Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Original

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  • Provenance

    Semaphore Gallery, New York
    Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago
    G. R. N'Namdi Gallery, Detroit
    N'Namdi Contemporary, Miami
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Charlotte, Knight Gallery, Spirit Square Arts Center, Robert Colescott: Another Judgement, February 13 - April 7, 1985, n.p. (illustrated)
    New Orleans, Arthur Roger Gallery, Robert Colescott: Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future, October 5 - 26, 2002
    Detroit, G. R. N'Namdi Gallery, Robert Colescott, Knowledge: Paintings from the 80s and 90s, September 12 - October 11, 2003

  • Literature

    Lisa M. Collins, "Exhibits with bite", Detroit Metro Times, October 1, 2003, online (illustrated)

  • Video

    Robert Colescott, 'Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Original', Lot 35

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 16 May 2019

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Some of the struggles we have and some of the imperfections that we have as human beings may make us stronger and help us produce original works of art and great orchestras and jazz, but racial prejudice, sexism, and commercialism often supersede humanism.” –Robert Colescott

    A provocative painting in Robert Colescott’s signature style, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Original, 1984, uses caricatured figures to confront social prejudices around race and sexuality. Created with vibrant colors and the artist’s uniquely expressive figuration, this painting juxtaposes two groups of people in a disjunctive space that is flanked by a waterfall on the left, and palm trees and a jet incongruously together with a table and lamp of a modern interior on the right. In its upper left, a black family is grouped into a cohesive shape, their figures reminiscent of African sculpture. In its center, all figures are depicted in a brightly hued caricatured style, a black woman wearing a leopard-print dress nurses a diminutive white man in a suit. Behind them stands a bikini-clad white woman who holds a black baby, with another baby below in a bassinet. Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Original is from a group of Colescott’s paintings from the mid-1980s that confront the politics of representation and the legacy of the past. Its title is a variation on an aphorism by Marcus Garvey: "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots." Another painting from the series, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Some Afterthoughts on Discovery, 1986, is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

    Returning to the United States during the socially transformative 1970s after spending time in Egypt and France, Colescott began developing his mature style, painting parodies of historic art and using barbed satire to confront contemporary social issues. Over the course of the 1980s, Colescott’s paintings became increasingly complex in their themes and expressive in their style, recasting historical imagery in personal terms from his perspective as an artist and an African American man. As the artist stated: “They’re about my humanity and my desires (and some of the pitfalls of those desires and those passions and about the society that creates those things for me” (Robert Colescott, quoted in Robert Colescott: Another Judgment, exh. cat., Knight Gallery, Spirit Square Arts Gallery, Charlotte, 1985, n.p.). In 1997, Colescott represented the United States in a one-artist exhibition at the 47th Venice Biennale, the first African American artist to do so.

    Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Original is a thought-provoking example of Colescott’s use of transgressive imagery to both play with and disrupt stereotypes. Its palette and the juxtaposition of disparate spaces evokes the work of Paul Gauguin, also implicitly raising issues with the French painter’s attitudes toward his non-white subjects. In addition, the woman breastfeeding the man draws upon Christian iconography of Mary nursing the infant Christ. Her leopard-print dress is echoed by the same pattern on the clothing worn by the baby in the upper left, establishing a connection between them. With its intertwined themes of nurture and sexuality and Colescott’s caricatured depictions of both white and black figures, the present painting addresses social taboos around the intermingling of races. The artist, whose ethnicity includes African, European, and Choctaw ancestors, maintained that his paintings were not about race, but social perceptions of it, pointedly stating: “To make a statement about white perceptions of black people by redoing a stereotype, who ever thought such a thing could happen?” (Robert Colescott, quoted in Holland Cotter, “Unrepentant Offender of Almost Everyone”, The New York Times, 1997, June 8, 1997, online).

    By inserting black figures into the history of art with subversive wit, Colescott has asserted significant influence on many prominent contemporary artists, including Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon, and David Hammons. As Hammons declared: “Robert Colescott’s the force... He’s playing with all these things, using himself as a subject and getting mixed up in the art world” (David Hammons in Miriam Roberts, Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., SITE Santa Fe, 1997, p. 28). Through his striking images, he confronted issues around identity that continue to impact society today. With its destabilization of stereotypes and social mores, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Original confirms the continued relevance of Colescott’s work.

Ο ◆35

Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: The Original

signed and dated "R Colescott 84" lower left
acrylic on canvas
84 x 72 in. (213.4 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 1984.

Estimate
$300,000 - 500,000 

sold for $400,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue