The de Young Museum's most perused painting might be Robert Colescott's A Taste of Gumbo, which anchors the central corridor that visitors pass through on their way to purchase tickets and enter the permanent galleries. The painting is typical Colescott: humorous and provocative, with issues of race, stereotyping, and history all addressed in a single canvas. For many African-Americans, Colescott was the artistic conscience of the late 20th century — a Paris-educated painter from Oakland who riffed on popular culture through figurative drawings that inspired or enraged, depending on your view.
In the Bay Area, every major art museum has at least one Colescott piece, but the greatest display of his work is now at the Museum of the African Diaspora, where Colescott is one of nine featured artists in "Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!" — an alluring exhibit that indirectly addresses this question: Do African-American artists who specialize in abstraction feel obliged to portray subjects crucial to black culture?
For Colescott, the answer was most often "yes." "A day doesn't go by that I don't think about being a black person," Colescott said before his death in 2009 at age 83. "I can't remember a day, even going back to my childhood, that it didn't affect the way I am and what I am."
Colescott, though, refused to be pigeonholed as a "black artist," and among his works at MoAD is WMD: Remembering Sardanapalus, a post-9/11 canvas about U.S. military efforts in Iraq that pays homage to Death of Sardanapalus, Eugene Delacroix's famous 1827 portrait of a war's end. With its panorama of scrawls, squiggles, and amorphous shapes, WMD: Remembering Sardanapalus is a conventionally abstract piece, though it retains Colescott's use of dramatic colors — a signature palette of oranges, yellows and reds.
The 1975 work that cemented Colescott's reputation, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, took one of America's most recognizable historic paintings and substituted black people for the white ones. Besides Carver, Colescott depicted passengers as racist caricatures of African-Americans — including an Aunt Jemima figure and a jug-swilling loafer. While Colescott's intentionally racist imagery inflamed some critics, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware was a seminal work: a wry painting that prompted viewers to discussions of race and prejudice, and to confront this country's racial history.
If Colescott is the star attraction at "Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!," Leslie Kenneth Price is the most mysterious — an African-American artist who buries his themes in canvases of inchoate matter. Each Price piece is like a window into beauty. Brush strokes collide with shadows, circles, and wavy lines that only hint at figuration. Price's art never suggests issues of race. Instead, nature is Price's main domain, as in Winter on the Grove, a 2004 work that relies on shades of green to set a vibrant mood. Besides the natural world, Price's art is inspired by Buddhism and jazz.
Every artist in MoAD's exhibit was born before 1950 (Price is approaching age 70), and all are widely known in art circles. Some are white — a decision that let curator Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins and the museum create a "cross-cultural exchange" between artists of different racial backgrounds. At the de Young, the wall text accompanying A Taste of Gumbo describes Colescott this way: "African American artist Robert Colescott's paintings combine images and ideas from art and popular culture to confront racism in America." At MoAD, the exhibition guide avoids denoting the artists by race. Is it important for museum-goers unfamiliar with the work to know an artist's skin color?
Attending San Francisco State after World War II, Colescott wanted to be a diplomat, but a school counselor discouraged him because — as Colescott told an interviewer — "He didn't think that there would be a career for me as an African-American person." Art, then, offered opportunities that didn't exist in other professions. The artists in "Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!" — among them Mary Lovelace O'Neal, who as a teenager in 1960 was arrested for protesting segregation in the American South — were pioneers.
O'Neal became chair of the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley and exhibited around the world. Colescott, who taught at such schools as the San Francisco Art Institute, was the first African-American to represent the United States at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In their art are interpretations of their lives and times that cry out for reflection in the stillness of modern museums.