Robert Colescott - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Gift of the Sea is an arresting example of Robert Colescott’s lauded Bather’s Pool series from 1984 to 1985. Conjuring the modernist take on the theme by artists such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Paul Gauguin, the series marks a pivotal juncture in the artist’s oeuvre when he drove his captivation with the female form and classical subject matter in a new direction. Painted in 1984, this scene is the first of the richly colored narrative series, set in a fictive Eden with turquoise Elysian pools and dreamy violet mountains. The present work featured in Colescott’s significant survey at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, in 2018, and the series is a highlighted subject of the ongoing 2019 traveling exhibition, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, the artist’s first comprehensive institutional retrospective.


    John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Image: Art Resource, NY

    In Dialogue with the Past

    "My Bather’s Pool series, which depicts the fictional first encounter between two “pure” races, deals with the clash of African and European cultural standards of beauty....I hope that it makes a point about the relationship of idealized form in art to standards of physical beauty." 
    —Robert Colescott

    Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, ca. 1485. The Uffizi, Florence, Image: Scala / Art Resource, NY

    Reconceiving the pre-historic meeting between White and Black cultures in an imagined, idyllic locale, Colescott explained, “in my mind [it] exists in a perfect place and time, and is peopled by beautiful black Amazons.”i Narrating the progressive stages of the White beauty settling into the African Eden, the series investigates the established power dynamic that trickled through the history of human civilization and art, particularly in canonic ideals of beauty. The artist elucidated, “Art and its sister, human beauty, are engaged in mortal combat. [This series] is about this competition between standards of beauty, both physical and artistic. You can't separate the two. The competition has been going on since the first white face met the first black face, in antiquity, somewhere up the Nile.”ii Preceding the represented events in the other canvases comprising the series, the present work re-envisions the very first primordial encounter as the Edenites observe the white figure entering their shores.  


    A New Approach


    [left] Robert Colescott, The Three Graces: Art, Sex, and Death, 1981. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Image: © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, [right] Robert Colescott, Big Bathers, Another Judgment, 1984. Delaware Art Museum, Artwork: © Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Having broken into “his well-established strategy of appropriating well-known themes from European art history” by 1981 with his The Three Graces: Art, Sex, and Death, Colescott departed from the more humorous nature of his earlier reimaginings of classical subject matter by embarking on a more symbolic endeavor and expressionist style with his Bather Pool series. As he discussed of the paintings, “The subject matter has more a poetic sense…though it still generates thought about identity and makes a social statement. But the narratives are less clear, and there’s [a] psychological statement to each one.”iii With this shift also came a more charged treatment of his palette and gestural approach. Lowery Stokes Sims observed, “His painting technique had changed; he reconnected with his inner Abstract Expressionist from the 1950s and 60s. The surfaces became more textural as he composed tales of a black Eden disrupted by a white, blond woman who mysteriously washes up on shore. Dramas of lost self-image and celebrations of non-canonical beauty ensue.”iv 


    Revising Art History

    "I thought a lot about Cézanne’s bathers and Matisse’s bathers, and thought I would do some bathers. They’re about competing standards of beauty and also about the intrusion of the white world on a black world. It also poses the idea of a beauty parade. And it refers to the Desmoiselles d’Avignon." 
    —Robert Colescott

    Paul Cézanne, Bathers, 1874-1875. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Resource, NY

    Showcasing Colescott’s sensibility to situate his work within the broader tradition of painting in the art historical canon, the present work reflects the artist’s revisionist approach through his contemporary sensibility. As he ultimately expressed, “I’m painting in the grand tradition. The Egyptians painted nude women. African art is almost entirely nude women. And it's the grand tradition in Western art that l'm part of.”v Taking on the age-old trope of bathers in art history, Colescott addresses the standards of beauty in art and how it relates to personal standards of beauty in the present day. “Art is, in one sense, expressive of standards by which a society judges beauty, personal beauty. Black people being judged and judging themselves by a white standard based on classical Greek tradition is one of the contemporary issues I’m getting at.”vi By employing figuration to question historical narratives through the lens of the Black experience, Colescott, as Roberta Smith observed, “helped set the stage for transgressive work by painters like Ellen Gallagher, Kerry James Marshall, Sue Williams and Carroll Dunham and multimedia artists like Kara Walker, William Pope.L and Kalup Linzy.”vii


    Collector’s Digest


    Concurrent Institutional Show: 


    Florida, Sarasota Museum of Art, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, May 29 – October 31, 2021


    • The first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1997, Colescott is known for his pioneering narrative figurations that challenge cultural and racial stereotypes. Colescott’s oeuvre has recently received renewed critical attention, marked by the artist’s major retrospective traveling to various museums from the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati in 2019 to the Sarasota Museum of Art, Florida, where it is currently hosted today.


    • Robert Colescott’s highly acclaimed works reside in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Modern Art, New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, amongst others.


    • The present work is the artist’s third Bathers painting to arrive at auction. Colescott’s world record was recently achieved in May 2021, when his George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook realized over $15,000,000.


    George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975
    Achieved $15,315,900. 

    i Robert Colescott, quoted in Dana Friis-Hansen, “Toward the Body Without Clothes,” in Nude, Naked, Stripped, exh. cat., Hayden Gallery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1985, p. 31.
    ii Ibid.
    iii Robert Colescott, quoted in Lowery Stokes Sims, “Colescott in the 1980s and ‘90s: Stranger in a Strange Land,” in Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, exh. cat., Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, 2019, p. 95.
    iv Lowery Stokes Sims, “Icon: Robert Colescott 1925-2009,” The Studio Museum in Harlem Magazine, Summer 2009, p. 51.
    v Robert Colescott, quoted in Holland Cotter, “Unrepentant Offender of Almost Everyone,” The New York Times, June 8, 1997, p. 35.
    vi Robert Colescott, quoted in Katherine Weiss, “Interview with Robert Colescott,” in The Eye of the Beholder: Recent Work by Robert Colescott, exh. cat., Marsh Gallery, Richmond, 1988, p. 6.
    vii Roberta Smith, “Robert Colescott, Painter Who Toyed with Race and Sex, Dies at 83,” The New York Times, June 9, 2009, online.

    • Provenance

      Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York & Chicago
      Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Marsh Gallery, Modlin Fine Arts Center, University of Richmond; Georgia State University Art Gallery, The Eye of the Beholder: Recent Work by Robert Colescott, September 7 – October 27, 1988, fig. 4, pp. 12, 13, 18 (illustrated, p. 7)
      Los Angeles, Blum & Poe, Robert Colescott, March 10 – April 28, 2018

    • Literature

      Lowery Stokes Sims, “Icon: Robert Colescott 1925-2009," The Studio Museum in Harlem Magazine, Summer 2009, p. 51 (illustrated)
      Edward Goldman, "Listening to Artists," produced by KCRW: Art Talk, March 20, 2018 (Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2018, installation view illustrated, online)
      Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, exh. cat., Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinatti, New York, 2019, fig. 3, p. 239 (illustrated, p. 94)

Property from an Important East Coast Collection


Gift of the Sea

signed and dated "R Colescott 84" lower left; signed, titled and dated ""GIFT OF THE SEA" © Robert Colescott aug. 1984" on the stretcher
acrylic on canvas
83 7/8 x 72 in. (213 x 182.9 cm)
Painted in 1984.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $504,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021