Joe Wesley Overstreet (June 20, 1933 – June 4, 2019) was an American painter who lived and worked in New York City. In the 1950s and early 1960s he was associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement. During the Civil Rights Movement he became known for works such as Strange Fruit and The New Jemima, which reflected his interest in contemporary social issues and the Black Arts Movement. He also worked with Amiri Baraka as the Art Director for the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School in Harlem, and in 1974 he co-founded Kenkeleba House, an East Village gallery and studio. In the 1980s he returned to figuration with his Storyville paintings, which recall the New Orleans jazz scene of the early 1900s. His work draws on a variety of influences, including his own African-American heritage, and has been exhibited in galleries around the world.
Overstreet was born on June 20, 1933 in Conehatta, Mississippi. He began his career in the Bay Area. His family moved from Mississippi several times between 1941 and 1946, before settling in Berkeley. Overstreet was the son of a mason, and he was exposed early to construction and architectural work. His hometown was extremely rural and isolated. His family, who had first settled there in 1830, had raised trees for wood pulp. Overstreet graduated from Oakland Technical High School and joined the merchant marine, working part-time. He attended the California School of Fine Arts in 1953 and California School of Arts and Crafts in 1954.
In the 1950s Overstreet lived in the North Beach section of San Francisco, and was a fixture of the Beat scene. He published a journal titled Beatitudes Magazine from his studio, and was part of a collective of African American artists. During the early 1950s he exhibited in galleries, teahouses, and jazz clubs throughout the Bay Area along with artists such as James Weeks, Nathan Oliveira, and Richard Diebenkorn. His Grant Street studio was located near that of Sargent Johnson, a sculptor and painter who became a mentor. Johnson was an adherent of the philosophy of Alain Locke – the so-called “father of the Harlem Renaissance,” who advocated that African American artists look to their ancestral legacy for aesthetic sources and inspiration.
From 1955 to 1957 Overstreet worked as an animation artist for Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles. In 1958, he moved to New York City with his friend, the Beat poet Bob Kaufman. He designed displays for store windows to earn a living, and set up an apartment / studio on 85th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. He got to know many of the Abstract Expressionist painters and felt his real art education came through his relationships with established artists such as Romare Bearden, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, and Hale A. Woodruff, and Hans Hofmann, whose work he knew from Berkeley. (“I got more out of the Cedar Street Bar than anywhere…”)
Overstreet said, “Looking at Hofmann reminded me of how I saw things naturally, and looking at Pollock reminded me of how I could do things naturally.” De Kooning gave Overstreet some of his works to sell so that the young painter could make it through difficult times. Overstreet also identified with de Kooning's use of house painter's brushes and this enabled Overstreet to feel comfortable with use of cement trowels, which he used, beginning with paintings such as Big Black (1961).
In 1962 Overstreet moved downtown and set up his studio at 76 Jefferson Street, in a loft building where jazz musician Eric Dolphy lived. From 1963 to 1973 he lived at 186 Bowery. He returned to East Bay Area to teach at the University of California at Hayward from 1970 to 1973.
Upon his return to New York, he met Corrine Jennings, and with Jennings and Samuel C. Floyd, established Kenkeleba House, a gallery, with lofts for artist studios at 214 East Second Street. Kenkeleba House, and the sister gallery across the street, Wilmer Jennings, have presented innumerable exhibitions of work by artists of color and women, bringing attention to both under-recognized and emerging artists. Kenkeleba showed young artists who later found acclaim—among them Keith Haring and David Hammons – and also major historical exhibitions of work by important black painters like Norman Lewis and Edward Mitchell Bannister.
Overstreet's work of the late 1950s to the mid 1960s assimilates his interests in Abstract Expressionism, jazz, and the painful realities of African American history, in works such “The Hawk, For Horace Silver” (1957), “Carry Back” (1960), “Big Black” (1961), and “Janet” (1964).
His painting “The New Jemima” (1964/1970) (Menil Collection) subverts the stereotypical black image of Aunt Jemima. Unlike the original character, a domestic servant who exists to please others, Overstreet's Jemima wields a machine gun. Overstreet recalls of this work: “Larry Rivers saw [the Aunt Jemima painting] around 1970, and he said that if I made it larger, he would include it in the Some American History exhibition at Rice University. So I made a kind of wooden armature so that the painting would resemble something like a pancake box. I enlarged it especially for this art project, which was part of the effort in 1971 to desegregate Rice University. Rice had a codicil that blacks could never attend that institution."
In 1964, Overstreet stopped working with oil and began painting in acrylic, which dries faster, allowing him to focus more on spatial problems. The painting “Strange Fruit” (c. 1965) can be seen as a watershed work in terms of its organization and the use of rope, which recurs through the decades in his paintings, in various manifestations. The title “Strange Fruit” refers to the Billie Holiday rendition of Lewis Allan's song (first recorded in 1940) about lynchings.
In particular, the painting may refer to the three civil rights workers – Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner - who were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from Overstreet's home town, in 1964. In this painting, limp trouser legs dangle vertically, with a rope tautly crossing the painting at a diagonal. The abstracted forms suggest charged symbols like a burning cross and Ku Klux Klan hoods.
Other paintings like “One-Eyed Jack” and “Masks” are also references to the Civil Rights Movement. In this period Overstreet worked with Amiri Baraka as Art Director of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School in Harlem and as a set designer. In 1963 Overstreet met Ishmael Reed, the poet, writer, and political activist, just as Reed was formulating his Hoodoo (Haitian voodoo) aesthetic as a literary method.
Overstreet has been upfront about the socio-political content and sources of his work, but he also discusses the ropes and geometry of his paintings in terms of his desire to open up and change space. Overstreet has cited the book by Jay Hambidge, The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry, as a major influence. In the book, Hambidge notes that the Harpedonapte (rope-stretchers) of Egypt discovered the principles of dynamic symmetry and used them to lay out temple plans. Overstreet also recalls his father being interested in the Egyptian rope stretchers, and how masons used rope lines to determine the perspective, pitch and level of the earth. Overstreet admired the work of Frank Stella and by 1967 started working with shaped canvases, that also referenced politically topical events (Agent Orange and North Star, both 1967). Overstreet also noted that he was interested in breaking away from western painting, from the rectangle and stretcher and from western art history sources. His sources included the art of North Africa, Islamic mosques, and art from Mali and Native American Art. Overstreet used wooded dowels shaped with a jigsaw and hand tools to make intricate stretchers, painting figures in patterns drawn from Aztec, Benin, and Egyptian cultures.
In this period he said “I was beginning to look at my art in a different light, not as protest, but as a statement about people. I began to work with the iconography of Native Americans and East Indians, of Oceania and Africa. By 1970 I had broken free from notions that paintings had to be on the wall in rectangular shapes.”
Overstreet was a major innovator in terms of taking the canvas off the wall, and off of rectangular supports. One of his most important bodies of work are the “Flight Pattern” series of 1971: tarps of unstretched canvases which are suspended, and tethered with ropes to the ceiling and floor. Overstreet notes “I began to make paintings that were tentlike. I was making nomadic art, and I could roll it up and travel. When I showed them, I rolled them up and took them on a plane.” One of these paintings is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum – “Power Flight” (1971).
Overstreet's use of the word “nomadic” also is connected to his study of nomadic cultures and the idea of a double or foreign identity. Overstreet said he was interested in maintaining the most appealing feature of nomadic structures: “their tendency, like birds in flight, to take off, to lift up, rather than be held down” by the ropes that suspended them. Many of the paintings of 1971 assumed mandala-like imagery and were icon-like in their presence. Overstreet was interested in tantric yoga, as well as Navajo rituals of sand painting. Overstreet says, “Art is about the coming together of expression, cultures crossing…”
“I was trying to create a reflection of what in my past I had felt had run parallel: Native Americans, African nomadic people, black people here who had no homes—there was a lot of homelessness in those years. We had survived with our art by rolling it up and moving it all over. So I made this art you could hang any place. I felt like a nomad myself, with all the insensitivity in America,” Overstreet notes. His work, he says, has been “tied up in abstract shape with what blacks have felt and struggled” over the last four decades.
After the 1971 “Flight Pattern” series, Overstreet continued his explorations of how paintings could break away from traditional, vertical displays. The tarps are suspended from ropes in flexible, three-dimensional installations. His Icarus paintings fields of stippled color, stretched on bent conduit pipes into convex, soft-edged shapes, suggesting airplane wing. In his “Fibonacci” series – the structural framework comes from Fibonacci system of arithmetical progressions (1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34).
In the 1980s, Overstreet worked on a commission to produce a series of 75 steel and neon panels for the San Francisco International Airport.
Over the past several decades, Overstreet has been a relentless experimenter – investigating both the spatial and textural possibilities of painting, and also complex cultural histories. He created his semi-figurative Storyville series, which recalls the New Orleans jazz scene of the early 1940s. While exhibiting at the Dakar Biennale in Senegal in 1992, he visited the House of Slaves at Gorée, an experience that led him to produce his Door of No Return series. Over the next two years he explored the possibilities of paint texture in large, stretched canvas paintings that reflect his interest in sacred geometry.
In his Silver Screens and Meridian Fields of the early 2000s, his interest in transparency led him to paint on steel wire cloth. The dozens of “screen” paintings Overstreet has made prefigure many of the ways that young contemporary artists are working today – in terms of using fabric, spray paint, and alternative supports to destabilize assumptions and hierarchies of craft, pattern, painting, and modernist art history.
- 2017: Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Tate Modern, London. Traveled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Brooklyn Museum in 2018.
- 2015: The EY Exhibit: The World Goes Pop. Tate Modern, London.
- 2011: Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
- 2005: Water. Bridgetown Embassy, Barbados. Sponsored by the Art in Embassies Program of the U.S. Department of State.
- 1992-3: A/CROSS CURRENTS: Synthesis in African American Abstract Painting. U.S. Representation: Dakar Biennale, Senegal; IFAN Museum, and National Center for Art; French Cultural Center, Libreville, Gabon; GRAFOLIE Festival, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.
- 1992.4: DREAM SINGERS, STORYTELLERS: An African-American Presence. New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, and venues in Japan: Fukui Fine Arts Museum, Tokushima Modern Art Museum, Otani Memorial Art Museum.
- 1989: The Blues Aesthetic. Washington Project for the Arts; Circulating exhibition.
- 1986: U.S. Art Census, 1986: Contemporary Afro-American Artists. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA.
- 2018: Joe Overstreet, Innovation of Flight: Paintings 1967-1972. Eric Firestone Gallery, New York, NY.
- 2008: The Storyville Series. City Gallery East, Atlanta, GA.
- 2003: Meridian Fields. Wilmer Jennings Gallery, New York, NY.
- 1996: (Re) Call and Response. Everson Museum, Syracuse, NY.
- 1996: Joe Overstreet: Works from 1957 to 1993. New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ.
- 1965: Hugo Gallery, New York, NY.
- 1955: Vesuvio Cafe, San Francisco, CA.
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