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Painter Rober Colescott Rakes In Top Honors.

By Margaret Regan

THE PAINTER ROBERT Colescott lives at the end of a rock-strewn dirt road that curves a crooked mile into Tucson's desert.

The hills around his dark adobe house are studded with saguaros, and in this season their white blossoms gleam in the searing sun. Apart from the occasional rumble of a neighbor's pickup truck, the only sounds are the calls of birds.

This week, though, Colescott is light years away from the serene house, and its immaculate, high-ceilinged studio where the painting "Ode to Joy" awaits his final touch. Instead, the 71-year-old Colescott is caught up in the madding crowds of art-mad Venice, where he is representing the United States in the 47th Venice Biennale, the biggest and most prestigious of the international contemporary art fairs.

Colescott's sumptuous exhibition of 19 large acrylics, buoyant narrative paintings that gyrate with figures and pulse with color, opened to the press Wednesday, June 11. Friday he'll undergo an international press conference, and Sunday his show opens to the public.

As the first African-American ever chosen to mount a solo show in the U.S. pavilion, and the first painter chosen since Jasper Johns back in 1988, Colescott is making an even bigger sensation than the winning artist usually does.

A few weeks before the Venice firestorm, Colescott was taking it all in stride at his Tucson home. Dressed Old Pueblo-casual in muscle shirt, shorts and cloth sandals, he graciously sat for an interview for the local paper a few days after The New Yorker ran a story on him, and a week before the Los Angeles Times art critic was coming to call. During the hour-long interview, the retired University of Arizona art professor was interrupted by the phone at least five times.

"I'm OK doing this kind of thing," he said patiently of all the attention he's been getting. "I've been doing it for years...So I'm not as overwhelmed as I would be if I were a kid and somebody said, 'Wow! You're going to Venice.' And I said, 'Whoa! I've been discovered.' "

Nevertheless, he's quietly pleased about the honor. All the paintings in the show were made in the last 10 years--two, "Venus I" and "Venus II" are just months old--and Colescott expects they just might change some set ideas people have about his work. (Tucsonans have to wait almost a year and a half to see the show on tour: It will be at the University of Arizona Museum of Art next year, from October 20, 1998, to January 5, 1999.)

Twenty years ago Colescott had a big success with a series of art historical satires, paintings that skewered black stereotypes by reworking famous icons of art. In his version of "Washington Crossing the Delaware," George Washington Carver is at the helm of a boat full of cheerful minstrel blacks. Ironically, since then, Colescott has found himself typecast as the art history takeoff artist.

"It's almost inescapable," Colescott said. "People want that little soundbite--they tag you with that. It works to put you in a box."

And as he says, those paintings were only about a dozen of the many works he's produced over the 50 years he's been painting seriously.

Colescott got started the way most artists do, as a kid who liked to draw and paint. He was born in 1925 in Oakland, the son of parents who moved to the Golden State from New Orleans "to get away from segregation." His father was a classically trained violinist who, as a black man, found no opportunities to play with an orchestra.

"My dad was a poor working stiff. He worked on the railroad in the dining car for 41 years. But he was very musical."

In between shifts on the trains, though, Colescott's father played New Orleans jazz with the likes of Louis Armstrong in the years before Armstrong was famous. There was a place for the violin in those early days of jazz, Colescott says, "when jazz was coming out of ragtime, out of traditional dance music."

Colescott went through the California public schools, and after World War II, when he served in the South Pacific, he enrolled at UC Berkeley on the GI bill. Classes were not segregated, he said, but "you almost never saw a person of color as a faculty member." A counselor did talk him out of trying for the Foreign Service, explaining to the aspiring young diplomat, "The U.S. government is not going to hire you, so you might as well be practical." The advice backfired. Colescott figured if he couldn't get the job he wanted, "I might as well do art."

After college, Colescott went off to Paris to study with Fernand Léger, the pioneering cubist whose geometric works took their forms from the skyscrapers and machines of the modern city. Léger "would take about 10 or 12 students. It was something he believed in."

It was also something that changed Colescott's art.

"I brought him some geometric abstractions--he was not into abstraction anymore--he was very helpful. He got me to think more about the figure as a subject matter."

Colescott turned permanently toward the figure, a change that allowed him to do paintings whose thick pigments not only celebrate the joys of pungent color, but explore psychological states and challenge social conventions of all types, from capitalism's shanghaiing of the female body for profit, to colonialism and racism. In 1950s America, when Colescott came back to Berkeley for his master's, abstract expressionism was king. He persisted anyway ("I didn't think too much of it, I was doing my own work"), developing his narrative painting style during the years he toiled as a seventh-grade art teacher in the Seattle public schools, and then as a professor at Portland State University. During the '60s, he left the United States and taught in Paris and Cairo. Later he taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, and finished his professorial career at the UA, teaching there from 1985 to 1995.

He never saw a contradiction between painting and teaching, noting, "I always felt painting was the most important thing I did. If I wasn't the best painter I could be, then I shouldn't be teaching."

In the 1970s, though, the winds in the art world changed direction, and Colescott got noticed as something more than a dedicated art teacher.

"Around 1970 I started to show in New York. There was more cultural notice paid (to narrative painting). It was an important time for American art: (Abstract) painting and sculpture had come to the end of the line, and expressive, narrative painting was the next step out the door. For me to show figurative work, it was the right time."

Since those early years of notice, Colescott has won most of the awards and grants the art world has to give. He's been widely written about and widely collected, with works in such places at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hirschhorn, and so on.

Tucson has not generally been aware of the celebrity in its midst, partly because he's kept his desert home as a refuge from the hoopla that's part of the successful artist's job description today.

"I don't have any profile in Tucson and I like it that way," he said. "The local paper carrying me makes me a little queasy."

Nevertheless, he expects the publicity to die down once he gets back home and back into the studio. He's eager to get his hands on his paints and brushes again, and he's pleased the Biennale has honored the old art of painting, after several years of giving the nod to more cutting-edge video art, sculpture and installation.

"Painting is the most important visual art," he declared. "Painting is always there; but it gets neglected. It's time to look at painting again."

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