Art

Fault Lines in America and Ukraine

“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” a clamorous retrospective at the New Museum, bodes to be enjoyed by practically everyone who sees it, though some may be nagged by inklings that they shouldn’t. For more than three decades, until he was slowed by health ailments in the two-thousands—he died in 2009, at the age of eighty-three—the impetuous figurative painter danced across minefields of racial and sexual provocation, celebrating libertine romance and cannibalizing canonical art history by way of appreciative parody. He was born in California, the son of musicians from New Orleans. His mother, certainly, and possibly his father, who worked as a railroad waiter, had enslaved ancestors, but both of them—and Colescott—could pass for white. As Matthew Weseley, the co-curator of the show with Lowery Stokes Sims, recounts in the splendid catalogue, Colescott’s mother insisted on the ruse, which he adopted. The mild-mannered modernism of his early works, sampled at the New Museum, affords no hints to the contrary.

This changedly when Colescott turned explosive forty during a spell, between 1964 and 1967, of sojourns in Egypt, where he imbibed old and new African cultures. From that epiphanic moment on, he went all-in on the complexities of his racial identity. Being an American Black man, whatever else he was, became the dominant conceit—and license—of his subsequent art, which he imbued with perhaps penitent, palpably vengeful irony, for the rest of his life. By not sparing himself from a pageant of caricatural mockeries, he offered no distance, let alone escape, from the fault lines of race in American democracy. As a bonus, he was freed to burlesque, with terrific energy, motifs of past Western art that he had always revered.

In a mood to be rattled? Contemplate “Eat Dem Taters” (1975), an all-Black recasting of van Gogh’s early tableau of impoverished Dutch peasants sharing a frugal meal, “The Potato Eaters” (1885), with an aura of minstrelsy. How could Colescott—or anyone, really—have expected to get away with that or, from the same year, with a race-switching pastiche of Emanuel Leutze’s nationalist chestnut “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851)? A bespectacled George Washington Carver, the pioneering botanist, stands in for the nation-founding hero of the Revolutionary War. A gleeful fisherman at the bow of the boat reels in a catch. A banjo player strums in the stern.

Not yet sufficiently affronted? Throw in “A Winning Combination” (1974), in which a perky white majorette, backed by a rippling Stars and Stripes, is naked from the waist down. Add “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder” (1979), a self-portrait of the artist distracted by a disrobing white model while repainting Matisse’s hedonist masterpiece “Dance,” from 1910. Still with me? How about “The Judgment of Paris” (1984), in which a clothed Black protagonist is lasciviously vamped by a nude white Venus, to the disgruntlement of white and Black rival goddesses? Rather than angrily or mournfully critiquing racist stereotypes and associated taboos, Colescott shot the moon with them.

A lot goes on in these pictures, starting with how they are executed, in a fast and loose, juicy expressionist manner and by means of a blazing palette that runs to saturated pink and magenta and thunderous blue. Along the way, Colescott pillages the distinctive hues of Willem de Kooning’s iconic “Woman I” (1951) with “I Gets a Thrill, Too, When I Sees De Koo” (1978), in which the face of a grinning Black woman wearing a head scarf replaces that of the Dutchman’s generic white female. (The title kidded a redoing of de Kooning the previous year, “I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill,” by the Pop artist Mel Ramos.) Colescott shrugged off abstract and conceptualist fashions of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, Guaranteeing himself a marginal status in the mainstream art world as a special taste or, let’s say, anti-taste. As if in sweet revenge, his atavistic style and what-the-hell nerve began to influence younger artists of many backgrounds in the late seventies and continue to do so today. Without the spur of his breakthrough audacity, it’s hard to imagine the recent and ongoing triumphs of, among others, the fearlessly satirical artists Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker.

The choice of Colescott to represent the United States at the 1997 Venice Biennale initiated a general surrender to his ineluctable power, though most of America’s upper-crust institutions have yet to capitulate. The New Museum’s presentation of “Art and Race Matters” is a previously unplanned addendum to a tour that débuted in Cincinnati and, having traveled to Portland and Sarasota, was set to end in Chicago. Roberta Smith, who reviewed the show in the Timesproperly declared the implicit squeamishness a disgrace to our major New York museums, lip service to diversity characteristically stops short of anything that isn’t respectably theorized and may be just too roguishly irreverent.

As freewheeling in life as on canvas, Colescott married six times, twice to the same woman, whom he accordingly twice divorced, while studying and then teaching at a series of West Coast and Southwest schools and colleges. After wartime service in the Army, he attended a class in Paris led by Fernand Léger and, in 1951, earned a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley. In the catalog, erudition, wit, and wisdom mark a lively selection of his occasional writings, in which he proves to be his own most discerning critic. His last position, before retiring, in 1995, was as a tenured professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Is there something to be said against Colescott’s untrammelled temerity? If you wish—I, for one, am hospitable to argument—but resistance isn’t easy while you’re feeling delightfully knocked about like a sensitized pinball in rooms crowded with the artist’s most aggressive creations. The effect is comic in a key beyond outrageous. Inrageous? Metarageous? I’m reminded of the liberating shock of Mel Brooks’s flabbergasting movie “The Producers,” which happened to coincide, in 1967, with the onset of Colescott’s painterly insurgency. Undeniably, while trashing American iniquities and insulting compensatory inhibitions, he let—or, more accurately, made, at a volume to wake the dead—freedom ring.

“Women at War,” at the Fridman Gallery, astounds. I wish everyone could see it. The show assembles drawings, photographs, paintings, a print, and video installations by a dozen excellent Ukrainian artists, none familiar to me. All are women, many of them young. Several hail from the ravaged Donbas region. Two remain in Ukraine. Others have only recently left the country. Apart from one historical piece—a linocut portrait from 1963 of the nationalist poet Ivan Svitlychny by Alla Horska, an artist and activist who was murdered, reputedly by the KGB, in 1970—everything postdates the Russian seizure of Crimea, in 2014. Throughout the Show, instances of steely discipline ennoble dramas of suffering and defiance.

An outsized oil painting made by Lesia Khomenko in March of this year, “Max in the Army,” tenderly depicts the partner whom, in her flight first to Poland and then to the US, she has had to leave behind. Looking both resolute and terribly vulnerable, he is lovable. She loves him. To behold three beautiful watercolors of sylvan landscapes by Anna Scherbyna—one painted per year from 2016 to 2018 and almost inconspicuously featuring ruins in the Donbas, of an airport and two hospitals—you must lift little dun-colored curtains. Olia Fedorova’s photograph “Defense” (2017) shows a row of white anti-tank obstacles, or “hedgehogs,” ranged along a snowy slope. They are made of paper, which bespeaks both a presentiment of futility—premature, as it has turned out, impressively—and a lionhearted will.

These are tough-minded creators whose moral fiber should humble those of us who are cozily remote from a cataclysm that adapts repertoires of international art to the lived truths of a convulsed, actual place. Some disturbing. The most unsettling, by Dana Kavelina, are deliberately crude pencil drawings executed on crumpled white paper punctuated by internal rips colored blood red. A number of them allude to rape. A sketch of a woman using a fetus’s own umbilical cord to hang it is titled “woman kills the son of the enemy” (2019). A climactic image suggests the birth of an assault rifle.

But the versatile Kavelina, a rising star in her late twenties, has also created an elegiac, desperately moving video projection. The nearly twenty-one-minute, wide-screen “Letter to a Turtledove” (2020) montages archival film footage of coal miners in the Donbas with expressive women’s faces and hypnotically stylized, almost meditative, fiery explosions. The work engulfs the viewer in a sort of minor-key visual cadenza that sounds the heart and very soul of a nation that has come to awareness of itself—past, present, unknowable future—under unspeakable conditions. Its beauty becomes a Ukrainian weapon as bestirring, if not as practicable, as a donated howitzer.

Nothing in the show is either hortatory or sentimental but only hard-won, such as a series of drawings by Alevtina Kakhidze that begin in 2014 and narrate her contact with her mother in the occupied territory of Donetsk. The mother died of a heart attack in 2019 while crossing the frontier to secure a Ukrainian government pension. Reminiscent in spirit of Kavelina’s video, a suite of ink-jet prints by Yevgenia Beloruses, “Victories of the Defeated” (2014-17), seeks melancholy solace in nocturnal or befogged views of workers who labor at various amid dismal circumstances. The subjects could be anybody, even ourselves if our existence entailed an interminable state of emergency.

The show is elegantly and, above all, eloquently installed by Monika Fabijanska, an independent art historian and avowedly feminist curator who hereby does Ukraine, and any of us who willingly pay attention, a cathartic service. ♦

An earlier version of the article missed Monika Fabijanska’s country of origin.

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