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Published: December 23, 2014
By: Kate Eagen Johnson
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. — “I am surprised by how much I like double-knit polyester quilts,” observed Roderick Kiracofe. While it might be a little hard to square this comment with Kiracofe’s stature as a revered quilt connoisseur, it certainly reflects the expansiveness of contemporary textiles study and appreciation.
Historically, textiles have been at the bottom of the pecking order as both a favored topic of study by decorative arts scholars and as a preferred creative medium for artists holding MFAs. But textiles and those who love them are now attracting lots of energy and attention. Take, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s mind-blowing exhibition, “The Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade 1500–1800” of 2013–14, other recent shows and publications on needlework and printed textiles and fiber’s frequent appearance in the work of Nick Cave and many other contemporary artists.
Born circa 1970, the quilt revival received a big boost from the American Bicentennial. In 1976, the quilt stood as a symbol that both mainstream American culture and the Hippie counterculture could embrace. Women from all walks of life took up the needle — quilting by themselves, with relatives and friends and in guilds. A plethora of quilt books were published in the 1970s. These were joyous and emotion-filled of detail-light tributes to women’s anonymous communal artistry at the time when art historian Linda Nochlin had just penned her groundbreaking 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
In some circles, quilts served as the unofficial banners for women’s consciousness raising. During the revival, the tradition of the commemorative quilt found no more powerful expression than in the AIDS Memorial Quilt, first displayed on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in 1987.
Also as part of this renaissance, quilt study organizations and governmental arts agencies supported the documentation of quilts through funded field surveys and scholarship. Landmark exhibitions included “Abstract Design in American Quilts,” which Jonathan Holstein and Gail Van der Hoof curated for the Whitney Museum of Art in 1971. Their exhibition is credited with helping to start the revival and with elevating the status of the most successful quilts from domestic, amateur craft to fine art. In 1986, the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery’s exhibition “The Art Quilt” highlighted the work of 16 fiber artists and promoted the concept of the art quilt as a recognized creative form.
In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston organized “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” an exhibition of the quilted art created by African American women in this small Alabama town. The much celebrated exhibition traveled to the Whitney Museum the following year. Deborah Miller, an independent appraiser of textiles and clothing, sees the 1980s and early 1990s as a corresponding zenith in the market for antique quilts.
Three recently published books give textile aficionados much to ponder. Colonial Williamsburg curators Linda Baumgarten and Kimberly Smith Ivey have co-authored Four Centuries of Quilts: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection. Independent scholar and curator Robert Shaw has revised, enhanced and updated his out-of-print 2009 historical survey to create American Quilts: The Democratic Art. In Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950–-2000, Roderick Kiracofe offers a counterpoint by inviting experts from various fields to react to his collection of “maverick” quilts made during the second half of the Twentieth Century.
A short summary of each is in order. The title of the Colonial Williamsburg catalog indicates a broad date range not typically associated with this institution. As Baumgarten noted, “Colonial Williamsburg really has two parallel collections. The first consists of Anglo American decorative arts and decorative arts representing other cultures which inform Colonial eras and areas. The second is American folk art. So we can illustrate four centuries of quilts from the early Colonial right up to those made yesterday.” Among the most fascinating aspects of the catalog is the discussion of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century trade quilts and related textiles from India, the Mediterranean and Aegean area, and other distant locales.
When asked what she hoped to accomplish, Ivey stated, “We wanted this publication to be beautiful yet scholarly. We wanted to tell the stories of the makers of these quilts. We wanted to include a great deal of documentation so there are endnotes. We wanted it to be user-friendly for those wanting to research a particular type of quilt. Readers can thumb through and find a nice, quick summary with resource information on red-work quilts, Baltimore Album quilts, African American quilts, Polynesian quilts and other topics.” Shining a spotlight on quiltmakers as individuals and as artists is a commonality of all three books.
A favorite chapter in Four Centuries of Quilts is titled “Make Do.” The transformations and appropriations found here include a quilted petticoat turned into a bed quilt and a bed quilt turned into a petticoat. Baumgarten was particularly intrigued by the latter object and the American Quilt Study Group has just accepted her conference paper in which she explores its tangled history. Baumgarten’s schematic drawings of the quilting patterns for this and other objects allow us to better comprehend overall designs, something that even the highest-quality photography cannot capture.
Baumgarten and Ivey are grateful for catalog support from Mary and Clinton Gilliland. The exhibition “Celebration of American Quilts, showcasing 12 quilts published in the catalog, will be on view at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg through June 2016.
When asked what is new in American Quilts, Shaw remarked that he has added more Southern quilts, updated provenance for quilts which have changed hands since the publication of his previous book and brought quiltmaking up to the present day. His 2009 book ended with quilts made in 2007. Shaw has retained the basic thrust of his first book wherein he ties the history of women’s quilting to the broader history of the United States. He devotes much discussion to quilts made by African Americans, Hawaiians, Native Americans and the Amish and Mennonites. According to Shaw, “the book’s subtitle, ‘The Democratic Art,’ is what I am really trying to get across. Every kind of person in the country has made quilts.”
A particular highlight for this reader was Shaw’s examination of the quilt revival and its various components. While all three books include contemporary quilts, this is the only one with multiple chapters devoted to the history of the movement. Shaw’s chronological approach is helpful in explaining what some of us saw, but perhaps did not fully appreciate, at the time.
Unconventional & Unexpected is dedicated to quilts of more recent vintage. About ten years ago, long-time quilt dealer Kiracofe literally woke up one day and thought “What were the ‘everyday quilts’ made from the 1950s to the end of the Twentieth Century like? And were they even made?” He had ended his historical survey The American Quilt, 1993, with quilts from 1940s because quilt dogma held that no good quilts were made after 1950.
Kiracofe began checking out quilts of more recent vintage. Many, of course, were traditional in style and technique, but there were also “maverick” quilts whose makers reveled in breaking the rules and in improvisation. The latter were the ones that appealed to him and he began buying them on eBay and through other means. Perhaps to the chagrin of Arts and Crafts purists, the makers of these objects did not often fashion quality, natural materials by hand. Many unabashedly delighted in polyester and rayon that they ornamented via machine stitching and appliqué. Some of these quilts did not even have straight sides!
Kiracofe had no intention of writing a history of quilts from 1950 to 2000. Rather, he extended an invitation to ten experts from the worlds of decorative arts history, quilting and visual art to respond to pieces in his collection. A series of brief essays addressing diverse themes resulted. Sample essays include Amelia Peck’s “In Dialogue with an Anonymous Quilt,” Janneken Smucker’s “Unconventional Wisdom: The Myths and Quilts That Came Before” and Kaffe Fassett’s “The Joyous Anarchy of Color and Pattern.” One slight drawback here is that at least two essayists site works of art which are not illustrated. Still, this wide-ranging dialogue is refreshing and provocative.
As thrilling as they are, these new approaches and new discoveries are part of a continuum. Textile doyenne Linda Baumgarten reflects that “as much research as we do, there is even more to do. The next book will go beyond our book. The bottom line is that no book is the final answer. We share our knowledge now so that the next generation will take it further. It is an exciting time. We are learning so much about objects, ideas and the nature of trade. And at the same time, new pieces are coming to light. We are adding to the collection all the time and each new piece illuminates the old ones.”
Four Centuries of Quilts: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection by Linda Baumgarten and Kimberly Smith Ivey with a foreword by Ronald L. Hurst. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Association with Yale University Press, 2014, 368 pages, 320 color and 54 black and white illustrations.
Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950–2000 by Roderick Kiracofe, Abrams, 2014, 224 pages, color illustrations.
American Quilts: The Democratic Art by Robert Shaw. Sterling Publishing Company, 2014, 375 pages, 350-plus illustrations.
Kate Eagen Johnson is an expert in American decorative arts and an independent consultant to historical organizations.
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