New York

Susan Hoffman And Molly Upton

Kornblee Gallery

Jonathan Holstein’s collection of traditional quilts shown at the Whitney Museum, especially the intensely colored geometric Amish quilts, implied a likeness between American pieced work quilts and geometric abstractions such as those of Albers, Malevich, Noland and Rothko. Within the searching for “fore-mothers” on the part of women, the statement often was made that pieced work quilts were the women’s art of the 19th century whose abstraction predated the innovations of the 20th century. Whether or not this assertion has any validity, an issue which has died down rather than being satisfactorily resolved, the popularity of quilts paralleled an interest by artists, especially women, in using needlework to make art.

Molly Upton and Susan Hoffman began to make quilts in 1972. They formed a natural pair and Upton and Hoffman began a series of quilts in pairs, each dealing with a separate mood or topic. They did not use set quilt patterns, but arrived at the images by arranging the fabric into compositions on a wall prior to sewing them. The present show of quilted tapestries is a continuation of this process. They are quilts only in their construction. The work follows the traditional definition of a quilt as a three-layer textile sandwich joined by stitches passing through all three layers, but they are conceived and executed more like paintings or collages.

Though all in the same medium, Upton and Hoffman’s “pictures” are of remarkably different styles. Upton’s quilts rely on a greater light/dark contrast which is often used for an Op-art effect. Her work resembles one of the seldom mentioned but significant antecedents of this type of geometric abstraction—the “art” weavings and rugs produced by Anni Albers and others at the Bauhaus. Hoffman is more concerned with subtleties of color and uses a wide palette of colors and textures of fabric. She uses her units of cloth for chromatic abstractions similar to those of the German Expressionists and Kupka. One wall of the show was dominated by her triptych Coastline, in which equal-width strips of cloth in varying lengths are laid in horizontal lines. At the diagonal of the coastline,which slashes across all three panels, there is an extremely subtle color shift as the browns, pinks and grays of the shore on the left meet the blues, greens and indigos of the sea on the right.

Quilting, the stitch that joins the three layers and throws the surface into relief, produces a contrapuntal effect. The stratified layers of sedimentary rock are emphasized by stitching which follows the horizontal lines of cloth. The water is delineated by a series of sewn concentric arcs. In Upton’s Construction the quilting sets up an independent linear geometric system which underlines the Op-art illusion and establishes another set of geometric coordinates.

Is there a significance to the work other than its manufacture from cloth? Could the same effect be achieved with paint or cut paper? Although there is an anachronistic quality to the tapestries, they relate in several ways to current art concerns. Making a pieced-work design is a form of unit manufacture which developed at the same time as the Industrial Revolution and the assembly line, and the act of stitching together many small pieces involves the same quality of duration found in work such as Hanne Darboven’s. It also relates to a type of minimally three-dimensional sculpture being produced (Joe Brainard’s is one example) in which the image is almost integral with a two-dimensional surface.

––Ann-Sargent Wooster