My point is that it may be time to say that Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky were not just hard acts to follow, as the show business cliché has it, but that they were impossible acts to follow. Their visual inventiveness that poured forth decade after decade took art, representational art, and abstract art as well, as far it could go. It may be time to say that this mighty trio of artists left subsequent painters at a historical dead end that was not of their own making, and that doomed them to fail when they tried to compete with them.
Take Roy Lichtenstein, for example. Sometimes he would include a reproduction of a Picasso in one of his own works, and the result is that you’re more interested in the Picasso than in what Lichtenstein painted around it. That’s surely not the result that Lichtenstein was going for.
What do these art-historical musings have to do with quilts? Everything. Quilters work very much as the artists of the Renaissance did. The Italian Old Masters were both artists and craftspeople who ground their own paints and made their own frames. In the same way, quilters have to have an acute design sense and also have to enjoy working with their hands. They’d better enjoy working with their hands, because making a quilt usually requires hundreds of hours of handwork. They put in these hundreds of hours because they know they are making a unique object—just as Renaissance artists did. No quilter ever worries about the death of the original, as so many postmodern artists do.
Notice that the relationship between conception and execution is reversed between quilters and postmodern artists. For radical conceptual artists, there is no execution at all—it’s the thought that counts, and the thought is best described in a manifesto of some kind. The conception of the design may take a few hours or a few days, but the execution can take months.