Warrington Colescott, American (1921 - )
Warrington Colescott was an important figure, as teacher and artist, in the post World War II flowering of printmaking at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. He was one of the innovators in advancing technique and imagery in print culture that made Madison one of this country’s creative hotspots. His etchings continue to be recognized internationally for the satiric bite of his narrative subject matter which often comments on the state of the world as seen through his eyes. Narration is at the core of his art. The source of its journalistic aspect goes back to a childhood fascination with comic strips and to his college student involvement in political and sports cartoons.
Humor is the lubricant that smoothes the way for barbs aimed at humanity’s foibles and institutions’ cruelties. The pompous edifice of high culture, politics and current fashion threatens to totter and fall when Colescott puts his etching needle to the copper plate to render his quirky and beguiling images.
He taught printmaking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1949 to 1986; he is the Leo Steppat Chair Professor of Art Emeritus, a Fellow of the Wisconsin Academy and an Academician of the National Academy of Design. His prints are held in most major public collections including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Milwaukee Art Museum honored Colescott with a retrospective exhibition of his prints and paintings in 2005.
Colescott had studied painting at the University of California, Berkeley, and only began to make screenprints in 1948 while he was teaching at Long Beach City College. He continued to paint, draw, and make screenprints when he moved to Madison to teach drawing and design at the University of Wisconsin. The art faculty at Madison included several members who were both painters and printmakers, including Dean Meeker, Alfred Sessler, and John Wilde. Sessler introduced Colescott to etching in the mid-1950s, and Colescott furthered his education in the medium at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, studying with Anthony Gross. During that time, Colescott experimented with hard-ground etching while continuing his screenprinting; in a few instances, he combined the two media, as in Night Wings from 1957.
By the early 1960s, Colescott had all but abandoned screenprinting, devoting his time, rather, to complex etchings in color. He achieved a major breakthrough in his work when he began to cut and shape the copper etching plates with mechanics’ shears. In addition, he started incorporating bits of letterpress (typically zinc letterpress used for newspaper printing) and recycled etching plates into his compositions. At the same time, his work became less abstract and more narrative in nature, which allowed him to unleash his satirical talents in work such as In Birmingham Jail (1963), which is based on the civil rights struggles in the South, and lambastes the racism and violence of a corrupt system; or Christmas with Ziggy (1964), a social satire of businessmen entertaining their mistresses at a posh London restaurant. That same year, Colescott began an etching about the Depression-era gangster, John Dillinger, which grew into a suite of images mixing fact and fiction about the farm boy-turned-outlaw who mesmerized the public in the 1930s. "A storyteller who skips all the dull parts," as author and curator Gene Baro has called him, Colescott had no compunction about enhancing the narratives with imagined details and anachronistic additions.
Colescott’s mature style found fruition in his series Prime-Time Histories: Colescott’s USA (1972–73) followed by The History of Printmaking (1975–78), perhaps Colescott’s best-known work. In this suite of images, which includes twenty-one intaglio prints, two lithographs, and a handful of watercolors and drawings, Colescott imagines critical moments in the history of printmaking. In each print, Colescott starts with historical fact, and then adds his own interpretation, often borrowing from the featured artist’s own style or themes. For instance, in one scene we witness Alois Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, receiving the secrets of this medium from devilish creatures in the Black Forest; in another plate, Colescott imagines Pablo Picasso at the zoo, admiring animals such as the minotaur that recurs in his work. For his riff on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Colescott imagines the fin-de-siècle artist (and enthusiastic chef) in his kitchen, whipping up a lunch for his friends, characters from Lautrec’s oeuvre. In 1992, he returned again to an art-historical theme in My German Trip, in which Colescott imagines encounters with the great German printmakers Albrecht Dürer, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and members of the German Expressionists, with highly comic results.
More satires and fictional histories have followed. Since the 1970s, Colescott has continued to pursue social satire in his work. As art historian Richard Cox has written, Colescott casts his net wide: "Greed vanity, pride, lust, social ambition, silly fads, and fashions—[Colescott] adapted the traditional targets of artists and writers as his own. With wit and disarming humor he has drawn many entertaining and zany prints, everything from good-natured spoofs to harsh, stinging parodies. Greek gods, American presidents, newspaper tycoons, academics, gangsters, cops, cowboys and Indians, Pilgrims, accountants, scientists, generals, joggers, hunters, show girls, movie stars, the artist himself—you name it, all have been skewered by Colescott’s needle."
Recurrent themes since the late 1980s show a different focus. These include burlesque, popular culture, and the afterlife (see The Last Judgement triptych, 1987–88). The artist also focuses on some of his favorite locales, such as California (his birthplace), Wisconsin (where he resides), and New Orleans, the home of his Creole ancestors, as seen in his recent series, Suite Louisiana. Colescott has turned his attention to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in prints including Imperium: Royal Lancers Attack Wog Armor—Heartland Saved (2005) and Imperium: Down in the Green Zone (2006).
Colescott’s work is in museum collections across the United States and Europe, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, New York Public Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate, Columbus Museum of Art, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, among others. In his home state of Wisconsin, numerous institutions hold his work; these include the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, the Racine Art Museum, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has the largest collection of his work in the world, numbering more than 250 prints, drawings, and paintings.