Who is Joe Overstreet, and what were his contributions to the art world and American culture and society? We ask Graham Lock, an expert on Joe Overstreet and his work, to explain:

The painter Joe Overstreet will be 80 in June. A significant figure in the American art of the last half-century, he first made his mark in the 1960s with works such as Strange Fruit and The New Jemima, which reflected his commitment to the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements of the period. Since then he has continued to develop a highly personal approach to abstraction, one that allows him to include the occasional figurative elements that set his work in specific historical contexts.

Overstreet is of part African American and part Native American extraction and, while he acknowledges a host of influences from Impressionism to Islamic architecture, his work draws most extensively on his own dual cultural heritage. In his “nomadic art” of the 1970s and ’80s, for example, he abandoned the stretcher and used ropes and dowels to hang canvases that evoke images of teepees and sails; his 1988 Storyville paintings explore the origins of jazz in New Orleans; his 1993 series, Facing the Door of No Return, inspired by a visit to Africa, addresses the Atlantic slave trade and its ongoing repercussions.

When I interviewed Joe Overstreet in his New York studio, he told me he sees his art as an expression of feeling, a process of “emotional recall” in which he tries to achieve what he calls “the duality of pain and beauty”. By this he means that the pain evoked by past histories can be reconciled and resolved in the beauty of the act of painting. As he enters his ninth decade, it is this belief that continues to power his richly syncretic abstract art, with its sumptuous colours, its dynamic forms and its spirit of hard-won optimism.


A transcript of Graham Lock’s talk, “‘We Came from There to Get Here’: Joe Overstreet’s Art Across Frontiers”, together with numerous colour reproductions of Overstreet’s paintings, can now be viewed online here  as part of the Journal of American Studies’ new forum on ‘Art Across Frontiers’

Enjoy free access to the entire special collection until 31st July here

Find out more about Journal of American Studies here

The image used in this article is Joe Overstreet, North Star, 1967. Acrylic on shaped canvas, 94″ × 84″. Courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery. Photo: Danny Dawson.The image appears as figure 8 in the full transcript of the interview.


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