"Six Continents of Quilts: The American Craft Museum Collection" is a world-wide celebration of "art quilts." More than 50 quilts from the museum's permanent collection are on view at the UBS PaineWebber Art Gallery through Sept. 13. Most of the works have been acquired recently, and many are being shown for the first time.
Since the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1971 tour of "Abstract Design in American Quilts," there has been a global explosion in this form of fabric art. Before the end of the Cold War, for example, its freedom gave Russian artists a means of self-expression not available in more censored art forms. Even in places without a native quilting tradition, talented amateurs and professionals have been springing up and pushing the envelope of what constitutes a quilt.
Pieced and appliquéd quilts, often with embroidery additions, have been the two principal types of traditional forms of American quilts, the main form of expression for American women for 200 years. Quilts today offer as many choices in materials and techniques as there are people with vision.
Anne Marie Kenny from New Jersey, who works in New Hampshire, has made quilts from silk prints but used salvaged computer parts, electronic wire and microchips for her Integrated Circuits IV Industrial Quilt (2000). The threat of earthquakes in California is addressed in Joan Schulze's A Cautionary Tale (1990), which incorporates yellow "caution" tape in a stunning black, white and yellow mixed-media design.
Grace de Almeida's pictorial quilt Brazil 500 Years (2000-02) combines and manipulates satin acetate, chita, silk chiffon, fabric paint and dye via quilting, appliqué, heat transfer and painting. A syncopated flux between brilliant color and dark areas keeps the eye moving over the quilted segments of this sprawling work that incorporates photo transfers, symbols, and printed and solid and shiny and matte fabrics.
The twinkling in self-taught South African Jenny Hearn's Stars on Rocks (1998) comes not just from the deft use of tiny blocks and star patterns scattered across the surface of this abstract quilt, but also from the gold-leaf stamping. She uses the stamping along with machine piecing and quilting on cotton, machine-made lace and Sierra Leone fabric.
What puts the art into an "art quilt"? Canadian quilter Dorothy Caldwell, who was born in Maryland and trained as an artist, has one answer. "For me, the stitch is a mark like any other mark -- a dot, a line or a field -- and cloth can become a receptacle of time and memory encoded through the cumulative activity of stitching and layering." Her Thaw (2001) is meditation on the breakup of winter in a remote area of Ontario. The black cotton canvas has been treated with a wax-resist and discharge process with added stitching and fabric contributing all-important spare areas of color.
Traditional quilts are often just as powerful esthetically. After all, they begat the "art quilt." But the term "art quilt" has been associated with quilts of the last 30 to 40 years that are conceived of primarily as art rather than as a functional product that has esthetic dimensions. They are often, but not always, made to hang on a wall.
The look of art quilts can be as radically different from traditional ones as its techniques. One of the first to meld Japanese needlework and motifs with western quilting was Senae Hittori. Her Romanesque Cherry Blossom (1992) uses Japanese embroidery and a kimono form with western patchwork designs framed by Romanesque architectural designs.
The finish in art quilts is not always as polished as in many traditional quilts. In the three vertical panels of Australian Judy Hooworth's Souvenir #5 (2001), the selvage has been intentionally exposed at the top of most of the tiny ripped pieces of cloth. The torn and layered cotton and cotton blends, most in orange, have a raw, sun-burned look, perfect for a quilt based on memories of a trip to Alice Springs in Australia's outback.
American Craft Museum Curator Ursula Ilse-Neuman has done an outstanding job of assembling a diverse body of work while making sure pieces by such American quilt pioneers as Nancy Crow, Faith Ringgold and Michael James (yes, there are males who make both traditional and art quilts) are represented.
"Six Continents of Quilts" will tour this country in 2004 and will be going to international venues during the following two years. There is a fine free brochure, but the lack of a catalogue is disappointing.
For those interested is seeing traditional American quilts, a couple of blocks from the UBS PaineWebber Art Gallery, the American Folk Art Museum is presenting about 20 quilts from its permanent collection within "American Anthem Part II: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum." In this exhibition, which fills the museum's new building on 53rd Street, a spectacular flag quilt from around the turn of the century and Star Quilt from 1977 are just two of the quilts that demonstrate that there is plenty of art in traditional quilting.
"Six Continents of Quilts," July 3-Sept. 13, 2002, at the UBS PaineWebber Art Gallery, 1285 Avenue of the Americas between 51st and 52nd Streets, New York, N.Y.
"American Anthem Part II," July 11, 2002-Jan. 5, 2003, at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.