“My paintings don’t let the onlooker glance over them, but rather take them deeply into them and let them out—many times by different routes,” artist Joe Overstreet once said, describing viewing experiences that can be variously harrowing and exhilarating. “These trips are taken sometimes subtly and sometimes suddenly.”
Over the course of a six-decade career that cut across artistic movements and unflinchingly addressed issues of racism and inequality, Overstreet established himself not only as one of the signal painters of postwar American art, but also as a vital organizer. As an African-American man working in a cultural sphere that has long marginalized non-white artists, he helped create exhibiting opportunities for numerous artists of diverse backgrounds at Kenkeleba House, the arts space he cofounded in Manhattan’s East Village in 1974.
Overstreet’s death on Tuesday night in New York at the age of 85, which was confirmed by Eric Firestone Gallery, his representative in New York, marks the end of a trailblazing life, and it comes amid renewed interest—both scholarly and commercial—in the artist’s relentlessly innovative work, resulting from museum exhibitions focused on the work of African-American artists and other artists of color.
Because Overstreet worked in a wide variety of modes, his art resists any simple summation. But he is best known for his incisive political works of the 1960s and his “Flight Patterns,” the gloriously colorful abstract pieces—inspired by Tantric drawings and Navajo sand painting—that he began making in 1970 on shaped canvases that he attached to walls, floors, and ceilings by running ropes through holes at their edges so that they appear to be floating or flying.
“I was making nomadic art, and I could roll it up and travel,” Overstreet said of those stretcher-free works. “We had survived with our art by rolling it up and moving it all over. I felt like a nomad myself, with all the insensitivity in America.”
Joe Wesley Overstreet was born in 1933 in the small town of Conehatta, Mississippi, about 60 miles east of Jackson, and wanted to be a painter from an early age. Speaking with an interviewer a few years ago, Overstreet noted that he was then 78—and quickly added, “I’ve been trying to be a painter for probably 70 of those 78 years.” He credited his rural upbringing with shaping the direction of his work. “Because I had experienced beauty and freedom in nature, I could recognize it in art,” he told Barry Schwabsky in a 1996 profile in the New York Times, and in some of his work, he drew on Choctaw iconography that he first saw growing up.