I recently went to “Quilt Odyssey,” a major annual quilt show held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, famous for chocolate bars, and near the epicenter of American quilting. As I walked around and saw one exciting quilt after another, with intriguing designs and dazzling colors, I got more and more excited, and I realized that there was a quotation buzzing around in my mind so fast that I couldn’t get it. Finally, I took a deep breath, and succeeded in recalling it. I should have known. It’s one of my favorite quotations about creativity, from Emily Dickinson. She once said, “When I read great poetry, it feels like the top of my head is coming off.”
So I walked around some more, and got still more excited by what I saw. I was thinking, “I haven’t had a visual experience that excited me this much in a long time.” I wondered why this was, and again had a nagging sensation that a thought in the back of my mind was trying to break through into my consciousness. When I turned a corner and saw a quilt called “Matisse Revisited,” something went WHAM in my consciousness, and I realized what it was. This quilt, a group effort inspired by Matisse’s “Red Interior,” from 1947, was so mesmerizing that it made me realize that “Quilt Odyssey” showed more creativity, more imagination, more ingenuity, than all the recent art exhibits I’ve seen in the last decade combined. There’s something important to be understood here, something to be said about both modern painting and modern quilting.
Critics generally agree that Pablo Picasso was the dominant painter of the twentieth century, and that his “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and subsequent cubist works called into question the painting styles established in the Renaissance. Picasso’s competition with his long-time friend and rival, Henri Matisse, resulted in great paintings by both Picasso and Matisse. While they remained committed to figurative painting, an understanding of twentieth-century painting is incomplete without the greatest abstract artist, Vasily Kandinsky, any one of whose canvases from the thirties makes the work of the Abstract Expressionists look pallid.
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.
The closest contemporary analogy to quilters would be cabinetmakers, who make custom furniture that can be admired as art and also used to store dishes. Similarly, quilts can be used to keep you warm at night, and also to beautify a bedroom.
Or not. “Quilt Odyssey” also featured some wall quilts, of which “Matisse Revisited,” the quilt that stopped me in my tracks, is one. As the name indicates, wall quilts are meant for display on walls—they’re often too elaborate to be used on beds—and thus they have close European precedents in tapestries. Of course, they’re smaller than tapestries because we display them in middle-class houses, not castles, but their function in an interior is essentially the same.
Whether you think of wall quilts as tapestries or as fiber art, they are still art. So it’s not surprising that there is an Art Quilt Network, some of whose members have a fine arts background. I suspect that some of them may have migrated from painting to quilting because they sensed the greater potential for creative expression in quilting.
There are two other historical factors that come together to explain the sustained creative energy of quilting. First, quilting has a long and honorable history among American women. Even in the unlikely arts center of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, not far from infamous Selma, African-American women have long been making quilts whose designs have startling similarities to those of modern painting. Second, the appearance of great women artists is one of the great stories of twentieth-century art. Beginning with Mary Cassatt, many American women from a variety of background have had brilliant careers in the arts.