New York

“Heavenly Visions”

Drawing Center

This exhibition, the first major presentation of Shaker “gift” drawings and song manuscripts since 1979, shattered a number of common misconceptions about this centuries-old culture. The pared-down aesthetic one might associate with the Shakers through familiarity with their furniture is nowhere to be found in these bright, minutely detailed works in pen and watercolor on paper. And the widely held notion that making these works constituted a benign pastime for women was countered by the curatorial affirmation of the drawings’ powerful social, theological, and aesthetic significance in Shaker culture (not to mention that some of the artists were men).

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming—a charismatic British sect brought to America in 1774 by their leader, Ann Lee—became known as Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, for their dramatic expression of spirit possession in the ecstatic trances and whirling of “instruments,” the majority, of whom were women. Their visions were transcribed, usually by other women, and presented as gifts to members of the community to provide spiritual encouragement. Produced during the so-called Era of Manifestations, 1839–60, a period of crisis marked by the group’s dwindling population and the absence of its founders, these works document the spiritual return of “Mother” Ann and other deceased Shaker leaders.

The Shakers, whose laws strictly prohibited “pictures or paintings set in frames,” referred to these drawings variously as sheets, notices, rolls, hearts, and tokens of love. Writing, especially calligraphy, provides the conceptual framework for the 130 works here. Polly Jane Reed and Sarah Bates, calligraphers by training, filled out their carefully constructed symmetrical compositions with elegant lettering. Reed’s specialty was the genre of heart-shaped cutouts bearing spiritual messages. Bates’s Untitled Sacred Roll, 1840s, combines Shaker icons (birds, trees, a meeting house) with popular Masonic symbols (a checkerboard, an all-seeing eye) and delicate “spirit writing” in indecipherable “tongues,” which serves as the image's border in lieu of the forbidden frame. Her 1848 drawing From Mother Ann to Amy Reed reflects the increased emphasis on color and image in gift drawings as the practice continued.

Several works reflected a freer approach to imagemaking, such as Semantha Fairbanks and Mary Wicks’s entirely abstract collaborative compositions of feathery black “spirit writing” held in check by geometric ordering devices. A standout that more dramatically defies the Shaker penchant for order and symmetry is the anonymous eight-page Sacred Roll, 1840–43. With its sprawling, blocky letters and awkward symbols, this work suggests something of the urgency and immediacy of the Shaker visionary experience.

Although conceptualized as text, a number of the drawings overlap with more conventional genres of art and reflect the influence of a range of other purely visual traditions. The drawings’ carefully ordered aesthetic, established by means of tidy geometric compositional devices, grounds them in the larger context of Neoclassical American art and design. Polly Collins’s Emblem of the Heavenly Sphere, 1854, is an unusual portrait gallery of spiritual personages, arranged in a vertical gridlike composition that was likely inspired by tombstone carving. The heaven depicted in Hannah Cohoon’s Bower of Mulberry Trees, 1854, a highly symbolic, decidedly nonacademic landscape painting, is rivaled only by two versions of her “Blazing Tree” motif, 1845, shimmering records of her vision of a supernatural tree with flaming leaves, perhaps the best-known examples of Shaker gift drawings.

This exhibition (co-organized with the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, where it opened) marked a significant departure from the tendency to value Shaker material culture exclusively for its formal qualities, the legacy of the modernist recuperation of American folk art. By presenting gift drawings together with song manuscripts and (thanks to several scholarly catalogue essays) situating them within the larger context of Shaker social and religious practices, this exhibition established a new multidisciplinary paradigm with which to consider the complexity of religious visionary art. Though the secular art world might seem an unlikely place to celebrate this body of work, the concept of art as both deeply spiritual and culturally engaged truly resonated here.

Jenifer P. Borum