Joe Overstreet, Painter and Activist, Is Dead at 85

Joe Overstreet with his painting “North Star” (1968). Joe Overstreet/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via Eric Firestone Gallery, New York. - The New York Times

Joe Overstreet with his painting “North Star” (1968).
Joe Overstreet/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via Eric Firestone Gallery, New York. - The New York Times

By Holland Cotter

Like many of his fellow African-American artists, he infused his work with burning political issues of the 1960s and ’70s.

Joe Overstreet, an artist and activist who in the 1960s took abstract painting into the sculptural dimension and later created a home in New York for artists who had been ignored by the mainstream, died on June 4 in Manhattan. He was 85.

His Manhattan gallery, Eric Firestone, said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Overstreet belonged to a generation of contemporary African-American visual artists who came of age in the civil rights era and addressed the burning political issues of the day in a wide variety of forms and styles, from overt protest work to the subtlest geometric abstraction.

He was particularly notable for removing canvases from the wall and suspending them in space, giving painting a sculptural dimension. He saw such pieces as, among other things, experiments in how to situate art and viewers in physical space.

Mr. Overstreet’s work in the 1960s and ’70s coincided with debates about the direction African-American art should take. One side insisted that it should be direct in its political content; the other argued that cultural progress demanded that artists be free to choose their modes of expression.

Mr. Overstreet, who was deeply involved in the Black Arts Movement, negotiated the divide inventively. Even his most abstract-looking work had implicit political dimensions. His cultural references were often to non-Western sources, ancient and modern: Islamic design, African patterning, South Asian mandalas.

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