Willie Cole – by jane davila

Willie Cole is an African American artist from New Jersey. The steam iron has shown up as a recurring image in his work since 1989. He creates assemblage and mixed media irons and he uses the irons themselves in the creation of his art – with scorch marks forming patterns and designs. Many, if not most of his works visually reference African Art, particularly African sculpture and textile. I find the exploration of one iconic image (or at least a very few) to be a very interesting way to work.

cole-afterburn.jpgAfterBurn by Willie Cole

cole-pressedironblossom.jpgPressed Iron Blossom by Willie Cole

Wendy Weitman, Associate Curator, The Museum of Modern Art, New York writes:

Willie Cole constructs his assemblage sculptures from found domestic objects and imbues them with spiritual, and often mythical, power through allusion and metaphor. Since the mid-1980’s, he has been preoccupied with the steam iron as a domestic, symbolic and artistic object. Cole first assembled used irons into iconic figurative forms reminiscent of African Art. In exploring ways to infuse these unpretentious figures with the potency of their progenitors, he discovered the scorch. The first scorches date from 1988-89, the year Mr. Cole spent as artist-in-residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Early works incorporate the iron in both sculptural and printed components – an actual iron’s presence and evidence. Later, he began appreciating the beauty of the iron surfaces, and discovered that every brand of iron had a different face. In Sunflower (1994), Cole united the decorative potential of his scorching with a powerful and evocative form. Recently, Cole has employed the iron within the printmaking medium of woodcut. Cole uses the branding process to draw out what he calls the spirit in the object. The smell, the texture, and the searing physical act all contribute aspects of meaning to his unique approach to imprinting an image. The scorch also embodies personal experiences from Cole’s African-American background and reflects the creativity with which he asserts that heritage.

cole-homedefender.jpgHome Defender by Willie Cole

cole-pressedironbud.jpgPressed Iron Bud by Willie Cole

cole-permpress.jpgPerm Press by Willie Cole

While Cole has also done work with shoes, hairdryers and other “domestic” objects as their subjects, the iron is pervasive.

cole-phillipines.jpgMade in Phillipines by Willie Cole

What do you think about narrowing your focus as an artist and exploring as many permutations of an image as possible? Would you be able to follow an iconic image for years to see where it would lead you? What types of images could you see yourself following?

cole-quickasawink.jpgQuick As A Wink by Willie Cole


8 Responses to “Willie Cole – by jane davila”

  1. 1 Pat Dasko -NYC March 15, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Just saw his latest when the Met included his work in an installation called “Provocative Visions” from permanent collection of the Museum. It opened in September of ’08 and was supposed to close on 3/8/09, but it has been extended until the 22 of March. I so wish it to be seen because it included Cole’s “Shine” – a most amazing scupture created from women’s black pumps? And one of his Iron pieces are also there and one of his bicycle sculptures. What a genius.

    I also believe I saw some of his work some years ago at the Newark Museum which, by the way, is a very unsung and wonderful art museum that has been part of Newark NJ’s cultural history for many, many years.

    In these hard, hard times, it is amazing how artists help us to calm down and remain civilized.

  2. 2 Debby Gibson September 17, 2008 at 8:47 am

    Amazing! I agree – wonderful post! The “soul of the object” had escaped me until I saw this body of works. What is the contact information for Mr. Cole?

    Debby Gibson

  3. 3 peg Keeney January 11, 2008 at 8:50 am

    What a wonderful post. very fascinating and compelling wotk. I was totally unaware of him. Thanks so much for opening my eyes to a bew artist

  4. 4 gabrielleswain January 11, 2008 at 6:01 am

    Jane, great post and incredibly fascinating work. All the more exciting being done in such a common,omnipresent object. For my two cents, I would love to find something iconic that I could explore exclusively. The leaf quilts have long been a focus but I have never taken them to the level of Cole’s. Again, interesting food for thought.

  5. 5 Sandy Donabed January 10, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Jane- thanks for this post- I have seen some of his work and was enthralled way-back-when, but he had sort of oozed out of my consciousness. Nice to see what he’s has been up to. Very interesting!

  6. 6 Jane Davila January 10, 2008 at 10:11 am

    His work was brought up on an Assemblage list I belong to. One of his recent shows was entitled “Anxious Objects”, a term coined by critic Harold Rosenberg to describe his contention those contemporary artists who “create hybrid objects with strong and unsettling cultural implications and energy”. Cole’s irons referencing African art certainly offer strong cultural implications.

    My husband and I collect African art, particularly from Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Congo, and the visual connection is clear with Cole’s iron sculptures and masks. I find his work to be very powerful and the raw materials (the irons) add that surprising element that takes both the medium and the message (the finished pieces) farther than they might have gone alone.

    I think the iron itself used in the sculptures and used as a printing device is pretty ingenious. That’s really exploring an icon. I’ve been trying to think of other images/icons that would prove as versatile.

    I find myself drawn to the same imagery repeatedly and although I both paint, collage, and stamp fish and print with replica fish I would consider what I do as nearly pushed enough yet in my fish exploration. I wonder what would happen if we were each forced to tackle one image, in every possible, imaginable permutation for a year? It would be very, very focusing, but I don’t think I’d be willing to submit to such a challenge.

  7. 7 June January 10, 2008 at 9:07 am


    Fabulous — and like Terry, I didn’t know of Willie Cole.

    The iron is iconic in my mind, but it has to do with its presence in my home when I was growing up. My father wore white shirts, a clean one every day, and there was no permanent press in those days. I learned to iron when I was six or so, starting with handkerchiefs (yes, he had a clean one of those, ironed, every day, too) and pillow cases. My mother told me when I got married that I had so many lovely sheets that I should be sure to iron them…

    And there’s the Tillie Olson short story “I Stand Here Ironing” that is a wonder of a tale for mothers and daughters.

    The Cole work isn’t kitsch, which is also a wonder to me, but really marvelous works of art. I wonder how

    I tend to work on single images until I feel like I’ve milked them for all I can get out of them — dragons and crows, and more recently, cars. Go figure. Also, of course, pine trees and trees of all sorts. I do get obsessive about specific images, but never in as marvelous a manner as Cole. I find that there are always stuck places where I can’t imagine (and don’t want to imagine) what more an image could do for me, but if I persevere and push through the stuck place, the rewards are great. Cole has obviously pushed, and pushed, and pushed.

  8. 8 terrygrant January 10, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Jane, you always find such fascinating work and nearly always someone I had never heard of. I am quite enthralled by Willie Cole’s irons. There is something very reminiscent of African masks and art in that shape, which I had never noticed before, making the work truly more iconic than kitschy cleverness.

    There are images I keep returning to, like crows and other birds, and faces and hats and scissors, and beetles, but not so much as exploration. Scissors might be an image/object I could work with in this way. I wonder, though, if I could follow it for years.

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