“Abstraction represents self-determination and free will.” So avowed the painter James Little at a recent panel discussion held in conjunction with an exhibition of works by his fellow painter Joe Overstreet, but with the broader purpose of examining the question of “Black Artists and the Abstraction Idiom.” Little’s ringing declaration of aesthetic independence was couched in a language both explicitly political (self-determination being a right underwritten by the United Nations in its 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which held that “All peoples have the right to…freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”) as well as theological (though the problem of free will has earlier roots, it became urgent when Christian thinkers had to explain the origin of sin and damnation in a world created by a perfect and benevolent God). The implication of Little’s statement is that abstract art, by eschewing the forms of representation through which political and religious narratives are conveyed, enacts and exemplifies a kind of self-emancipation.
That’s a hefty burden to place on abstract painting, but it gives a distinctly polemical edge to what an earlier wave of black modernists saw, according to the art historian Darby English, as “the opportunity to make a way forward on one’s own terms, to choose one’s own resources according to one’s tastes, and to work them to independently determined ends.” For African-American artists of Overstreet’s generation, even more than of Little’s—Overstreet was born in 1933, Little in 1952—the question of how to paint was urgently bound up with a triple burden of representation: Could art participate in the struggle for equality? If so, could anything but figurative, realist art contribute? And does such a paradigm restrict the artist’s freedom? Overstreet was among the artists who, confronting this question, staked out a skeptical position.
The recent exhibition at the Eric Fire- stone Gallery in New York, “Joe Overstreet, Innovation of Flight: Paintings 1967–1972,” curated by Horace Brockington, focused on a particularly ebullient period in the artist’s career, leading up to and including a series of paintings he called the “Flight Patterns” (1970–72). Approaching his 40s at this point, Overstreet seems to have retained a young person’s reckless willingness to try anything, coupled with sufficient experience and skill to make it work. Born in tiny Conehatta, Mississippi, Overstreet grew up mainly in Oakland, California, and studied art in the Bay Area, where he gravitated toward the Beat scene. After briefly working in Los Angeles as an animator for Walt Disney, he moved east around 1958, settling on New York’s Lower East Side. In the mid-1960s, he became the art director of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School, founded in Harlem by Amiri Baraka. In 1974, Overstreet co-founded Kenkeleba House, an art center in Lower Manhattan.
Overstreet’s paintings from the early 1960s show him working in several figurative styles, from vehement expressionism (Birmingham Bombing, 1963) to brash political pop (The New Jemima, 1964, in which the no-longer-docile Mammy gleefully wields a machine gun). But by the end of the decade, as shown at Firestone, he had switched to an abstract mode. In the earliest works on view, we see Overstreet experimenting with highly eccentric elaborations on the traditional wall-mounted stretched canvas: North Star (1968) is made of a pair of canvases, both of them shaped with large triangular cuts and extensions and situated one above the other in such a way as to leave a large, roughly W-shaped area open between them. The serrated patterns formed by the painting’s geometric zones of acrylic color, possibly influenced by the jagged patterns of Navajo “eye dazzler” textiles, echo and counterpoint the angular vicissitudes of the canvases’ inner and outer borders.