Cole is best known for assembling and transforming ordinary domestic and used objects such as irons, ironing boards, high-heeled shoes, hair dryers, bicycle parts, wooden matches, lawn jockeys, and other discarded appliances and hardware, into imaginative and powerful works of art and installations.
Through the repetitive use of single objects in multiples, Cole’s assembled sculptures acquire a transcending and renewed metaphorical meaning, or become a critique of our consumer culture. Cole’s work is generally discussed in the context of postmodern eclecticism, combining references and appropriation ranging from African and African-American imagery, to Dada’s readymades and Surrealism’s transformed objects, and icons of American pop culture or African and Asian masks, into highly original and witty assemblages. Some of Cole’s interactive installations also draw on simple game board structures that include the element of chance while physically engaging the viewer.
Cole’s widely recurring symbolic and artistic object that was initially brought to the attention of the art world in the mid-1980s has been the steam iron. While Cole’s unique approach of imprinting the steam iron’s marks on a variety of media result in a wide-ranging decorative potential of his scorchings, these scorches are also to be viewed as a reference to Cole’s African-American heritage.
Willie Cole grew up in Newark, New Jersey. He attended the Boston University School of Fine Arts, received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1976, and continued his studies at the Art Students League of New York from 1976 to 1979.
Willie Cole is the recipient of many awards, including the 2006 Winner of the David C. Driskell Prize, the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to the field of African-American art and art history, established by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Cole is represented by Alexander and Bonin Gallery in New York; and by Guido Maus, beta pictoris gallery / Maus Contemporary in Birmingham, AL.
Willie Cole’s work is found in numerous private and public collections and museums around the world, including:
- Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y.
- Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
- American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
- Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
- Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Md.
- Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Ala.
- Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York City
- Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
- The College of New Jersey, Ewing Township, N.J.
- Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, S.C.
- Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio
- Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas
- Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass.
- Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Mich.
- FRAC-Lorraine, Metz, France
- Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, N.Y.
- High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Ga.
- Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, New York
- Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minn.
- Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, N.J.
- Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
- Museum of Modern Art, New York City
- National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Conn.
- New Jersey State Museum, Trenton
- New York Public Library, New York City
- Newark Museum of Art, Newark, N.J.
- Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla.
- Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, Fla.
- Palmer Museum of Art, Penn State University, University Park, PA
- Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia
- Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
- Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Mo.
- San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, Tx
- Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
- Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, N.C.
- Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Ky.
- Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS.
- Tamarind Institute, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
- Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, Fla.
- Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota, Duluth
- University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara
- Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
- Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minn.
- Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
- Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Mass.
- Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.
- Worcester Art Museum Catalogue of Cole’s 2005-2006 exhibit
- Anxious Objects: Willie Cole's Favorite Brands By Smith, Patterson, Leslie King-Hammond, Lowery Stokes Sims. Published 2006. Montclair Art Museum Publn.
- Article on Willie Cole’s 2007 exhibit at the Frye Museum of Art
- Willie Cole's David C. Driskell Prize