Joe Overstreet, Hoodoo Mandala, 1970, acrylic on canvas with metal grommets and cotton rope, 90 x 89 1/2".

Joe Overstreet (1933–2019)

The American painter Joe Overstreet, who often hung his exuberant and deeply personal canvases in provocative ways, has died at the age of eighty-five. His passing was confirmed by Eric Firestone Gallery. Throughout his six-decade career, Overstreet toggled between abstraction and figuration, drawing on his Native American and African American heritage in colored, patterned surfaces often installed via grommets and ropes. Since 1974, Overstreet—for years a fixture of the East Village—had run Kenkeleba House, a nonprofit gallery on East Second Street dedicated to artists of color that he founded with his partner, Corrine Jennings.

Overstreet was born in 1933, in a primarily African American and Choctaw community in rural Mississippi. During the Great Migration, he moved around often with his family, eventually resettling in the Bay Area. In addition to studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts and the University of California in Berkeley, Overstreet learned from the modernist artist and advocate Sargent Johnson, who became an early mentor. After moving to New York City in 1957, Overstreet started hanging out at Cedar Tavern, the Abstract Expressionist haunt. A participant in the Black Arts Movement, he also collaborated with Amiri Baraka as the art director for Harlem’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School. Overstreet’s work was featured in Tate Modern’s exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” in 2017.

“Some of his best-known paintings—such as Birmingham Bombing, 1963; The New Jemima, 1964; and Strange Fruit, 1964–65—hover between abstraction and figuration while responding to traumatic historic events with immediate force,” wrote Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Artforum’s 2018 summer issue. Soon after creating those pieces, Overstreet began focusing on formal experimentation, hanging and stringing his works—whose portability he claimed sprang from his itinerant childhood—on ceilings, floors, and walls without stretchers or frames. “We had survived with our art by rolling it up and moving it all over. So I made this art you could hang any place. I felt like a nomad myself, with all the insensitivity in America,” he said. “I was beginning to look at my art in a different light, not as protest, but as a statement about people.”