Treasures from the Vault: Warrington Colescott

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Warrington Colescott is probably best known as a longtime art professor of printmaking at the University of Wisconsin, Madison from 1949 to 1986.  He is credited with helping to grow the department, which continues to be consistently ranked among peers as one of the top printmaking programs in the country.  Colescott is remembered as an educator and mentor to generations of students.  He often created, on average, a dozen prints per year.  His approach follows in the tradition of satirical commentaries like those by Honoré Daumier and William Hogarth.  His works are witty, crowded, and full of current and historical references, all the while poking fun at fads, vices, politics, and even art history.   His younger brother Robert is famous for his irreverent political works dealing with race.

Colescott’s parents hailed from New Orleans, but moved to Oakland, California, where he was born in 1921.  He grew up with a love of vaudeville, the movies, radio broadcasts, and burlesque shows that he snuck into.   

While an art student at the University of California, Berkeley, Colescott wrote, drew, and became editor of the student humor magazine, The Pelican, foreshadowing his later interests.  His undergraduate and graduate studies were in painting, not printmaking, at the University of California, Berkeley.  Between his degrees he served as a Lieutenant of Artillery during WWII. 

During a short term teaching position at Long Beach Community College in 1948, Colescott experimented with silkscreen, which he learned through a colleague.  The end of the war brought an influx of veterans using their G.I. Bill to go to college leading to schools like the University of Wisconsin, Madison to quickly expand.  Colescott benefited from this expansion by receiving a one-year appointment at Madison in 1949 that eventually turned into a 37-year tenure.

Colescott was dissatisfied with the limits of silkscreen and yearned for more texture and finer lines.  He learned the rudiments of etching from Alfred Sessler, who established the printmaking program at Madison.  Colescott furthered his skills in printmaking when he received a Fulbright Fellowship that allowed him to spend over a year (1956-1957) at Slade School of Art at University College, London where he studied the intricacies of the process working as a studio assistant under Anthony Gross.  It was there that he learned to grind and mix his own inks.  Colescott also received research grants to travel to Paris, which gave him the opportunity to meet legendary printmaker Stanley William Hayter.  Through a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964 Colescott returned to London and traveled to Rome.

The battle between the Greeks and Amazons shows Greek structures in the back and a flying messenger, sword raised, in the sky.
Warrington Colescott, African American, 1921-2018. Greeks and Amazons. Lithograph, 1964. Museum Purchase, 1965.92.2. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

It is common for Colescott to fill much of his compositions with small figures and vignettes, as is the case with Greeks and Amazons.  In antiquity, the Greeks depicted battles in sculptures, reliefs, and painted vases.  Figures with idealized proportions were caught in action and perfectly balanced in a quiet, graceful dance of bodies.  The Amazons were all-female warriors from a mythological nation that fought against the Greeks on Troy’s side during the Trojan War; and, this battle is the subject of the west metopes on the Parthenon.  Despite this known tradition, Colescott’s scene is a messy melee with fallen bodies in the foreground.  There is nothing idealized about this war.  Colescott borrows images from different time periods by including a Greek temple, an automobile, a biplane, and a gun toting cowboy on horseback who has gotten involved in the fight.

In the lithograph To Isadora Duncan, Colescott dedicates it to the pioneer of modern dance.  A central dancing figure is surrounded by a bizarre grouping of animals and people.  The eclectic cast of characters sharing drinks brings to mind cafes found in the post-war paintings of German artists George Grosz and Otto Dix.  Colescott felt a special connection amongst art history’s great satirists; he explained, “I looked at my research as a source of legitimizing the things I wanted to do, because I felt so far out of the mainstream of art in the 1960’s and early 1970’s that I had the need of reinforcement.”[1]

A black woman stands in the center, her arms raised to hold up a vintage car. Around her are various people, some with animal heads, including a rabbit and a gator.
Warrington Colescott, African American, 1921-2018. To Isadora Duncan. Lithograph, 1964. Museum Purchase, 1986.92.41. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Over the years, Colescott made playful tributes to the great masters of printmaking, like Rembrandt, Francisco de Goya, Hayter, and Pablo Picasso.  In the museum’s final print by Colescott, the main character (perhaps our tour guide) has dressed in lederhosen on the occasion of a visit to the studio of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.  Although a painter, draftsman, and writer, Dürer notably revolutionized printmaking through more complex content, highly naturalistic rendering, and fine details involving remarkable technical skill in woodcut and engraving.

Various people sit in a studio at a table with food and drink. In the back are printing presses. In the front sits Albrecht Durer, having his portrait photographed by a man wearing shorts and suspenders.
Warrington Colescott, African American, 1921-2018. My German Trip: At Nurnberg Albrecht was expecting me. We toured the busy shop and had lunch, a delicious hasenpfeffer mit nockerlin (cooked by Agnes herself) with the apprentices. Soft-ground etching, aquatint with relief rolls through stencil, 1991. Gift of Will and Ginny Clark, 2018.49 Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Dürer’s recognizable image is roughly lifted from the artist’s painted self-portrait of 1498, found at the Museo del Prado, complete with long brown curls and a striped tasseled cap that coordinates with his open-faced doublet.  Like the painting, Dürer is depicted in three-quarter view with clasped hands.  Dürer’s serious demeanor as a wordly gentleman who has come of age has faded into a jovial smile welcoming a photograph being snapped.  In the print the artist sits at a table with a wood block in progress and carving tools.  His intaglio printing press is in the background.  The artist’s raucous apprentices don T-shirts emblazoned with his familiar monogram, like a fan club.  Dürer often placed his nested initials in clever locations in his compositions, for example, in the museum’s Satyr Family a monogrammed sign hangs from a tree branch and in The Fall it casually lays on the ground. 

Want to inspect these detailed and intricate prints up close? Come visit Sachi in the Print & Drawing Study Center here at FWMoA Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm or by appointment.

[1] Richard Cox, Warrington Colescott, Forty Years of Printmaking: A Retrospective, 1948-1988 (Madison, WI: Elvehjem Museum of Art, 1988), 20.

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