How It Looks to Be a Problem: Joe Overstreet’s Buried Geometry

After reading How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness last year, I was excited to read Darby English’s new book 1971: A Year in the Life of Color. (Prof. English also happens to be delivering the Ludden Lecture at Ohio State this afternoon). Following the introduction, the first chapter of this study of African American artists and exhibition history at the end of Modernism has the brilliant title ‘How It Looks to Be a Problem’.

This chapter opens with a discussion of Ed Clark’s abstract works and how art historians have insinuated his racial identity into their discussion of color in the works. What caught my eye specifically was the footnote attached to the following passage (on page 65) in which English is describing some recent group exhibitions that included Clark’s work:

Though invaluable for showing grossly underviewed art, these exhibitions extend the arguments established in the literature on Clark. They fix on an idea of the artist’s mystical transmission of black culture into his paintings, which allows us to think of blackness as an “alien” (sufficiently different) but manifest (sufficiently buried) presence within modernism. This has become a subtext the critic may repeatedly disclose in reading after reading of race embedded in the work. This plays out in funny ways.

The footnote attached to the end of this passage leaves Clark and focuses on the work of Joe Overstreet:

Take, for example, the following exposition, which ostensibly concerns the paintings Joe Overstreet produced after a 1992 vacation to the Senegalese coast. Thomas McEvilley knowingly writes: “These paintings show a sensibility that has been thoroughly initiated into European-derived artistic practices and seems affirmatively at home with them, yet at the same time they cloak beneath their sumptuous colorism the dark secret of Euro-American history – the rape of Africa through slave trade, colonialism, and imperialism.” Biography and race converge here, too, to transform the formal exercise of colorism into a ground for the belief that, in addition to their profoundly racial “character,” these works somehow harbor, as a kind of buried treasure, a general narrative of race and racism. McEvilley and Overstreet with Piche, Joe Overstreet: (Re)Call and Responses, 31.

Joe Overstreet, Exit Dust, 1993


As I have an interest in Thomas McEvilley as a critic who was also a Classicist, I went to the origin of these statements (not the book referenced by English, which I have not seen) – an Artforum review in April 1994 of the Overstreet exhibition at the Kenkeleba Gallery, New York in the Fall of 1993.

Here is the context for the statement that English is referring to (which, as you can see seems to have been slightly rewritten for the book), in which McEvilley not only makes the distinction between Overstreet’s use of color and the references to slavery and colonialism in the names of his works, but also between ‘African color fields’ and ‘European geometry’:

In 1992 Overstreet went to Senegal to participate in the Dakar Biennale and returned with an inspiration for the series of works in this show, “Facing the Door of no Return.” Ten huge canvases and one smaller one (all 1993) incorporate references to African themes into a fundamentally abstract style and format that harks all the way back to French Impressionism. On the one hand these paintings are masterful paeans to the idea and experience of color as pure feeling. On the other, they refer both by name (Goree, Exchange, House of Diop) and through allusion (Baobab and Fish, Dousou’s Field) to the history of the slave trade and to the idea of Africa as a nourishing matrix. The experience of viewing these towering fields of turbulent yet gentle color with small inset areas of geometry is made strangely haunting by this duality. The works show a sensibility that has been thoroughly imbued with European-derived artistic practices and seems affirmatively at home with them, yet at the same time they cloak the dark secret of Euro-American history—the rape of Africa by the slave trade, colonialism, imperialism—beneath their sumptuous colorism. The small areas of geometry that emerge ambiguously from the enveloping colored grounds represent the door, mentioned in the title, through which enslaved Africans were loaded onto ships. Without putting too much of a point on it, one might say that the geometric areas represent European culture and its steely entrapment of the Other, while the billowing color fields represent precolonial African society as a place of generous feeling and expansive energy.

Joe Overstreet, Cross Currents, 1993


Not only does McEvilley, as argued by English, participate in the division between racial content and modernist form, in ways that emphasize the blackness as an “alien” presence within modernism, but the incorporation of the geometry vs. color field dichotomy doubles down on this reading. Yet rather than divided between form and content, how the works look and what they are called, McEvilley’s analysis maintains a division within the elements of abstraction. It is only then that the ‘small areas of geometry’ turn to ‘represent’ the ‘door’ of the title of the series ‘through which enslaved Africans were loaded onto ships’. To somehow make geometry European is to part of McEvilley’s commitment to what he calls elsewhere the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition (Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, p. 17). (Although to be fair to McEvilley, what happens if we follow the ‘stolen legacy’ thesis and at least one of these geometry-obsessed Greek philosophers actually gained their wisdom from visits to Egypt?).

But the saga does not end there. Thanks to the video documentary Joe Overstreet, The Illustrious: Portrait of an Artist, by Jahn F. M. Overstreet, we can see Overstreet working on one of the “Facing the Door of No Return” series: Exchange.

Joe Overstreet, Exchange, 1993


This video clearly shows Overstreet incorporating a Fibonacci-based grid into the base structure of the painting. In an article that ends with a discussion of these works, Graham Lock offers his own biographizing account of how this geometric structure appeared in Overstreet’s work:

Overstreet has always been fascinated by the geometry of form, the internal dynamics of a painting, and in the early 1970s his father-in-law Wilmer Jennings, himself a noted artist, introduced him to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, which, along with its whirling squares and logarithmic spirals, Overstreet has used as a geometrical underlay in nearly all of his subsequent work (and which, incidentally, he continues to mark out on the canvas using rope or twine as a measuring tool).

The Fibonacci-based geometrical underlay for Exchange. From the video documentary Joe Overstreet, The Illustrious: Portrait of an Artist, by Jahn F. M. Overstreet (Oakland, CA: Video Museum, 1995).


While Graham is still susceptible to the racialized readings that McEvilley imposes on Overstreet’s work, the discovery of geometrical forms buried within the works and not merely an element of the work, somehow competing with the color field, clearly disturbs any simplistic dichotomy between ‘African’ or ‘European’ components to their abstraction. It also reveals more clearly the stakes in Darby English’s project and how stereotypes of a European geometric formalism hark back to antiquity in ways that infiltrate Modernism at a profoundly basic level.

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