Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50: Journey to Japan
Dr Marin Hanson, Curator of International Collections, International Quilt Museum
In 1975-1976, expanded versions of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Abstract Design in American Quilts” travelled to Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. During which time Japan was in the middle of a process of robust economic growth, with the extension of leisure time pursuits such as needlework as they were being promoted in both the governmental and private sectors. Combined with Japan’s longstanding textile traditions and a general receptivity to American cultural influence, that exhibition led to a phenomenal and enthusiastic embrace of quilt making, which has continued in Japan to this day. The artists featured in this current exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50: Journey to Japan” were some of the earliest to adopt American style quilt making and are among the most respected Japanese quilt artists and teachers today. Each of them has created a new work for the exhibition inspired by one of the original pieces in “Abstract Design in American Quilts.” https://www.internationalquiltmuseum.org/exhibition/adaq-japan
Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50: New York Nexus presents the work of eight artists directly influenced in their studio practice by the Abstract Design in American Quilts exhibition in its original Whitney Museum setting or in other venues during the early 1970s. Most of these artists were working in painting, printmaking, and collage at the time. Although the term art quilt came into use in the mid-1980s, dozens of artists were creating quilts as art in the 1970s, with Abstract Design in American Quilts functioning as an inspirational catalyst. https://thequiltshow.com/blog/history/textile-talks-abstract-design-in-american-quilts-at-50-raising-the-profile
As stated by Sandra Sider, guest curator of the current exhibition the expressive possibilities of fabric and stitch viewed in a gallery space opened avenues of creativity which were explored in various ways by the artists in New York Nexus, who include Sue Benner, Michael Cummings, Radka Donnell, Marilyn Henrion, Joan Lintault, Patricia Malarcher, Paula Nedelstern and Robin Schwalb. New York Nexus presents some of their work and offers a comparative analysis of their contemporary studio practice to and with the earlier counterparts within the Abstract Design in American Quilts exhibition in its original Whitney Museum setting and beyond. As discussed throughout the textile talk recording it has been interesting to see the differences between and amongst the textile artists as well as the comparable use of techniques, materials, colour, design, and inspiration. I have been particularly enthralled by the contemporary relationship with quilt making and its capacity to tell stories and to rewrite historical narratives in innovative and thought provoking ways. https://www.saqa.com/events/abstract-design-american-quilts-50-new-york-nexus
Through researching this series of exhibitions from the 1970’s to present day I have been interested to see and learn how the quilts have been presented throughout the long series of exhibitions in America as well as Japan. I have extended my understanding and learning through such research processes including how to exhibit, to show off the textile work to its absolute best. With more modern textile shows and exhibitions in circulation than ever, sewing has been seen as the preferred method to support the hanging process…through creating quilt sleeves, through sewing a basic hanging sleeve on the back of a quilt which holds a wooden rod – cut to the exact size of the sleeve. For textile shows and magazines, a standard requirement of a 4” fabric sleeve on the top back of the quilt is often required to help structure and to hold the textile in place
The 1970s marked a quilt revival, thanks in part to the nostalgic interest in crafts generated by the American Bicentennial. Often cited as a major influence was a 1971 exhibit, “Abstract Design in American Quilts,” curated by Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, in which vintage quilts, a few Amish-made, were displayed like modern art. “Art quilts” soon joined the quilter’s vocabulary, typified by work from Michael James, Jan Myers-Newbury, Nancy Crow, and others. These quilts, which escaped the practical constraints of quilts intended for use, were displayed in venues such as the biennial Quilt National exhibition in Athens, Ohio. Today, quilting has been embraced by artists who draw on the technique’s long tradition and cultural associations in their contemporary art practice. Quilts are closely linked with domestic life, because of their function as bedding or because their making is often associated with a rite of passage, like a birth or a wedding. However, they can also provide a forum for political or social commentary, be created as an act of remembrance, or as an artistic exploration, particularly of ‘women’s art’ and work.
In her Cellular Structure series, Sue Benner thinks about the layering of structure and looks deeply to see what is beyond the surface. Her education in biomedical science inspires artwork concerned with the human body and the microscopic universe. Benner sees a direct connection between the concept of quilting and the assembly of units, whether in cells or fabric. These shapes inhabit her mind and are the building blocks of her world and art.
Referencing the highly decorative nature of many African textiles, Michael Cummings celebrated several aspects of Afrocentric culture in his early quilts, including Egungun costume from Nigeria and Haitian folklore. His most recent work features heroic interpretations of political and literary icons, such as Shirley Chisholm, Barack Obama, and James Baldwin. Throughout his career as a quilt artist, Cummings has remained true to his roots, exploring various aspects of what it means to be a Black artist in the USA.
It was invaluable learning for me to hear how the series of exhibitions were organised with the original notes, plans and diagrams on show. Marin Hanson, Curator discussed through much of the thinking behind the decisions made by the earlier curators including Jonathan Holstein, of why certain pieces were hung the way they were and what were the overall effects that were sought. I liked seeing all the sketches made by the curators, and of increasingly understanding why the pieces were arranged and configured in the way they were. Such a textile presentation has helped to inform me on how I can address my own exhibition and of the necessary preparation work which is required before arranging my print and stitch artwork.