Erin Petersen
Warrington Colescott

60 years of satire

By - Jun 9th, 2010 04:00 am
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Wisconsin-based printmaker Warrington Colescott is a teacher, a satirist, an art historian and a seasoned traveler. His prolific works have been shown in galleries around the world for decades. Through his colorful and often bawdy prints, Colescott’s comic sensibility and rapier wit have been commenting on politics, society and human nature for the better half of a century.

Warrington Colescott “Picasso at the zoo,” 1978.

This week, the Milwaukee Art Museum opens a retrospective of his work, featuring more than 100 Colescott prints, spanning 60 years of his storied career. (ed. note: TCD originally stated that watercolors and drawings would also be on display, however this line has been corrected as only prints will be shown.)

As I sit across from him in the museum’s Contemporary Gallery, he talks about how his boyhood paper route delivering a daily Hearst news rag later influenced the first political cartoons he made while working for various student publications at UC-Berkeley. Back then he was cranking out five fresh pieces a week, and was making a big hit with the undergrad crowd at Cal.

Later in his career, Colescott’s famous caricatures would evolve into poignant bits of social commentary and visual chronicles of art history — as he says, when he began to “create art about art.”

“Satire has always been an element in my work,” he says, “as I got older, I began to attempt to say things that were a bit more complicated.”

In the art world, he’s considered a pioneer in the medium of printmaking, but he’ll be the first to admit that he didn’t always take it seriously as an art form. He came out of college a painter, but says that printmaking always intrigued him, even though it took a while for him to appreciate its worth in comparison to painting or sculpture. He started experimenting with etching,various applications and use of color. What began as a hobby soon developed into a profound appreciation for the medium, and Colescott says he was fascinated by the challenges of working within the limitations of the material and found value in the processes that lead up to the finished product.

“I was really becoming hooked,” he says.

Colescott spent much of his young adulthood studying in Europe, immersing himself into the places that ran warm with art’s life-blood.  Through Fullbright and Guggenheim fellowships  and well-deserved education credits through the GI Bill, he was able to live and work in Spain, Rome and Paris — the birthplaces of his artistic idols like Goya and Toulouse-Lautrec. And he drew every day, in the Louvre as he viewed the Mona Lisa, in the cafes where some of the greats drank themselves silly and in the plazas and landscapes that inspire famous works of art.

Colescott would go on to create his well-known anthology The History of Printmaking, a collection of prints, watercolors and drawings that visualized his own interpretation of the critical moments in the history of the medium.

“A Moonlight Swim,”1952.

In 1948, Colescott relocated to Wisconsin to teach printmaking at UW, and has lived in the state ever since. He and his wife, artist Frances Myers live and work in Hollondale, WI, though they travel extensively — a theme that is evident throughout his entire body of work.

As our conversation winds down, I ask him how he feels going into this 60-year retrospective of his work. He laughs heartily at the question and says that he is, of course, very happy about it. Throughout our meeting, he’s been as playful and direct as one might expect from a career satirist. He starts talking about the somewhat fleeting relationship that artists have with their work.

” You get attached to the art that you make, and you have to get it out and sell it…it’s a business too,” he begins, ” so it’s kind of sad that a lot of the things you make get dispersed — some are sold, some just disappear.”

Weaver Chapin suggests that the show will be like a “family reunion” for Colescott.

“Yes,” he laughs, “it will be nice to see all of them again.”

Cabaret, Comedy & Satire opens on Thursday, June 10 and remains on view until September 26,2010. Curated by Mary Weaver Chapin, the show features over 100 works created between 1948-2008 and is made possible by a gift from Colescott and wife Frances Myers, making the MAM the largest repository for Colescott work in the world.

Categories: Art, Arts & Culture

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