DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       Winter 2003  

 

The Quilts of Gee's Bend
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
General Information: (212) 570-3676
Ticketing: 1 (877) WHITNEY

November 21, 2002 – March 9, 2003

By Sandra Sider


Annie Mae Young (b.1928) work-clothes quilt with center medallion of strips, 1976, denim, corduroy, synthetic blend (britches legs with pockets) 108 x 76.5 inches

all images this article,
Collection of Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta,
photographs by Steve Pitkin/ Pitkin Studio
Courtesy Tinwood Books

In 1971 the Whitney Museum mounted a group exhibition of antique Amish
quilts entitled Abstract Design in American Quilts. That exhibition and its very popular full-color catalogue made an astounding impact on many American artists who were in the early stages of their careers. Despite the exhibition's success, however, the Whitney has not presented another large-scale exhibition of this genre of fiber art, a vital component of
American art, until now. The American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts
and Design) and the American Folk Art Museum have been the primary New York
City venues for showing quilts.

 

In 1999, the American Craft Museum mounted Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African-American Artists, which included works by such nationally acclaimed artists as Michael Cummings, Kyra Hicks, and Carolyn Mazloomi. From visual celebrations of such heroic figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to "movement and rhythm that defy the notion of quilt as rectangle" (in Chris McLeod's words), that exhibition had stupendous response from reviewers as well as from the public. As a result, American quilt artists
in general and African-American artists in particular were in the spotlight. Then came the 2002 Whitney Biennial, with the quilts of African-American artist Rosie Lee Tompkins being among the brightest, most popular pieces in the exhibition.

Annie E. Pettway (1904-1971) "Flying Geese" variation, c.1935, cotton and wool, 86 x 71 inches

The synergy of this recent success and the creative focus of Debra Singer at the Whitney Museum have brought sixty historic African-American quilts to New York. Previously shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the quilts were selected by the curatorial team of Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, with quilt collector William Arnett of Tinwood Alliance, Alvia Wardlaw of the Houston museum, and Debra Singer, associate curator of contemporary art. The quilts were made by the women of Gee's Bend, Alabama, between the 1930s and the present day, with most of the collection dating from the 1960s and 1970s. Of the 41 quiltmakers whose works are included, 25 are still living but only a few are still making quilts.

 

Gee's Bend, very isolated until the mid-1960s, is situated within a large loop of the Alabama River, deep in Wilcox County, one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the United States. Nearly half of the women with quilts in the Whitney Museum exhibition have the last name "Pettway," their legacy of slavery from plantation owner Mark Pettway in the mid-nineteenth century. The community of Gee's Bend has suffered numerous indignities in the twentieth century, from a starvation campaign in the early 1930s to social, political, and economic discrimination during the struggle for voting rights in the 1960s. The spirit of community that saw Gee's Bend through such hard times comes shining through in their quilts, and it is a privilege to see them.

People who grow up in poverty learn never to waste a thing, and the impetus to use every scrap of fabric, or to share scraps with others, obviously motivated the women of Gee's Bend. Many of the Gee's Bend quilts are monumental, large enough to cover a king-sized bed, and they contain many pieces of salvaged fabric. Because the quiltmakers did not have the luxury to design a quilt from scratch, but had to use what fabric they had from worn-out clothes or left over from sewing projects, they had to improvise. Many of the resulting quilts have the offbeat rhythms of syncopated jazz or the swelling crescendo of a gospel chorus, with voice building upon voice. Alvia Wardlaw has written that for the community of Gee's Bend, quiltmaking, like music, is "a great colorful subtext providing a vibrant visual framework." These quilts were constantly present in the eyes of Gee's Bend--on beds, couches, and chairs, and from time to time hung across yards on clotheslines to air out or dry.

Jessie T. Pettway (b.1929) Bars and string-pieced columns, 1950s, cotton, 95 x 76 inches

Several of the quilts are constructed in many rows of narrow rectangular strips, recalling the plain yet sturdy walls of the log houses in Gee's Bend. One of these strip quilts by Annie Mae Young (b. 1928) virtually stands without support. Predominantly of brown corduroy, this quilt made circa 1975 consists of two wide vertical sections, so that the two halves balance each other, with evenly spaced yellow strips at the upper left pulling against a few yellow strips at bottom right. The entire surface is sparked by several red strips, including one that, surprisingly, doubles its width crossing from right to left. The quilt fairly pulsates with energy and strength, so that the notion of an African-American aesthetic comes to mind.

As Debra Singer has remarked of the Gee's Bend quilts, "This work transcends the outdated, residual boundaries between art and craft." The quilts seem to have sprung from the creative impulse itself, as the quiltmakers stitched together innovative resolutions for seemingly impossible combinations of color and pattern. In addition, the layers of many Gee's Bend quilts are held together by radically undisciplined hand quilting that swoops and jumps and flies across the surface. The joyful abandon of the quilting perfectly complements the feeling of freedom in these unique abstract compositions.

Catalogue by John Beardsley, William Arnett, Paul Arnett, and Jane Livingston, introduction by Alvia Wardlaw and foreword by Peter Marzio, published by Tinwood Books, Atlanta, in association with The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 192 pp, $45.

 

SANDRA SIDER, a fiber artist and Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, teaches art history at Fordham University and lives in the Bronx. Her web site is photoquilt.net.

 

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