Colescott combines anger, irony and humor to comment on the status of African Americans during the Vietnam era. A black G.I. is engaged in battle; the smoke from his gun forms an outline of Vietnam. Hovering in the sky is a blonde, blue-eyed woman typifying the stereotypical American ideal of female beauty, as suggested in Don McLean’s 1971 hit song “American Pie.” Black soldiers fought in Vietnam for the ideals of white America, suggests Colescott, while that same society often denied them the very freedoms for which they were fighting.
Robert Colescott Bye Bye Miss American Pie, 1971 Collection of the Akron Art Museum As children Robert Colescott and his brother Warrington showed great interest in art and music; both became artists. After army service in France following D-Day, Robert Colescott studied art at the University of California in Berkeley on the G.I. Bill; later, in Paris, he studied with the modernist painter Fernand Léger. Returning to the United States, Colescott received a graduate degree in art in 1951. Over the following decades he taught on the West Coast, in Egypt, and in the Southwest, retiring from the University of Arizona in 1995. In 1997 Colescott represented the United States with a solo show at the Venice Biennale. Artistic maturity and recognition came slowly to Colescott as he struggled to bring together his personal concerns and his wide knowledge of art and history. In 1971 Bye Bye Miss American Pie became a key work in his development, successfully fusing biting humor and a strong commitment to social content.1 The painting renders images from popular culture and current events in a simplified manner, almost like cartoons. Objects are arranged for symbolic or satirical value rather than fidelity to reality. The composition is dramatic, with bold contrasts of color and huge letters across the top. While most American Pop Art of the 1960s celebrates consumer culture with a light irony, Colescott's satire engages in a more trenchant criticism, pointing out the inequities between blacks and whites from an African American viewpoint. The painting's title refers to a popular song by Don McLean. Its refrain, "Bye-bye, Miss American Pie," laments the vanished ideals of the Kennedy years and the lost exuberance of early rock music, both replaced by the disillusionment of the Vietnam era. Here a soldier in a camouflage uniform sprays bullets across what first appears to be white smoke but upon careful observation becomes an outline of Vietnam. Colescott reminds us that those lowest on the social ladder are inevitably the foot soldiers in every war. However, at the same time he exposes the subordinate status of blacks, Colescott demands recognition of their central role in American history. Even were the United States to win its Asian war, this soldier would not likely get a piece of the tantalizing pie floating like a halo above the nude blonde. Colescott's ribald humor is readily apparent in the gustatory slang of "pie," a reference to the blonde's pudenda. The artist describes the exuberant female as stemming from the myriad advertisements featuring buxom women enticing male consumers to supposed happiness.2 A new incarnation of the perennial goddess/whore, this triumphant, fleshy fantasy dramatically contrasts with the reality described in McLean’s bitter lyrics describing a country where “the music died." The painting exemplifies Colescott's explosive linkage of social issues with sex. The cliché of fighting for motherhood, apple pie, and the girl next door is turned on its head. "Colescott makes us uncomfortably aware of the implicit arousal in female personification of great American values such as Liberty," wrote Lowery Sims, "and at the same time exposes the raw nerve of interracial sexual politics and of blatant machismo (is it necessary to belabor the metaphor of the gun as phallus?)."3 Married four times, Colescott pokes fun at women, but he also adores them and acknowledges the humiliating roles they often are forced to play. Colescott's ironic images of popular song, sex, racial politics, and American history float against a colorful sky that summons visions of Old Glory. His trenchant observations are leavened by an abiding humor and an affection for the realm of folly that is the human condition. - Mitchell D. Kahan, 2001 1. Humor and fantasy combined with social or personal comment are also key characteristics for a number of Colescott's Bay Area colleagues, such as Robert Arneson (see pp. 214–15), Roy De Forest, and Joan Brown. Works by De Forest and Brown are on public view in Akron's Oliver R. Ocasek Government Office Building. 2. Conversation with the artist, Akron, Ohio, April 11, 1996. 3. Lowery S. Sims, "Bob Colescott Ain't Just Misbehavin'," Artforum (March 1984): 57–58. Roberts, Miriam. Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings. Venice: 47th Venice Biennale, 1997. Sims, Lowery S., and Mitchell D. Kahan. Robert Colescott: A Retrospective, 1975–1986. San Jose, Calif.: San Jose Museum of Art, 1987.
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