Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Quilts and Art

Art and Quilts

I stopped in to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art recently and saw this work by Sanford Biggers. Apparently it is two works with one superimposed over the other. I had a number of feelings about it.

First, it is a nice Pennsylvania German quilt, 1880-90. You can still see the fine cable quilting along the outer pink border at the bottom.

Second, I think people should be free to make art any way they can think of, including cutting up or burning an antique quilt, painting over it, shredding it--I do not really have any objection to people making art any way that seems right to them.  My objection to this is primarily in the wall text. As you can see, the materials are listed in detail, and the quilt itself is listed as "Cotton textile..." which gives the impression that the quilt was some sort of naturally occurring object. Just like a towel, another "cotton textile," or a sheet. The text does not admit the possibility that the quilt was designed and made by a person, probably a woman, 130 or 140 years ago, and that it was made of a number of carefully chosen cotton textiles, arranged in an aesthetically powerful design.

The artist cannot admit that the original quilt is at least as important to the success of this piece as his contribution. If he did, he would have to admit that it was a collaboration between him and a historical quilter. I looked him up online, and found this helpful information in an article for Art21 magazine by
Nettrice Gaskins:

"In Codex, (the series from which the above piece is taken)  he repurposes historical quilts that may have been used on the Underground Railroad as signposts, signaling “stations,” or safe houses. These works re-imagine cultural-historical artifacts of the past using materials of the present to consider possible futures...Some scholars argue that African slave artists and craftspeople used quilts much like NASA scientists use star charts. A star chart is a map of the night sky and Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman may have used one of these charts or quilts to lead dozens of slaves to freedom using the North Star as a guide. Accordingly, Biggers’ use of slave quilts as source material for his art makes reference to Tubman and the secret routes she traveled. "

No kidding. There are so many things wrong with this set of ideas that one hardly knows where to start. Tubman may have used one of these quilted star charts? Really? And she may have had an early GPS signaling device. Or she may have travelled by the light emitted from a UFO. There is absolutely no historical evidence for this, or for the idea that quilts were ever used by any fleeing slave for any kind of direction. And Biggers is using slave quilts? This quilt has all the earmarks of a Pennsylvania German quilt of an era a couple decades after slavery. It is not related to slave quilts. So his use of this quilt does not make reference to Harriet Tubman and the secret routes she traveled. 

I could go on  but all I am interested in talking about is the idea that modern artists cannot conceive of the idea that the quiltrepresents any kind of artistic statement in and of itself. Using a quilt as the basis for a work of art was done by Robert Rauschenberg first in 1955, something I wish would be acknowledged by the artist somewhere. But even Rauschenberg's example, "Bed" 1955, is surrounded by commentary that just as adamantly insists that the mere blanket he used, another Log Cabin quilt, had no value, being a simple blanket. 

It is as if these quilts were covered with an invisibility cloak. You might think someone would be able to look at one and say, "Wow--that woman really knew what she was doing."


  1. I am very glad that you brought this up! I have seen some other "artworks" like this one that use quilts that seem to have a fabricated historical elements woven into it and yet the very art of the quilt was also dismissed.

    I recently went to an auction where they auctioned off a baby quilt, which the starting bid was $20, they took it home for $40. The next item was a box of cigars, which they started the bid at $50, finally bid $90. I asked why the quilt was not given a higher starting bid since its value is more than the cigars. The reply was that it is "just a blanket..."

  2. Yep. Value-free. A whole other topic, but closely related.

  3. Matisse went to Tahiti in 1930 and was gifted with several of their iconic tifaifai quilts. (a way of bestowing honor in Polynesian culture) The tifaifai were somehow misplaced or lost when he got back to France. He never spoke about the influence on his art but his paper cutouts and his Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, south of France tell the story that leaves little doubt. It would have been nice if he had given us more detail about how the quilters of the islands and their emblematic distinctive designs affected him.

  4. For reference you should read "Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts" by Maude Southwell Wahlman, Fractal Geometry in African American Quilt Traditions by Judy Bales, and "Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern" by Cheryl B. Torsney & Judy Elsley. There actually is some historical evidence that Afro-traditional quilts from the 19th century (when Harriet Tubman lived) contained coded designs.

    frican American quilts are historical, cultural, and religious maps, directing the way from the past to the present. These quilts enact alternate views of the world based on “polyrhythmic, ‘nonsymmetrical,’ nonlinear structures.” These quilt texts provide a rhetorical space for creating African American culture, using a shared visual code.