The American Quilt

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.)

April 2021

* 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.

8 comments

  1. Robin – You raise the hoary old issue, once again, of ‘art’ and ‘design’.
    Critics from Roger Fry downwards have written reams on the subject, as I am sure you will know.
    As far as I am aware, for thousands of years, until around the XVII – XVIIIth C.s, artists in all cultures happily engaged in painting paintings, carving or modelling sculptures, and ‘decorating’ all without question.
    Then the distinction ‘Fine Art’ (tr. from Beaux Arts) came about to isolate the one from the other.

    Today, we are faced with the old conundrum: ” At what point does it cease to be ‘decoration’, ‘pattern’, etc., and ‘become’ art ?” ; and the all to familiar (for abstract art): “At what point does it stop being ‘art’, painting or sculpture, and ‘become’ merely decoration, pattern, object making, etc. ?
    We all know of , or have, the bedspread which could be framed, hung and look respectable in a show of abstract painting; or the piece of found object that passes for a ‘sculpture’. Likewise we all know of ‘art’ which turns out to be merely decor – painted or made.

    If there are any new answers (other than the old Greenbergian – Fry, ‘quality’). I am very interested to read them.

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  2. Exactly. But that “difference” is the whole point. What is it ? what does it consist of ? How do you get it ? and so on.
    MOST specifically of all, how do you know whether it is there or not without running into unspecified ‘taste’ ?

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  3. “Making your mind up” requires experienced familiarity derived from genuinely conveyed and understood feelings – in order to avoid mere ‘taste’.
    The problem is that many ‘make up their minds’, only to get superficiality or worse.

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    1. Don’t agree. It requires the opposite. “Feelings” are less important than engaging with the unfamiliar. I certainly cannot navigate through to your or anyone else’s “feelings” by conveying mine.
      Let’s forget about taste, as we agree at least about that. “Feelings” are not much different. Like I say, make your own mind up. You will never know my feelings and I will never know yours.

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  4. Sorry – Maybe I didn’t make myself clear.
    I wasn’t referring to the viewers ‘feelings’ but to those of the artist being viewed – ‘sensibility’ if you prefer.

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