"The Quilts of Gee's Bend," Nov. 21, 2002-Mar. 2, 2003, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
The most exhilarating exhibition of 2002 finally arrived in New York at the end of the year -- "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The more than 50 quilts all come from an isolated African-American community in Alabama, about 30 miles southwest of Selma. Surrounded by a river on three sides and without good roads, has been producing extraordinary female quilters since the 1920s. They are all, like the other 700 or so residents of Gee's Bend, descendents of slaves that worked on the Pettway Plantation.
These quilts are abstractions with attitude, like Annie Mae Young's Blocks and Strips (ca. 1970), in which one thin, irregular green strip starts the whole thing moving. Their makers are fearless in twisting and embellishing a pattern until what comes out shouts in an individual voice.
Making do was what the 46 black women who made these quilts knew all about. They were frugal, using whatever material was available because they had to. It fostered a readiness to try anything. The result? Jazzy, individual riffs on a few simple quilt patterns in idiosyncratic color combinations that range from screaming oranges, reds and pinks, like those in Mary Lee Bendolph's Housetop variation (1998) (which includes material from unwanted leisure suits), to delicate shadings of pale blue, faded whites and browns from old work clothes.
Never has denim looked so good. Work-clothes quilts are among the earliest quilts. These quilts physically represent the highest joys of life and the most sensitive broodings on mortality. Lutisha Pettway's Bars quilt (1950) of denim pants retains washed out areas, deeper blue patches, ripped knees and crater-like holes. It is a portrait of endurance and hard work. More importantly, it is a magnificent work of art that tells its story eloquently.
Designers will be flocking to this show for ideas. Besides denim, Irene Williams' "Housetop" variation, Vote, based on fabric left over from a voting drive, is one of the liveliest red, white and blue quilts I've ever seen and a persuasive political statement to boot.
One look at Annie Bendolph's 1,000 Pyramid variation, ca. 1930, with its random but oh-so-right placement of larger gray triangles in a field of smaller red and white ones, and your heart flies away. But you might come back to earth given the lure of the hot pinks in Missouri Pettway's Path through the Woods (1971), one of the many designs named by the quiltmakers, who shunned most of those in quilt books.
"Housetop" is a commonly used pattern in Gee's Bend. It's essentially a "Log Cabin" variant that starts from a small center square that is bordered by strips forming larger and larger squares. What these women could do with this one idea is amazing. Irene Williams's Vote quilt and Mary Lee Bendolph's quilts are just two examples.
Sue Willie Seltzer fractures the squares into quarters and magnifies some of the quarters in her ca. 1955 version, while Lottie Mooney's vivid pumpkin and darks, set off with a white (!) border from around 1940 is a completely unexpected improvisation that resembles a reflected menorah. A nine-block in shades of green and white sawtooths by Mary Elizabeth Kennedy from around 1935 has a thrilling, go-for-broke boldness. After these bright colors, the subtle variations in Ella Mae Irby's 1962 salmon and gray 12-block quilt seem to whispers its surprises.
Medallions, bars, blocks, strips, triangles and housetops are the simple patterns yielding not-so-simple results in Gee's Bend quilts. The only other pattern that shows up a lot is My Way, an assertion of power and assurance from women in a rural community where little education, social mobility or money was on offer, and the endless responsibilities of large families were a given.
The women of Gee's Bend learned from watching others quilt. They often had to make quilt tops quickly because so many other chores beckoned. But the quilting was most often done by a group, providing a brief respite from chores for talking and singing, usually hymns. Few of the quiltmakers remain active today. Their quilts are her-story. They are also brilliant pieces of American textile art.
Since the late '60s and early '70s when women fought for a place in the art world, the question "Why have their been no great women artists?" has been a constant. Now we know that we weren't looking in the right spots.
In many museums, there persists an underappreciation of self-taught, vernacular, Outsider or contemporary folk art. Call this material what you will, it comprises some of most exciting art that has ever been produced. Often this work is by women, minority groups and/or the disadvantaged. Craft can, and often does, transcend tradition in this country soaring into the upper reaches of the greatest art. "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" is another great example of this.
Want more? Rosie Lee Thompkins, born in 1936 in rural Arkansas and now living in California, is another wonderful quilter, using patterns of irregular blocks, triangles, and strips, either alone or in concert. Her work was one of the few bright spots, literally and figuratively, of the 2002 Biennial at the Whitney. The exhibition "Rosie Lee Thompkins: African-American Quiltmaker" was on view through the end of December at the Peter Blum Gallery at 99 Wooster Street in SoHo.
And it's no coincidence that the best show of American sculpture this season was the Ricco/Maresca's "American Vernacular," which spotlighted the works of anonymous and little-known producers of useful and decorative objects from the 19th and 20th centuries. It coincided with the publication of a coffee-table book (Bulfinch/ Little, Brown, & Co.) containing many more examples. I recommend if you didn't see the show. And maybe even if you did.
The Gee's Bend quilts were found and conserved by William Arnett of Atlanta. They are now owned by his nonprofit Tinwood Alliance. One major museum is already buying several quilts not in the exhibition. I predict that many more museums will be adding quilts and other kinds of folk and vernacular pieces to their collections soon. They refresh the spirit and sure beat most of videos and installations I've had to endure this year.
"The Quilts of Gee's Bend" was organized by William Arnett and by John Beardsley and Jane Livingston, already noted for their ground-breaking "Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980" show at the Corcoran. Alvia Wardlaw, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the show was first seen, was also part of the curatorial team.
Mr. Arnett's Tinwood Books, in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, produced the beautiful hardback catalogue ($45).
N. F. KARLINS is a New York historian and art critic.