Willie Cole USA, b. 1955


Willie Cole is a contemporary American sculptor, printer, and conceptual artist. His work uses contexts of postmodern eclecticism, and combines references and appropriation from African and African American imagery. 


Cole is best known for his Dada and Surrealist readymades, which assemble and transform ordinary domestic and used objects such as irons, ironing boards, high-heeled shoes, hair dryers, bicycle parts, wooden matches, lawn jockeys, and other discarded appliances and hardware. 


In 1989, Cole began using the steam iron as a motif, imprinting iron scorch marks on a variety of media, showing not only their wide-ranging decorative potential but also to reference his African American heritage. He used the marks to suggest the transport and branding of slaves; the domestic role of Black women; Ghanaian cloth design; and Yoruba gods. 


Through the repetitive use of single objects in multiples, Cole’s assembled sculptures acquire a transcending and renewed metaphorical meaning. In addition to its Dada and Surrealist ties, Cole’s assemblages relate to various other art historical traditions, such as Nouveau Realism (as in the work of Arman), postmodern eclecticism (Funk Art), and Pop Art. 


Among Cole’s works is his long-running Mother and Child series, which includes Anne Klein with a Baby in Transit (2009). The piece uses high-heeled shoes to convey the thematic figures. The well-worn black shoes in combination also recall traditional African sculpture. The work was a gift from the Brenden Mann Foundation to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota.


Cole grew up in Newark, NJ. He attended the Boston University School of Fine Arts, received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1976, and continued his studies at the Art Students League of New York from 1976 to 1979. 


Recent exhibitions of Cole's work include To Reclaim, Kavi Gupta, Chicago, IL, USA; New Concepts in Printmaking 2: Willie Cole, MoMA, New York, NY, USA; Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA; Chicago, Surrealism: The Conjured Life, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL, USA; and Afro: Black Identity in America and Brazil, Tamarind Institute, Albuquerque, NM, USA. Cole’s work is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NYWalker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; MoMA, New York, NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Wake Forest University Student Union Collection of Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, NC; and many others.