sojourns in Egypt where he was confronted with 3000 years of Black Art. He was particularly enamored with the paintings in an ancient burial site in the ruins of The Valley of the Queens. These tomb murals of Nubian female royalty had figures floating freely in space everywhere surrounded with splashes of pure colour. Colescott incorporated this freedom and this concentration on the Black female form into a series he did at the time, a highlight of which is 1967’s depictions of one of these queens in Nihad in the New World, with the title suggesting his wish to transport what he learned in Egypt to the African-American context at home. The importance of Egypt to Colescott and Colescott to Egypt was acknowledged in the recent “Robert Colescott: The Cairo Years” exhibit at the American University of Cairo. My exhibition talk on Colescott is available here

Along with this immersion in a tradition of Black Art went his being thrown into the turbulence of the 1960s. First he was forced to flee Egypt because of the onset of the Arab-Israeli Six Days War, thus experiencing Middle Eastern colonialism firsthand, and then he returned to the political hotbed of San Francisco as the Vietnam War Protest and Haight Asbury counterculture reached its peak in 1968.

As Colescott made the transition from pure abstraction to a more socially and politically committed art, a journey that was not validated at the time in the art world, he was sustained by his university connections, the last place artists could find public support for their work, due to the dominance of abstract art in the gallery system.

Here though he was also thwarted. He wanted to be full time faculty at Berkeley, where he had gone to school, but was passed over for a job. He finally went to the University of Arizona at Tucson, where he became the first faculty member in the art department to receive the prestigious title of Regent’s Professor.

From Social Expressionism to Abstract Expressionism and back again

The triumph of Abstract Expressionism in the postwar 1940s and 1950s and its subsequent influence on conceptualism, minimalism, serialism etc. was accomplished at the height of the Cold War with the blessing of the CIA, and through the silencing of two other currents of modernism, the American Social Expressionists and the Mexican Muralists, both of whom retained the political thrust of earlier modernist movements.

This suppression, detailed in my book Cold War Expressionism: Perverting the Politics of Perception, subtitled Bombast, Blacklists and Blockades in the Postwar Art World, saw the work of the Popular Front artists of the 1930s and ’40s dumped on the market and sold for pennies. Their work was outlawed in the prestigious galleries which came into prominence with the decline of government support for an art of the people. What grew up alongside what the banker and later vice-president Nelson Rockefeller termed “free enterprise painting” was a privatization of visual art, was designed to be consumed by the burgeoning postwar corporate elite.

The high priest of the movement, the critic Clement Greenberg, urged artists to re-engage with “those to whom…[art] actually belongs – our ruling class.” Tom Braden made the apparently not very arduous leap from the executive secretary of the Rockefeller’s Museum of Modern Art, the temple of Abstract Expressionism, to the CIA’s director of cultural affairs. There he extolled the virtues of the new abstraction which he claimed “constituted the ideal style” now that its artists had “left behind [their] earlier interest in political activism.”

The artists themselves had mixed views about this adoption of their art where once monumental murals that expressed social struggle were replaced by large-scale abstract gaudy color schemes, such as the yellows and reds of Mark Rothko’s 1953 Untitled No 10, colours that announced the global triumph of American consumerism in works that now hung on suburban walls and in corporate lobbies.

Meanwhile, the political artists, who had been supported by the government in the New Deal 1930s were now forced into exile – for example, the artist Alice Neel, currently the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, had to move to Spanish Harlem. There, she painted portraits of its inhabitants and grey, dingy landscapes such as Rag in Window, that expressed the loneliness of her political exile and contrasted with the productivist, corporate spirit of that other symbol of the New York landscape – the skyscraper.

Another prominent political artist, Jacob Lawrence, who described himself as an expressionist painter and whose subject matter centered on ordinary black workers, also fell on hard times and, at the height of this Cold War repression, had a mental breakdown and spent a year in an asylum. His work was scattered to the four winds and a recent painting, ironically of farmers contesting the power of the government in Shay’s Rebellion as part of the series “The American Struggle,” has recently been recovered after it was passed around and sold at a charity art auction.

The other suppressed movement prominent in this period, which Colescott when he came out as Social Expressionist would have affinities towards, was that of the Mexican Muralists, and particularly in the 1950s and ’60s the work and path of David Alfaro Siqueiros. The movement vied for renown with the Abstract Expressionists at the 1950 Venice Biennale. It was a triumph and then toured Europe where it was finally savaged by French critics – with American backing – and re-confined to Mexico. It didn’t re-surface in the American consciousness until last year’s thoroughgoing reexamination at New York’s Whitney Museum in the wake of which it was claimed the Mexican Muralist’s were more important as influences on American modernism than French artists.

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Siqueiros was one of the first to represent the female Mexican indigenous body in a corporeal way, in for example 1924’s Peasant Mother. That might have sensitized Colescott in his later representation of many shades of African and African-American female bodies, most notably in his 1986 Picasso takeoff Les Demoiselles d’Alabama (above). Colescott, who had watched Diego Rivera’s painting of a mural of the Golden Gate Bridge, also had in common with Siqueiros the journey to Egypt where in ’65 Siqueiros declared himself to be in favour of the non-aligned movement in an extended stay in Nasser’s Egypt.

Colescott himself satirized the gallery-collector system of privatized and marketized or commodified art in his work Tea for Two (below)Colescott appears as himself, a hip black artist in checkerboard pants, leaning languidly on the fireplace of an affluent home. The artist knows what sells, how to brand himself, and how to appeal to the sexualized white female rich collector who gazes at him. The curlicue wafting of the artist’s cigarette and the tea is picked up in the abstract designs on the canvas the artist is peddling. A black servant delivers the tea, highlighting the structure of racial inequality that underpins the entire arrangement. 

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Colescott’s work in breaking free of the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, detailed in Part II (to come), would be a sustained challenge to the still formidable injunction that art should properly remain silent on the world’s increasingly more violent devastation under a form of capitalism where greed knows no bounds; or that art’s sole role must be confined to obscure and wry comments on its place in a certain highly limited and reified area of commodity exchange. In the 1980s and 90s Colescott would move beyond Tea for Two to take on wider issues of unequal racial and gender representation and to put on display the ways the U.S. postcolonial system was built on a history of racial exploitation and domination. 

Freedom for Humanity
Saturday, 18 September 2021 00:58

Art, politics, anti-semitism and anti-Corbynism

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Wright discusses, art, anti-semitism, and anti-Corbynism.

Labour is weathering a co-ordinated campaign which combines criticism of Corbyn's policies and persona with an intensified drive to brand any criticism of the murderous policies pursued by Israel's rulers with anti-semitism.

I was once branded an antisemite. It was the during the Thatcher/Major years and I was editing the newspaper of the trade union for executive civil servants. Our cartoonist, the brilliant, award winning Frank Boyle, drew a series of strips which called out the Tories for their dogma-driven privatisation policies. One depicted the Cabinet as bloodthirsty pirates of a distinctly unsavoury disposition — the chief among them a swarthy, hook-nosed, carbuncled cutlass-wielding figure in a striped vest, battered pirate hat.

A flood of letters arrived, a good proportion using strikingly similar phrases, rather obviously co-ordinated and some clearly unfamiliar with the actual cartoon and more generally concerned at the left-wing character of the union's policies. To my surprise I was accused of publishing anti-semitic images. In discussion with one or two of the more reasonable of my correspondents we were able to agree that the conflation of stereotypical Cornish pirates with the anti-semitic depiction of Jews was too far fetched to be taken as evidence of intent. But it was a useful illustration of how an image can possess an ideological power that transcends both literal meaning and the intent of its creator, the context of its creation and thus have an impact on an audience already sensitised by their own ideological position and their life experiences.

This was a useful experience in my next job working at the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.

It is in the light of this experience and after several decades of anti racist and anti fascist activity that I approach the question of the now-destroyed East End mural that is the pivot on which the latest assault on Jeremy Corbyn turns.

Less I am accused of gratuitously circulated anti-semitic images I can claim that in four years at art school; two years specialist art teacher training and three years of post graduate research as an art historian that I encountered many medieval, Renaissance and modern art and design objects imbued with anti-semitic notions. These artefacts possessed a wide currency in the times in which they were created but nevertheless remain the object of critical scrutiny. We must bring the same approach to the examination of the mural depicted here. Called Freedom for Humanity it was painted by the Los Angeles-based graffiti artist Kalen Ockerman, also known also as Mear One.

We can describe the formal features of the mural thus: Against an apocalyptic background that includes rather ambiguously crafted elements of industrial production and power generation sit six elderly business-suited men playing what appears to be Monopoly. The surface on which they are playing rests on the backs of crouching, naked, possibly androgynous figures and includes a pile of currency notes and tokens that signify industrial production, oil extraction, property ownership and, perhaps, in the case of a miniature Statue of Liberty, political values.

To the left foreground a man is carrying a poster placard that proclaims 'The New World Order is the enemy of humanity' while his left arm is raised to a clenched fist. To the right a melancholy mother holds her baby.

Rising above the central group is a pyramid and all-seeing eye, sometimes taken to signify Freemasonry and more universally recognised as an element in the design of US dollar bills.

It is conventional to catalogue the formal features of a work and the processes used. We can see that the artist works in a contemporary medium using commercially available saturated spray colours. We know from basic research and observation that the artist is proficient in this medium and a high degree of preparatory work and a measure of expert draughtsmanship and technical expertise is evident. This conclusion is supported by a film, available on social media, which shows the process underway.

So, having described the content how do we analyse its meaning?

We can of course, go with our immediate, subjective impressions. This clearly is what many people have done. Judging by the social media discussion some have even ventured an opinion without actually looking closely at the work. But to understand more fully we need to ask what is the painting about.

One way is to take its title. Freedom for humanity has a clear and transparent political meaning In a game of chance and skill six white men dispose of power and wealth while the oppressed and the propertyless support the structures which permit this disparity of means.

But this is not enough. Context is all important. As it is public art we already know something about the audience, we know it was made in 2012 and destroyed by the local authority. We know who made it. We know from the BBC report at the time that the artist said his artwork was not targeting Jews.

We need to locate the mural in relation to other work, including that of the artist himself, the local and global politics of its production and display and we need to understand how the public discourse around the work was originally constructed and how it has been reconstructed in the present moment.

This takes us to the contested meaning of the painting and the significance of the central group. The Times on 24 March this year reported that Jeremy Corbyn has been forced to apologise after initially defending his apparent support for “a mural depicting Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of the poor.”

The day before The Guardian had said the that mural pictured several “apparently Jewish bankers” playing a game of Monopoly. The Guardian was on the same wavelength as the Daily Telegraph which reported that Jeremy Corbyn had questioned a London council’s decision to destroy an antisemitic mural “which depicted a group of Jewish bankers counting money on the backs of ethnic minorities.”

A more careful, or perhaps better informed Jewish Chronicle was better informed about the identities of the six. It said the 'controversial' artwork depicted a group of businessmen and bankers sitting around a Monopoly-style board and counting money. 

At the time, in 2012, there was relatively limited coverage of the mural's destruction. Reportedly, on Facebook, the backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn had suggested that the artist was in good company. “Rockefeller destroyed Diego Rivera mural because it includes a picture of Lenin” he said. A Labour spokesman at that point claimed Corbyn was standing up for free speech.

It is unclear whether Corbyn – who is fluent in Spanish and very well-informed about Latin American history, politics and culture — was mobilising his pre-existing cultural knowledge or if he knew something of the mural's content. However, the connection here artistic freedom and Rockefeller, who is one of the (non Jewish) figures depicted in the East End mural.

In 1933 the Mexican communist painter Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint frescos on the lobby of the Rockefeller building in New York. He titled them The Frontier of Ethical Evolution and The Frontier of Material Development, representing capitalism and socialism. When the patron, Nelson Rockefeller, pressed Rivera to remove images of Lenin and a Soviet May Day scene Rivera refused and the mural was painted over. Rivera recreated the artwork in Mexico as Man, Controller of the Universe.

NW Man at the Crossroads Rivera

There is little critical comparison between Rivera's work and the contemporary mural. Working in plaster and more translucent media Rivera deployed a rich and subtle colour palette, complex imagery, a vast cast of characters and drew upon a rich heritage of political understanding which articulated popular and revolutionary currents of thought.

The technical differences in production are clear enough. Both are public art, both have an avowedly political content, both are didactic. However in scope and sophistication the works could not be more dissimilar.

Given the highly politicised context of the present controversy this gives us a handle on the kind of criteria we must apply in evaluating Ockerman's work

Two immediate issues arise. Firstly, are the bankers and business men all or predominately Jewish? Secondly, in the light of the answer to this question is the depiction of the characters anti-semitic?

To quote Ockerman: “I came to paint a mural that depicted the elite banker cartel known as the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Morgans, the ruling class elite few, the Wizards of Oz. They would be playing a board game of monopoly on the backs of the working class. The symbol of the Free Mason Pyramid rises behind this group and behind that is a polluted world of coal burning and nuclear reactors. I was creating this piece to inspire critical thought and spark conversation.”

We have to take him at his word. The problem is that the iconography draws on a very restricted set of references and these references are, in themselves, problematic. Set aside the passivity and subordination with which the oppressed are depicted. Look instead at the central figures who are depicted as distinctive types, painted with a clear reference, if distorted, to real historical protagonists.

Even if only two of these six bourgeois, Warburg and Rothschild, are Jewish we still need to make a judgement about the character and currency of their depiction. The draughtsmanship clearly exaggerates the distinctive features of all six men. The problem is that exaggerated depictions of Jews are created, disseminated and understood in a historically defined context that includes a powerful, even dominant, discourse that draws upon the long traditions of antisemitism embedded in the dominant ideology and expressed, over the centuries, in the dominant visual culture, including both traditional art forms, religion, politics, popular culture and mass media.

That these traditions are currently more diffused than hitherto and that today, for example, Islamaphobic narratives are more virulent and produce more dramatically dangerous consequences than does contemporary anti semitism is no justification for a lack of vigilance.

In truth, the subterranean narratives around notions of the Illuminati, Freemasonry and bourgeois conspiracies cannot, in much popular imagination, be disentangled from deeply suspect discourses in which alien, Semitic and covert elites are the controlling forces in our lives.

Such notions run exactly counter to the kind of materialist analysis that take the real and existing features of contemporary class society and seek to reveal their workings. State monopoly capitalism operates at vastly more profound levels and bourgeois hegemony is maintained by vastly greater systems of ideological domination than are illuminated by Ockerman's mural or accessible through his restricted political imagination.

Inevitably, this mural was going to understood in the context of existing traditions. If Jeremy Corbyn had not risen to his present stature this mural would have been long forgotten.

The truth is that neither its formal construction nor its artistry, neither its political language nor its iconography is articulated with sufficient levels of complexity and sophistication. It simply collapses, without sufficient theoretical or ideological underpinnings, into an inversion of its creator's avowed purpose.

This is bad art and worse politics.

When, five years later the long-forgotten facts around this painting's destruction are weaponised in a new coup against Labour's popular realignment, we can only marvel that the theoretical poverty of these latter-day art critics is matched by their political hypocrisy.

I am reluctant to criticise Jeremy Corbyn who is the most transparently honest and principled leader of the Labour Party in decades. It is true that his 2012 defence of artistic freedom might have been expressed with more circumspection and today a more robust defence might counter some of his more unprincipled opponents. But the unceasing assault on him is so obviously manufactured that I suspect its effect has a limit and that itself has more traction with a metropolitan and political elite than with broader masses of people.

It is possible to discover in the mountains of social media data instances of clear anti semitic intent. More common are maladroit formulations, poorly constructed arguments, ignorant and lazy conflations of terms that are logically distinct along with arguments that reflect various levels of conscious and unconscious bias. The diligent will find examples of trolling that have their origins in the crude public language in some sectors as well as provocations of even more dubious origin.

We can be sure that one agency or another is searching for any clumsy formulation or ill advised comment that can be weaponised against Labour. That no such diligence is directed at the Tory party or the media that serves bourgeois interest is clear enough indication that this is a project with a clear purpose.

The many hundreds of thousands of Labour folk know this. Many millions more sense the artifice entailed in this campaign. It is instructive that in working class Britain, which by and large is not deeply involved in this controversy, popular sentiment senses that Corbyn is the target. How else to account for the reports that crowds at boxing contests and football matches are breaking out in chants of Jeremy Corbyn's name.

Already the spurt in Labour (and Momentum) membership is taken by more intransigent zionist opinion a proof itself of a wide currency of anti semitism. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn's Seder night feast with a group of irreverent young Jews in his constituency itself is weaponised. Associating with the wrong kind of Jews is also anti semitic it seems.

The association of Blairite MPs with the campaign being waged by the Board of Deputies (and the more obviously Conservative-linked Jewish Leadership Council) will do them no favours with Labour supporters who know from their own experience just how limited is the purchase of anti semitic ideas in the party and the broader labour movement. Interestingly, the non zionist Jewish Voice for Labour is experiencing a new wave of support.

We cannot disentangle the alarm that the Zionist establishment feels at the success of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement from this current offensive. Corbyn is the target because he maintains his principled solidarity with the Palestinian cause and remains opposed to the imperial war plans that pivot on Israel's strategy towards it's neighbouring states.

The real danger is that in conflating, for narrowly sectarian political purpose, what is a fairly widely diffused currency of anti semitic ideas with the more poisonous political anti-semitism that exists as a conscious ideology this campaign runs a real danger of reinforcing the latter.

It is not enough to point out that the most reactionary trends in Zionism act on the basis that the existence of anti semitism is the principal validation of their political project. Anti-semitism needs to be confronted at every level — not as a privileged category of political action — but as part of a conscious movement to assert the universality of human values.

Calling out the crude conflation of Zionism with Jewish identity is the basic building block of any project to combat antisemitism. That this necessarily entails a principled criticism of its mirror image in the most virulently reactionary trends in present-day Zionism is a powerful demonstration of dialectical truth.