Published: June 12, 2007
The exhibition “The Great Cover Up: American Rugs on Beds, Tables and Floors,” organized by Lee Kogan, curator of special exhibitions and public programs, is on view at the American Folk Art Museum through September 9.
This is the museum’s first presentation in more than 40 years that traces the history of American rug making through different periods, forms and techniques. Featuring approximately 65 rugs that span the end of the Eighteenth through the mid-Twentieth Centuries, the exhibition is drawn from public and private collections.
“The Great Cover Up” includes many masterpieces that have rarely been on public view. Among the masterworks are the American Folk Art Museum’s stunning 13-foot appliquéd carpet, circa 1860, and the magnificent embroidered carpet, 1832″5, by Zeruah H. Guernsey Caswell from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Other treasures from the American Folk Art Museum’s collection include the striking knitted rug attributed to Elvira Hulett, a member of the Hancock Shaker community, whose design is a technical tour de force, and the graphic pictorial table rug that powerfully illustrates the strong link between church and home.
Rugs have been a ubiquitous presence in American homes since the Seventeenth Century. The impulse to cover interior surfaces has historically been both utilitarian and decorative. Early American rugs were yarn-sewn, shirred, appliquéd and embroidered; later techniques included knitting, crocheting and, most notably, hooking.
“Because of their prominent placement in the home and the physical area they occupied, rugs became opportunities for strong visual statements,” noted Kogan. As many surviving rugs attest, the best examples transcend function through the graphic power of their color and design as well as their technical virtuosity.
One of the extraordinary bed rugs in the exhibition is an 1803 example in a palette of browns, gold and red tones that vibrates dramatically on a black background. Bed rugs were symbols of wealth and status; they were rare, valuable, labor intensive to produce and treasured by owners who used them during cold New England winters.
By the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, appliqué had become a popular technique used to make table, hearth and floor rugs. Appliqué involves cutting elements from one fabric and sewing them onto another, larger foundation fabric. The room-size appliquéd carpet is a highly unusual example of this technique because of its enormous scale and intricate floral imagery. The complexity of the design, the lavish use of color and the endearing center block of one blue bunny nibbling a dandelion animate the overall composition.
The embroidered carpet, a handmade masterpiece that is also known as the Caswell Carpet, was made in Castleton, Vt. Monumental in scale, it is composed of 76 blocks with the addition of a detachable hearth-size rug along one edge. The square-block construction was embroidered in chain stitch on a tambour frame. Adorned with an elaborate imagery of stylized leaves, birds and baskets of fruit, the all-embroidered carpet also features a few blocks of more naturalistic cats, puppies and an irresistible courting couple.
Among the hooked rugs in the exhibition, “Close Finish” is a whimsical example of a popular pastime whereas the monochromatic palette and simplified abstract forms in the “Solitary Tree” resonated with the modernist sensibility of the early Twentieth Century.
The popularity of rug hooking led to regional styles and later to the growth of cottage industries for profit and as agencies of social change. One of the most well-documented philanthropic and idealistic efforts at the turn of the Twentieth Century was that organized by British physician Dr Wilfred Grenfell. He founded a medical mission in Labrador and Newfoundland and established a cottage industry to help villagers augment their meager incomes. During the winter months he encouraged the women to make hooked mats, produced from silk-stocking material, that were sold throughout North America.
Included in the exhibition is the abstract “Fish on Flake” featuring a bold repetitive pattern of split cod drying on a wooden platform or flake.
Among the scheduled public programs are curatorial talks on July 17 and August 14, and a workshop series will take place on June 13, 20, 27 and July 11. Family Art Workshops are on Sundays June 10, July 8 and August 5.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 45 West 53 Street. For information, 212-265-1040 or www.folkartmuseum.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm