Paula Nadelstern’s gorgeous and trippy kaleidoscope quilts are that rare thing, a really new category of quilts. Her pieced quilts are as intensely chromatic as stained glass and as intricately patterned as lace. In "Kaleidoscope Quilts: The Art of Paula Nadelstern," Apr. 21-Sept. 13, 2009, the American Folk Art Museum presents the first major survey of Nadlestern’s sensual artworks.
Since 1987, Nadelstern has produced over 30 kaleidoscope quilts, each radically different from the others. Already an accomplished quilter, she was inspired to begin her kaleidoscope series by the bright patterns and movement in traditional Liberty fabrics. Looking at quilts like Kaleidoscope XVII: Caribbean Blues (1997), it’s easy to imagine why such an innate master colorist like Nadelstern would be drawn to a deeply hued Liberty fabric with a complicated design.
But Nadelstern is not the first quilter to have fallen under the spell of kaleidoscopes. Her quilts’ ancestors date from the 19th century. When kaleidoscopes first became popular, pieced quilts were made in a sunburst pattern, tiny diamonds of color radiating from a center point. A sunburst quilt on display at the Folk Art Museum, probably made by Philadelphia Quaker Rebecca Scattergood ca. 1840, has about 2,900 itsy-bitsy pieces.
Unlike traditional sunburst quilts, Nadelstern’s pieced kaleidoscope quilts eschew dark vs. light colors at seams and, especially in her later quilts, can have not one but several visual centers that push-pull the eye, not unlike a Hans Hoffmann painting.
Her first quilts look much like the interior of a kaleidoscope, but before long the designs become increasingly Byzantine, usually in rich jewel-tone colors -- lots of them. The construction is based not on squares or sunbursts, but triangles made of pieced slivers of patterned fabrics, which resonate rather than clash.
Nadelstern’s favorite motto is "When it comes to fabric, more is more." Gone are simple repetitive patterns, replaced by what reads as an all-over design despite many repetitive elements, obscured by her careful camouflaging of seams.
Working in series, Nadelstern has constantly pushed herself into new territory. Her effects range from the brightly accented Kaleidoscope XXI: Tulips in the Courtyard Below (1998) to Kaleidoscope XX: Elegant After Maths (1999), which intentionally breaks certain patterns within some of the scopes, the border, and shoots scopes across the borders, too. It’s an ornery quilt in a way, and a pleasure to try to figure out. The eye craves bilateral symmetry, which is repeatedly shattered.
One personal favorite is Kaleidoscope XXXI: The Other Side of the Circle (2006), an airy, delicate design with a black background. Made of silver-to-black ombre kimono silks, cottons, with felt-tip pen, the eye at first races along straight lines, yet gets way-laid by subtle patterns that are too alluring to ignore.
You can’t buy Paula Nadelstern’s quilts, but you can see them in exhibitions around the world and learn how to make them yourself in her quilt workshops or by buying the catalogue of her current show. Her straightforward directions and sense of humor make the prospect of assembling one of these challenging quilts actually seem viable.
Her quilts form the basis for her fabrics, which are available through a design house, an excellent basis for your own similarly wildly complex quilts. But be forewarned, they take a lot of time. Her Kaleidoscope XXXIII: Shards (2007) required 18 months, and that was with an expert (the artist herself) doing the quilting.
Most of Nadelstern’s works are abstract or semi-abstract, but she has produced several more realistic variants since starting her kaleidoscopes. One is a snowflake quilt, Kaleidoscope XXII: Ice Crystals (2000) and another is based on a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge, her most realistic quilt to date. In her Kaleidoscope XXXII: My Brooklyn Bridge (2006), the kaleidoscopic effect is limited to the sky. She has added hand-couched (or hand-twisted) cords for the cables. They project a three-dimensional feel that enriches the already active surface. Appropriately, it was made for a Manhattan Quilters Guild traveling exhibit called "Metrotextural."
Nadelstern’s show at the American Folk Art Museum is rounded out by several 19th- and 20th-century kaleidoscopes, and some photomicrographs by W.A. Bentley of Vermont, who was the first to create images of single snowflakes, or as he preferred "snow crystals," in the early 1900s.
At the museum’s Lincoln Center annex, another quilt show, "Textural Rhythms: Constructing the Jazz Tradition -- Contemporary African-American Quilts," Mar. 24-Oct. 11, 2009, boasts 65 quilts in all. After an upbeat and lively part one, the second part of this two-part presentation by members of the Women of Color Quilters Network (which also includes some male quilters) has just opened.
The exhibition is studded with tributes to favorite musicians, like Alice Beasley’s Miles Ahead picturing Miles Davis on trumpet, while Carole Harris’s Brilliant Corners takes a more abstract approach to appreciating jazz, although she has mentioned specifically the music of pianist Thelonious Monk as an important source for her imagination. Her combination of hand-dyed fabric in vivid colors and her bold use of black are dazzling.
With an African-American president in the White House, I would have thought that the press corps there would have arranged for photo ops at this show by now. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time. "Textural Rhythms" also appears at the Museum of Texas Tech in Lubbock, Jan. 14-Mar. 21, 2010.
N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.