Jun 6, 2019

Joe Overstreet, a daring painter who championed his fellow artists, has died at age 85.

Joe Overstreet. Photo courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery.

Joe Overstreet. Photo courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery.

Joe Overstreet, the formally adventurous artist known for his colorful and inventively shaped paintings, died on Tuesday evening in New York City at age 85. News of Overstreet’s death was confirmed by Eric Firestone Gallery, which represents his work.

In a statement sent to Artsy, Eric Firestone said:

Joe Overstreet’s contribution to American art history has spanned a lifetime, and his work is now just starting to get the long overdue recognition he’s always deserved. Nothing was much clearer then the solo show “Innovation of Flight” in 2017 in New York City. As Roberta Smith commented, “I look forward to seeing these exuberant, groundbreaking creations becoming standards in museums and new art histories.” As a community organizer and activist, Overstreet’s long-term commitment to generations of artists will ultimately be defined as a tireless dedication to what is right about the art world.

In 1974, Overstreet co-founded Kenkeleba House, an art space in Manhattan’s East Village that continues to showcase and develop the work of historically underrepresented artists, with a focus on work by African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American artists, and artists of the African diaspora

Overstreet’s own work has been widely exhibited over the decades, and is featured prominently in the traveling exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” In 2018, he was the subject of a major solo exhibition in the state where he was born, at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. He was also awarded the Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Visual Arts Award by the Mississippi Arts Commission that same year.

Overstreet was born in 1933 in the small town of Conehatta, Mississippi, and his family moved to Berkeley, California in 1946. He attended university in the Bay Area in the 1950s, studying at the California School of Fine Arts and the California School of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts). Later in that decade he worked as an animator for Walt Disney Studios, before moving to New York City in 1958 and taking a job designing department store window displays. He was inspired by the Abstract Expressionists who dominated contemporary art in the U.S. at the time, but ultimately developed his own unique formal language. His style evolved over the decades, from expansive and shifting fields of color and formed canvases to flirtations with figuration and beyond.

In a 1996 profile in the New York Times, Overstreet said:

The substance of painting is personal, but experimenting with paint is the fun part. For me, painting the same way year after year would be worse than a prison sentence. [. . .] I started out as a painter from the time I was 3 or 4 years old, and I intend to end that way.