Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas

at the Seattle Art Museum
By Lorraine Heitzman

Figuring History, at The Seattle Art Museum, raises the question, “How do we perceive that which isn’t there?” For Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas, that is not a rhetorical question. For these three generations of African American painters, the absence of people of color in art was personal. Their ability to tell their stories with such verve and conviction and their choice to break through conventions about whom and what should be represented in art has transformed art history. Each artist faced the challenge differently but together their work shifts the paradigm of race and representation in museums towards a more inclusive record of what it means to be American.

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Robert Colescott, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Matthew Henson and the Quest for the North Pole, 1986.

Robert Colescott, the de facto elder statesman of these three artists, was born in Oakland, California in 1925 and died in 2009. In his most well known paintings he mimics famous artworks, substituting blacks for whites, in a shrewd indictment of the Eurocentric hierarchy in museums. Other paintings take on race relations and sexual mores with rollicking, entwined figures that recall the complexity of WPA murals combined with the freedom of the Jazz Age. Colescott served in the army in France and Germany during World Ward II and upon his return he attended San Francisco State with an interest in international studies. After learning that there weren’t opportunities for African Americans in the diplomatic corps, by the time he transferred to U.C. Berkeley two years later, he was an art major…

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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