Untitled quilt, American Mid-west, unknown artist, pieced octagonal pattern, c.1930. 208x168cm.
“This masterpiece is the best example of how craft morphs into ART”
A comment about the above work on Twitter 24.4.2021.
This work is included in the first exhibition at abcrit.org, now in its opening weeks, with more information on the preceding post.
It takes a while to appreciate the achievements of this American quilt, or properly take in its significant differences from other quilts. For sure, it looks straight away like a good work, organised and sensitive, but it takes a little time to engage with its singular achievements of structure. The complex method it fully involves itself with, of putting together hexagonal pieces of randomly pre-sewn, and variously-sized, and differently-patterned and coloured fabrics, into long, pointed shapes, which are then, in turn, sewn with three other hexagonals, point to point, around a tipped-up black square, the whole becoming one of many octagons, then… well, it can’t fail to engage us too. Are they put together this way, like this? What is made first; and what, if anything, is sewn over the top? Questions might arise about the methods, but the questions are soon outweighed by the spatial and physical tug and turn of real materials.
The end result of this convolution is unusual, rare, but it is not absolutely unique. There are other examples to be found in the right books (*), but not many.
The appeal of this work is largely to do with its unpredictability. It modifies its own activity as you examine it, and re-focus and look again. Try to fathom how the pre-made parts physically/visually react when sewn up to and against something completely different in pattern and colour, but the same in shape; with no correlation, but clearly connected; with no hint of a pre-appointed design, but a full grasp of how the fullness of the whole fits together… are you following this? What about the important changes of scale between the different elements, as they go backwards and forwards and you move across…? This complexity appears simple, yet works without ceasing (and if abstract painting and sculpture can’t go down this route, it is perhaps their loss).
The detail below shows instances in which four hexagonal shapes come together to a crucial point, each shape made of several fabrics put together at random (probably) in different-sized “strings” across the length of each hexagon, which are then joined together in an octagonal arrangement around the black squares-on-edge… maybe. These areas of pointed junctions are very idiosyncratic, very dazzling, all very fluent in how they operate differently with/from their neighbors.
Building things together in ways that elevate the unpredictability of new connections, and how they visually operate together/against each other when acting within these new coincidental relationships, compares favourably with a lot of abstract art-making. The way this quiltwork is put together creates its very own abstract spatial activity. It takes you away, as you look, from where you thought you were when you started. The content is right on the surface, fully in view, yet tantalisingly hidden from simple sight.
Written by Robin Greenwood
(with some argument from Sarah Greenwood. I like the opening quote; Sarah thinks it is superfluous – this craft is already art.)
* One of the best books on American quilts is “Unconventional & Unexpected – American Quilts Below The Radar” by Roderick Kiracofe, where there are a couple of similarly-organised quilts, plus many other types in a variety of spatial inventiveness.