Robert Colescott’s 1989 painting White Boy will be sold at auction this month. The painting will be offered during a contemporary art evening sale at Bonhams Los Angeles headquarters, where it is expected to achieve a price of $800,000–$1.2 million this Friday.
The painting was one of 19 that Colescott showed at the U.S. Pavilion of the 1997 Venice Biennale, which made him the first Black artist to represent the country at the exhibition. The paintings Colescott exhibited there riffed on the styles of Matisse and Picasso, and dealt with forms of anti-Blackness inherent in U.S. history. At the time, critics received Colescott’s caustic approach favorably. A 1997 New Yorker review described the works as “slyly wicked allegories.”
In White Boy, multiple vignettes depicting a Black woman and a white man seem to allude to an illicit relationship that hangs in the balance. In one section of the work, the couple appears as needle-pierced voodoo dolls in the hands of a white figure, whose face seems to merge that of a man and woman’s. Elsewhere in the work, Colescott appropriates a figure taken from Picasso’s Demoiselle d’Avignon (1907), altering its arm so that its hand is raised in a position intended to recall Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
Sharon Squires, a contemporary art specialist at Bonhams, told ARTnews, that the painting is “symbolic of the multitude of outside influences that will control this young couple’s future,” adding, “These seem to be archetypes that are not specifically identifiable but that represent forces which certainly include a white governmental or judicial figure.”
The work is being sold from the holdings of private American collectors, who purchased it from Laura Russo Gallery in Portland, Oregon, in 1996. It was part of a 1998 Colescott survey that appeared in Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Berkeley, California.
White Boy is likely to place among Colescott’s most expensive works at auction. Still, it probably won’t surpass the artist’s current record of $15.3 million, set when his 1975 painting George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook sold to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles last May during a Sotheby’s auction. But the sale will be closely watched anyway because it’s unusual for major Colescott paintings to come to auction.
“The past few years have seen a rediscovery of many artists’ work,” Squires said. “Colescott is among this group. His work is relatively rare on the market and increasingly sought after.”