Critics’ Picks

Florine Smith, Four-block strips, circa 1975.

Florine Smith, Four-block strips, circa 1975.

New York

“The Quilts of Gee's Bend”

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
November 21, 2002–March 2, 2003

If a show about quilts sounds soporific, think again. The ladies of Gee's Bend—an isolated area of southern Alabama bounded on three sides by the Alabama River and dominated by the Pettways, an extended clan whose name, as often happened, was left to them by the slaveholder in the big house—have been saving fabric scraps and sewing quilts for generations, and are virtuosos in a vibrantly abstract and viscerally utilitarian art. Some sixty quilts, dating from 1930 to 2000, are on display, and in terms of experiment with color and composition, sizzling optical contrasts and irregular geometries, the galleries might as well be filled with hard-edge abstract paintings or unsung Op masterworks. Add nuances of texture and the show becomes a primer in the practice of assemblage. But a closer look reveals the pragmatic underpinning of such aesthetic flights: zigzag patterns within patterns marked out by hand-stitched seams, the stamped logo of a flour company on a bit of cotton sacking, the faded swath in a piece of denim salvaged from a pair of dungarees. The exhibition, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is not the first institutional attention to Gee's Bend—the area was photographed by Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s, and an accompanying video installed in the galleries weaves these documentary images into recent interviews with the quilters, whose nonchalant but ravishing singing around the quilting frame serves as a sound track. In the 1960s, a cooperative called the Freedom Quilting Bee began to sponsor a cottage industry for local women, and the separate threads of housewifely ingenuity, artistic vision, and social activism intertwine as easily in the interviewees' comments as do the bits of Sears corduroy occasionally matched up with calico. And then, if crackerjack visuals, wonderful music, and a fascinating social backdrop aren’t enough to lure you, there is always the pathos of quilting itself as a manifestation of memory. Arlonzia Pettway, for example, quotes her mother, Missouri Pettway (1902–81), describing the quilt she made after Miss Arlonzia's daddy died: “Mama say, 'I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love.'”