on September 3, 2010
More than a quarter century ago, Hilton Kramer, chief art critic for "The New York Times," wrote this about the first major exhibition of quilts in a museum of art: "The suspicion persists that the most authentic visual articulation of the American imagination in the last century is to be found in the so called `minor' arts - especially in the visual crafts that had their origins in the workaday functions of regional life."
Robert Shaw's "American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780 - 2007" affirms Kramer's "suspicion." In this book Shaw produces an exhilirating array of quilts to support his claim that quiltmaking is "a democratic art, quintessentially American in its openness, receptivity, adaptability, and malleability - available to anyone willing to accord it the time, value, and dignity it deserves." The quilts featured in this book are the best support for his claims.
The revolution that gained political independence for Britain's American colonies did not give them instant cultural independence. In fact, the colonists had sought merely the rights of free Englishmen, and it was only when these continued to be denied them that they determined to separate themselves politically from the mother country. It would be decades before a distinctive American viewpoint coalesced, still longer before it would be expressed culturally. In literature, Washington Irving's 1819 Sketch Book, with its tales set in the Hudson River valley, is generally regarded as the first use of an American voice in literary art, and it would be some time before a similar voice emerged in painting, longer by far in music.
In fact, one might make a good case that in America the so-called high arts tend still to be detached from the fundamental impulses of a people who eventually settled a broad continent, that in America the high arts are often disconnected from the vitality of the national culture and experience. Scratch the surface of the average insider in the American art world and there's a good chance you will discover someone grounded not in the experience of a people, but in the experiences of increasingly insular art centers of the cities on the nation's East and West Coasts. Perhaps that is why museum exhibitions of quilts attract such large and diverse audiences.
It is to Shaw's purpose to present a wide array of quilts and to organize them in a way that shows how their makers used the American visual idiom and American quiltmaking traditions to create not merely serviceable bedcovers, but at the same time, expressive art. He accomplishes this mainly through careful selection of quilts and even more careful organization and display of them. To his credit, Shaw generally lets the quilts speak for him. His discerning eye, his careful use of detailed views, and his concern for the artistry of the quilts lift this book above the rank and file of quilt books. and makes it one that should be in every library.
For instance, in the chapter entitled "Diversity: 1870-1940," the author does a particularly fine job of suggesting the variety that may be achieved within the conventions of quiltmaking, even within a single cultural group. An iconic quilt by the Georgia former slave Harriett Powers gets a mere 1/3 page, while on the next page Arthur Rothstein's well known 1937 WPA photograph of "Jennie Pettway and another Girl with the Quilter Jorena Pettway" (of Gee's Bend, AL) by gets 2/3 page. Shaw also cropped the photograph, refocusing it. Granted Powers' place among early African-American quiltmakers, that decision might seem questionable. If you are talking about the art of quiltmaking, you should show the quilts, not secondary images, right?
Not always, and this is a good example of Shaw's discrimination. In Rothstein's image, an African-American woman sits at an old-fashioned treadle sewing machine while two girls hold the bulk of the Dresden Plate quilt top she is completing. Shaw cropped Rothstein's photograph so the reader must look closely at the world in which black people (and many white people) lived at that time in Alabama and other places wealth had not found. That room, its walls papered with newspaper pages, printed photographs, and insurance-calendar pictures on which are surmounted with a antlers, crochet-covered shelves, and strings of Chinaberries, helps account for the Gee's Bend quilts. It shows cross-cultural influences and tensions better than any single quilt might do.
The woman seated at the treadle machine wears a neat, home-sewn print dress and a perfectly ironed and starched white apron. The girls wear Sunday dresses with pearl necklaces. They hold a pale, conventional Dresden Plate quilt top as Ms. Pettway runs the last section through the machine. Shaw's placement and cropping of this familiar photograph forces us to see it anew. That tidy, oh-so-white and perfectly pieced Dresden Plate (Dresden, the whitest and most uptight of the generally white and uptight) and those pearl-wearing children speak loudly of who sets the "rules" and suggest how good the quiltmaker must have felt to be done with the quiet prints of the Dresden Plate, which she possibly is making for a woman in the community, and to reach into her own scrapbag and say, "NOW! I'm going to do something I enjoy!" In my view, that's the real story of the more interesting quilts from Gee's Bend. Their energy is the energy of conflict, juxtaposition. They are understood best when seen within the context of the conventions they flaunt.
Turn a page and discover a vibrant 1935 "Birds of a Feather" pieced quilt made by Blanche Ransome Parker from Carroll County, TN. Its maker used the American block tradition, but she played fast and loose with it. No two blocks are the same size or shape. Within crazy black borders, blue birds raise red wings to zoom forward from a white ground, their feet on what almost surely was intended to represent earth, but what looks much more like magic carpets. We see them poised at the moment of flight. Though confined within those black borders, the figures of the birds are dynamic. It is as if their boundaries free them. One imagines Ms. Parker, a superintendent of an African-American school system, knew the wild, jubilant sense of freedom of children set free from their desks and classrooms at the end of a school day, their small bodies filled with what Wordsworth called "glad animal spirits." These birds have "glad animal spirits."
Elsewhere in this same chapter, Shaw juxtaposes two quilts in a recognized snakey quilt tradition, both attributed to African-American women. In the first (1875-1900, NC) the maker uses the conventional Pennsylvania German Bars vocabulary as the ground. Green, yellow, and white bars are perfectly spaced and the whole is framed with outer rows of yellow and green calico borders. Down those orderly Germanic bars in precise undulations move five snakes, their bright red, yellow and black bodies composed of triangles that give them movement. Very civilized and orderly serpents, these. Contrasting it is an AL quilt called "Snails Trails" in which the red paths move diagonally across asymmetrical yellow and black blocks. A single black border encloses three sides and the trails appear to move beyond their boundaries. A dark, disorderly world, this one. From similar vocabularies and traditions come two completely different and visually striking quilts. What the writer doesn't do is account for their great differences. Since the first offers no compelling basis for its attribution, I think it wise to question whether it was, in fact, made by an African-American quiltmaker and if it was, why it differed so radically from other African-American quilts shown here.
Mr. Shaw awakens the reader to the ways in which quiltmakers have employed distinctly American idioms and artistic means to create works that, had they been produced by men working in studios, would unquestionably have been declared works of art worthy of museum walls. Their makers drew upon a common body of experience and an intimately familiar medium to create objects of beauty and commentary about the American experience.
Thus the author produces a critical examination of the art of American quilts, not a mere compendium of quilts. With equal skill he studies the way the nation's quilts comment on the nation's moods. The book begins where American quiltmaking began, with the formally organized early palampores and broderie perse quilts made in affluent families along the eastern coast in imitation of those being made by their English relatives. It closes with the contemporary "art" quilt. It has fine chapters on the introduction of appliqué to create naturalistic imagery, the rise of the pieced quilt as a fresh design element, the exuberance and imagination that reflected the national mood from 1870-1910, crazy quilts and log cabins, quilts from the first 40 years of the twentieth century when quiltmaking was consciously used to express political statements and to preserve some form of domestic beauty in the era of the Great Depression. The art of the Amish quilts, which prefigured abstraction in studio art, receives due attention as does that of the Hawaiian quilt.
This book includes a number of quilts not commonly seen in print and draws from private and public collections. Those who think it is possibly a rehashing in a larger format of materials they already have in their libraries may be assured this book will surprise and teach. Turning its pages is a luxury. It sets a higher standard for presenting the art of the quilt.
That said, the work of this book is weakened by Mr. Shaw's failure to be more inclusive. He simply omits too much that should be represented in a study such as he proposes.
No one can be expected to find room for every important quilt in a book of this length. One must select widely in order to assemble a balanced, representative body of art. Perhaps one fewer Amish quilt, one or two fewer Gee's Bend pieces, a Quaker album added from Virginia and Ohio to go with those from the Mid-Atlantic coast.
Notably absent from "American Quilts: The Democratic Art" are the Quaker quilts from the Shenandoah Valley and Ohio, and, in fact, older Ohio quilts in general, though they constitute an important body in the American quilt heritage and reveal important points of cultural transmission and artistic change.
And when it comes to Southern quilts, Shaw is particularly remiss. Although a number of Southern documentation books are in print and their results available online in the International Quilt Index, the South is represented almost exclusively by the quilts of African-American quiltmakers, most particularly those from Gee's Bend, Alabama. To neglect the quilts of the Southern piedmont and mountain South is inexcusable in a book that purports to draw conclusions about the art of American quilts.
One must wonder whether these and other omissions (e.g., the Northern Plains states and the West in general and, ironically, the contemporary African-American quilts of Chicago and Detroit) result from bias, lack of information, or the lack of easy access to photographs. The latter is certainly a possibility, for the few examples in some these areas (e.g. Quaker quilts) often come from private collections that the author mines heavily in this book, when much finer and more representative examples are available. I suspect that is the problem, and it is not one easily excused. Yet one cannot dismiss the possibility of a bias along the lines of the smug H.L. Mencken who declared the South "the Sahara of the Beaux Arts," even as the region was producing the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
Although Mr. Shaw includes the well-known "Lazy Man" quilt from the TVA era, commissioned and produced by white Tennesseans, he offers no comment on its art or implications for black quiltmakers. This quilt depicts a bold black male figure holding a guitar, caught between an oversized arm of the federal government (the TVA project that was supposed to free southerners from economic dependence and "cure" their "backwardness") and his girlfriend, who looms from the right edge of the quilt. The sun rises between his legs, promising a new day, and the somewhat heavy-handed implication is that he must choose between his old life and the hope of the new. Many who see the quilt today do not know its history and assume the black figure to be that of Elvis Presley. As well as I know it, my own mind sees Presley, something that seems reasonable in this time. That Shaw doesn't think of this or does not comment on the quilt's implications suggests a certain ignorance of the diversity and history of the South. He seems not to understand that the energy of the Presleys, like that of the Pettways, is largely the energy of conflict and juxtaposition.
I have spent my adult lifetime studying and teaching the culture and literature of the South. I grew up in a quilt culture. And I submit that one cannot appreciate the Gee's Bend quilts without understanding the quilts made by the great range of Southern women. Gee's Bend is far less distinctive than is generally recognized by those who sweep down into Alabama to look at it out of context. It comes in many colors. Too often those who complain of stereotypes are the first to rely on them.
Cultural historians, writers, and thoughtful Southerners generally recognize the cultural dynamic that created white Southern art and thought in the twentieth century is the same one that generated art made by African-Americans. It is the same dynamic that generated the Fugitive-Agrarian group at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and that accounts for the phenomenal literary renascence that occurred in the South in the 20th century and produced writers like Wm Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, Elizabeth Spencer, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, and the non-political Alice Walker. That black figure in the condescending TVA quilt is Every Southerner, torn between the traditions of his family and home and the industrial mentality that has left dead and desolate cities throughout the Midwest's Rust Belt and that was once depicted as the summon bonum. The price of electricity was high. It was the price of personal and cultural identity, towns and cemeteries, churches that defined and gave meaning to lives and, many argue, make possible a vital art. Such choices give a people pause for thought, and out of those pauses often come great art. That is worth noting in a work such as Shaw's. The book cries for a broader representation.
When attempting to locate some of the quilts shown, I also found their sources no longer valid. In several instances (e.g., the Germanic looking Snake), where attribution is doubtful, I would have appreciated more information about the author's decision to accept it. If "attributed to" means "somebody told us they think," it is best to admit the maker is unknown.
Yet even given these problems---and they are not inconsiderable, I found this book a joy to behold, a visual feastthat I recommend to anyone who appreciates the artistry of American quilts. And for those who have not yet come to appreciate them, it would make a wonderful gift.