Painter Joe Overstreet, Who Championed Artists of Colour, Dies Aged 85

The artist who participated in various scenes from Abstract Expressionism to the Black Arts movement has passed away

Joe Overstreet, 2018. Courtesy: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Joe Overstreet, 2018. Courtesy: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Joe Overstreet, best known for his series ‘Flight Patterns’, dating back to the early 1970s, that featured paintings on canvases without stretchers, has died aged 85. Eric Firestone Gallery, which represented the American artist, confirmed the news. 

Overstreet’s six-decade long career saw him make work that spanned various artistic modes including geometric abstraction and figuration. As an African-American and Native-American artist, his colourful work was deeply personal and focused heavily on his life and heritage, with an attention to the black experience.

Overstreet was born in 1933 in Conehatta, Missisippi and later settled in the Bay Area with his family. He studied at the California School of Fine Arts and was mentored by sculptor Sargent Johnson. 

He then moved to New York in 1957 where he became a participant in the Black Arts Movement and collaborated with Amiri Baraka while working as the art director for Harlem’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School. He was also active in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Some of his most famous works include The New Jemima (1964); which depicted the pancake mix mascot with a machine gun and Strange Fruit (c. 1965) inspired by Billie Holiday’s song of the same name, which pertains to the lynching of African Americans. 

Overstreet worked with others to create Kenkeleba House in the 1970s: a Manhattan art centre dedicated to artists of colour, at a time when they were offered few opportunities to show their work.

In 1996, there was a retrospective of his work at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. His work was also featured in ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’ at Tate Modern in London in 2017.

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