Native Americans

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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Review: ‘The Haunting’ Has a Big Problem With ‘Hamilton’

Jesse Bueno, left, and Monisha Shiva in Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. | Credit: Tanja Maria (The New York Times)

Jesse Bueno, left, and Monisha Shiva in Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. | Credit: Tanja Maria (The New York Times)

By Elisabeth Vincentelli

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a character, and his hit musical is a punching bag, in Ishmael Reed’s didactic play about historical correctness.

In the four years since his musical “Hamilton” first opened at the Public Theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda has become one of America’s most successful and ubiquitous entertainers. There he is, serenading President Obama at the White House, triumphantly taking his show to a recovering Puerto Rico, portraying a chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins Returns.” And, in a true sign that he has made it to the top of the celebrity mountain, Mr. Miranda has proactively counterpunched potential critiques by playing comedic versions of himself, most notably in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

One way we have not seen him, however, is as a lazy, gullible dumdum — which is how he is portrayed in Ishmael Reed’s show “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” currently at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

That’s actually a pretty sympathetic take, considering how little Mr. Reed thinks of “Hamilton,” which he accuses of, among other things, turning a blind eye to the Schuyler family’s ownership of slaves and soft-pedaling Alexander Hamilton’s elitist politics and his attitude toward slavery. Mr. Reed’s views are shared by a range of historians, but he is deploying them by using an art form, theater, that only sets up unflattering comparisons to Mr. Miranda’s work — at least judged purely in terms of form rather than content.

In the play, Lin-Manuel (Jesse Bueno), his senses possibly altered by Ambien, is visited by the kind of people left out of “Hamilton”: slaves, Native Americans, Harriet Tubman (Roz Fox). As if in a cross between “A Christmas Carol” and a trial at The Hague’s International Criminal Court, each of the witnesses lectures Miranda on the reality behind the audience-friendly Broadway razzmatazz. Mr. Bueno spends a large part of the show looking befuddled as his character is being schooled.

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