Willie Cole

The Future of Art: Willie Cole, a contemporary artist creating unique work and positive change.

Willie Cole has been ­­­making innovative work with unique iconography for over half a century, but talking to him, he sounds like a friendly, smart colleague or neighbor next store. Perhaps that’s why his work is so accessible and inspirational.

The artist, who lives in Mine Hill, NJ, has been the subject of shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1998), Bronx Museum of the Arts (2001), and Miami Art Museum (2001). These institutions, some of the biggest in the world, along with private collectors from New York to Los Angeles, see something provocative in his work.

When Art Review City caught up with him, the artist invited us to a visit his home studio where he was finishing the works for the collective exhibition “There’s There There,” curated by renowned American artist Rashid Johnson at blue-chip gallery Hauser and Wirth’s Southampton location. This show invites visitors to reflect upon the pleasures and complex histories of the shapes, movements, and objects that permeate the everyday, and Cole’s ironing board works are clearly the stars of the show. 

Installation view, ‘There’s There There’, Hauser & Wirth Southampton, 2021. © Hauser & Wirth. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Thomas Barratt.

The artist has spent a lifetime working to look at thing differently than most artists. He is most concerned with recycling, green energy, and living a healthy and spiritual life to live at one with Mother Earth. He spent many of his early days in a pew at Sunday School, and later studied Buddhism in high school and college, but today he says he is a “no-frills nature worshipper” which explains a lot about him as a man and as an artist. “Nature, no matter what you call it, is powerful, and it deserves to be admired and protected,” Cole says. 

Cole, who was born in Somerville, NJ in 1955, said he was born an artist, and believes that he is sure he was also an artist creating things in a previous life. At the tender age of three he was drawing comics that his family says were good enough for the Sunday paper, and started taking weekend art classes soon after that. When he was a little bit older, he started attending an art camp where he began to really refine his natural ability. At 18 he started a graphic design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and after finishing his bachelor’s degree in 1975, he attended the Arts Student League where he was working on his dual portfolios: design and acting. 

He begins to explain how difficult it was as a young Black illustrator trying to get both acting and illustration work in the 60s and 70s when overt racism was still the norm. His first big break came when his girlfriend was working for the local 6 o’clock news and they needed an artist. His social connections immediately got him the job making logos, adding text, and creating the weather maps. He was ready to move to South Jersey to begin working at the all-Black television station when the state banned their broadcasting antennas claiming they were too close to the protected Pine Barrens. Fast-forward to 1979 when the artist applied to a job ad for National Slide Makers, a splinter group of IBM, that he saw in the New York Times. He was soon designing graphic for projects all over the country, presenting digital art at the Javits Center, and for the first time in his life, was financially stable enough where he was able to start dedicating more time and resources to the art that he was passionate about, his own. He also found a large loft space in Newark in 1980 where he was able to between working on the large-scale sculptures that he is known for today.  

“Pandemic Portrait Series”, watercolor, 24 x 18 in | 61 x 46 cm, 2021

It has been said that showing up is half the battle when it comes to success. This was especially true for Cole: he was fired from his job of two years, and this hiccup became the most important catalyst for his artist career and used this one-year period of unemployment as a “fine-arts internship” where he had enough income to survive, and enough time to dedicate himself to his craft. 

He went to SoHo every month to see what was going on in the galleries. It was another chance happening at Jackie Littlejohn Smith Gallery in 1984 that boosted his career and opportunity in the art world: there was a TV crew filming a documentary and the camera man asked Cole to stand next to a painting for scale. He was looking at the work very intently and used his acting experience to really make the performance believable. This was his big break into the gallery world: Jackie became his first dealer. 

His next big opportunity came when he was selected to become an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He was at a party with some influential members of the art world present, and he was approached by the collector Joann Reid, a member of the Women’s Center for Education, and she invited him to participate in a charity auction at Brook Alexander Gallery. Cole’s plan was to not sign the work, thereby forcing whomever purchased the piece to have a personal signing—and meet the artist. This is not exactly what happened, but the Women’s Center did give the work to Alexander for letting them use the gallery, and the gallery signed Cole soon after. For Cole, this affirmed that he was on the righteous and correct path for himself, and for his career. 

“Domestic Shield XIX”, iron scorches on canvas with resin and wax mounted on wood, 55 x 16 x 2 in | 140 x 39 x 6 cm, 2021

Fast forward to our warm spring evening studio tour.  Cole warmly introduced himself while standing outside his home and studio of 28 years and began the tour of his sculpture garden: sculptures made from water and Coca-Cola bottles, birds, flowers, fish, and other forms were delicately floating all around the grounds. He began to detail some of the other pieces that were at the Wildflower Sculpture Park in Orange, NJ. One was an eight-foot tall and four-foot in diameter flower piece made from recycled water bottles, zip ties, and a silver ring as the bud. There was also a fifteen-and-a-half-foot long bird commissioned by New York Clean Community Council. Another water bottle sculpture he was proud of was a 30-foot-tall pieces commissioned by a middle school where the students collected bottles for four months to finally complete the massive sculpture. Although almost all of his work is created directly by his own hand, he has learned there is a soft spot for working collaboratively with under-resourced children who could benefit from exposure to art—and the new way of thinking it engenders.

“A Tall Drink of Water”, 20,000 recycled water bottles, 30 feet | 9 meters (tall), 2017

Form and iconography are two elements that appear prominently across Cole’s work. The ridges designed into plastic water bottles to make them crushable make them like Origami to Cole. When asked about the origins of the bottle sculptures, he explained that “it’s easily to turn a bottle into a fish.” He never in fact made origami sculptures as a child but did spend time folding paper with his daughter when she was growing up making giant size origami pieces. Protecting the environment, making beautiful objects out of “trash,” and teaching children how to make their home a better place are just a few of the positives of this ongoing body of work—and a vision for what would become our world’s upcycling movement.

Another iconic item that is used frequently by the artist are high-heeled shoes. Cole was working on a sculpture made from basketball sneakers for the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in 1992, and when he went to a local thrift store, he ended up being more inspired by the more erotic pump shoes. Cole says he was enthralled with the shape, the form, the history, and everything that comes with women’s shoes. He feels that the shoes are anxious objects, and that they tell their stories as shoes, even before he transforms them into works of art.  Cole stated that, “I imagine that I can feel the energy of the former wearer of the shoe,” and that, “that personality is exorcised in the creative process.” His own genetic memory and interest in African and tribal art became the unconscious aesthetic catalyst that fueled his creativity and through play yielded the look of this body of work. Today they are arguably his best-known works.

“Street Dragon I”, assemblage, 20 x 14 x 12 in | 51 x 36 x 30 cm, 2018

Cole’s next big break came in the form of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998 featuring his then new iconography of the steam iron. The exhibition catalog notes the artist, “has been pre-occupied with the steam iron as a domestic, artistic, and symbolic object for over a decade. Using heat as a kind of ink and an iron as a stamping device, he creates elaborate compositions out of repeated printed forms.” 

Cole today refers to the burn the iron creates on the canvas as “the scorch” and explained how he has been furthering the iconography of this symbol for over 20 years. The earliest usage was to show the power of the steam iron as spiritual evidence to accompany his African power figure inspired sculptures made from steam irons. During the COVID-19 pandemic he used the scorch to represent the skin tones of all the people who died or were murdered while in police custody. Their names appear under each impression.

“Say My Name”, scorch on wood, 72 x 72 in | 183 x 183 cm, 2020

The iron imagery is also a stand-in for the Diasporic Black experience; from tribal to slavery, and from post slavery to civil rights. Cole explains how this is similar to the way Santeria is practiced by Brazilians in the Catholic Church, and that the scorch can be viewed as evidence of the power of the gods. The other more recent iconography that has come out of the iron imagery is that when created sideways, it may also be seen as a bullet. 

When pressed about the first use of the iron, he told us about being a pioneer loft dweller living in an abandoned sweatshop in Newark in the 1980’s. In 1988, Cole participated in a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and during his daily walk to the train station, he found a smashed old-fashioned iron in the street and saw it as an African mask. His research later lead him to identify it as a Dan mask from Liberia.

When reaching and contemplating the iconography of the iron to push it even further, Cole created a flow chart of what it suggested to him. He explained the various steps to get to unfamiliar territory. The iron can be viewed as a boat hull which brought Africans to America as slaves, which means the iron can now represent a slave ship. It can also connect spiritual things like the goddess of water, to the gods of iron, and the god of thunder. Another example is that an iron needs water to work properly, and the element for iron (Fe) can be connected to fire, which leads one to see the iron as a god of fire. The artist explained that every time he viewed the iron he sees it logically with fresh eyes. He contemplates the physical properties of shape, color, and material, and expounds on the meaning of each of these properties as social conditions, uses, and origins. From there he looks at each through historical, spiritual, and natural perspectives. Ultimately, he compares it to an algebra equation to help locate new balances within his work.

“Synapse”, digital, dimensions variable, 2006

When asked about his favorite artist and influences, Cole said his first thought is God, and that he unfortunately does not know his real name. Among the earthly folks, he talks about Hokusai Katsushika’s Japanese wood cuts which are clearly an influence on the “iron prints” from his MoMA exhibition. He also says he is influenced by tribal and religious arts, Tibetan thangkas, Arman, Vincent van Gogh, and Arte Povera leader Mario Merz—a wonderful and enchanting mix of artists and inspirations. 

In recent times the artist has been earning more prominent commissions. In 2016 he was contacted by the New Jersey Clean Communities Council to make a large outdoor sculpture for Kids Day that was sponsored by Coca-Cola. He made a large bird from 5,000 16oz plastic water bottles collected by public-school children in Atlantic City, NJ and recycled into a one-of-a-kind work of art. He was also recently contacted by Comme de Garcons after they discovered his online. Cole explained that this new collaboration felt great, and that he was taken to a mental place when he was in high school studying fashion design. Career wise, this was an exceptionally good collaboration for him as his social media numbers soared, and he began to be contacted daily with request to do photoshoots at his studio. He was making headpieces and hats for their stores all over the world and is only halfway through the commission, so this collaboration continues to inspire him daily. 

“Everything has more than one layer, and recycling is another type of reincarnation.” 
– Willie Cole

In addition to sculpture and fashion, music is another major influence on the artist. He studied flute, can play piano by ear, and still plays guitar every day. After seeing his young son play with a Transformers toy, he was quickly taken by the idea of a sculpture that could change forms based on where the viewer was in perspective to the sculpture. Currently this sequence of events brought Cole to create a bird made from saxophones that will eventually hang in the Kansas City International Airport. Yamaha guitars also reached out to him this year to become the first artist to participate in their recycling program to raise money for music education. From multiple acoustic guitars he is creating musical clock-like works and native headdresses.

“Elephant Mask”, guitars, 36 x 32 x 9 in | 91 x 81 x 23 cm, 2021

At the end of our studio visit Cole showed us the iron works that would be included in “There’s There There” curated by Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth Southampton. Johnson discovered Cole’s work at a fundraising event and purchased a scorch on paper piece. Johnson called Cole on the phone and told him he had to be included in the show he was curating. The show focuses on the mundane of routine gestures, daily detritus, and repetitive mark-making. Cole’s “Domestic Shields” are patterns that reflect African symbolism. The iron scorches here are more geometric objects floating on a white background that bring Zulu warriors to mind.  

The exhibition invites visitors to reflect upon the pleasures and complex histories of the shapes, movements, and objects that permeate the everyday. Willie Cole’s “Domestic Shields” appropriate an electric steam iron to sear a pattern of distinct markings onto an ironing board, evoking the domestic labor of many African American women throughout history, and question African identity and selfhood. 

The powerful works made a major impact in the 1990s, and today, they highlight just how important Cole’s work is. The show is open until June 27th, 2021 at Hauser & Wirth’s Southampton location and is a must-visit on your next trip out east.

To learn more about Willie and his work, visit at www.WillieCole.com.