Eric Firestone Gallery’s presentation at Frieze New York 2020 pays tribute to artists and work shown in landmark historic exhibitions; as well as to connections and friendships among artists who were following their own paths, regardless of mainstream trends of the time.
Joe Overstreet’s (1933 - 2019) paintings “Crawling,” and “Sun Ra,” were both exhibited in the 1969 Brooklyn Museum show, “New Black Artists.” In this period, Overstreet began breaking away from the rectangle of the stretcher and from the narrative of Western art history. He used wooden dowels shaped with a jigsaw and hand tools to make complex, shaped stretchers, painting in patterns drawn from Aztec, Benin, and Egyptian cultures. Overstreet was also connected to the Afrofuturist jazz music of Sun Ra, for whom a painting is titled.
Varnette Honeywood (1950-2010) found inspiration in direct representation of Black family life in Los Angeles, where she lived. Honeywood presented a view of Black culture that can be described as a radical normalizing, celebrating the life of her community in neighborhoods often pathologized by the media. A trip to Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977 solidified her commitment to the use of saturated color, which she viewed as part of an ancestral aesthetic lineage. Her work utilizes simplified forms, emphasizing the silhouette or black profile. Honeywood’s work reached mass audiences through expanding collaborations across popular culture: book covers, magazine illustrations, film, and television. She achieved widespread fame. She is recognized by contemporary artists today for her significant contribution, helping to envision and shape Black visual culture. Artist Sanford Biggers was mentored by Honeywood, and he says that he admired “her vision of Black positivity and black communities amongst themselves: the conversations that we have with each other that are not on display for other cultures to see.”
Shirley Gorelick (1924-2000) became involved, in the 1960s and 70s, with representations of the body, at a time when this was out of fashion. A frequent subject and muse of Gorelick’s was Libby Dickerson, a middle-aged African-American woman in a mixed-race marriage (still uncommon at the time), and a mother of two. Gorelick made several paintings of Libby nude. This, itself, was a radical, political gesture, as an atypical subject for painting of this kind. Gorelick would also paint Libby’s whole family (her husband was a union organizer), along with their two teenage children. Gorelick was dedicated to painting that investigated the inner life and psychological reality of the subject.
When Martha Edelheit (b.1931) first began using the nude as her subject, she was surprised by the reception, even among sophisticated art dealers and experimental performance artists. People would blush when they looked at her paintings. In the cheekily-titled View of the Empire State Building from Sheep Meadow, she shows four people (two men and two women) naked in the park, all body types painted with a matter-of-fact approach, including a larger woman. Edelheit was interested in “montage”: combining figures, who didn’t pose outdoors or necessarily together, along with hand-painted fabrics, and exterior views of the city. Although figurative painting was not “in fashion,” she had a support system of artists who included Lucas Samaras and George Segal.
The artistic circles in which Charles DuBack (1926-2015) associated included Lois Dodd and Alex Katz, who were colleagues and friends in both New York and Maine. DuBack would eventually move full-time to mid-coast Maine. DuBack’s iconic and emblematic representations of the figure have a brevity, accuracy, and gestural mark-making, which can be associated with these artists, and the aesthetics they discussed at the time. DuBack’s painting “Anne Waterhouse” was featured in the landmark 1962 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Recent Painting USA: The Figure.”
Mimi Gross (b.1940) and Jay Milder (b.1934) have been friends since the summer of 1958, when they both lived in Provincetown. Milder would introduce Gross to Red Grooms, who became her partner and collaborator from 1960-1976. On view are works from Milder’s series of Subway paintings, which were shown at the famed Martha Jackson Gallery in 1964. They have a dense materiality and compressed energy, and impasto layers of paint that would later be connected to actual subway art and graffiti.
Gross has also made the subway a subject for decades: her dream as a young person - realized in the “Ruckus Manhattan” installation project - was to make a life-size train car. On view is Gross’s early painting “Subway,” (1962). A decade later, Gross explored using composite and imagined visual and photographic sources for wax crayon and gouache works on paper like “Gertrude Stein and the Secretaries,” where she fills the sheet with elaborate, varied pattern and color. Gross mixes wild playfulness with detailed rendering of the oversize vintage typewriter. She pays tribute to the first wave of working women; as well as the artistic and cultural pioneers Stein and Toklas, with a “nod to feminism” signified by the pattern of spoons along the floor: the balance of household chores with careers outside the home.
Eric Firestone Gallery acknowledges the political and technical daring of these painters, with a program committed to revisiting historically significant artists.