New York

Rosie Lee Tompkins

The decorative arts are noticed more widely now and then in fine-art circles, effectively deflating categorical hierarchies of media and genres—having been brought into the museum context to widen the scope of modernism so that it might be thought more as a history of making. Hierarchy-busting though they may be, the place of craft in non–craft museums is often attributable to how they nudge the internal rules that govern their own making. As an example, just this winter the Whitney Museum featured quilts from the African American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, showing about sixty examples of gorgeous quilts pieced together from worn-out denim jeans, bright strips of cotton, faded grain sacks, and scraps of Sears Roebuck corduroy. Where many quilters would aim for straight seams, these women seem to prize intuition and ingenuity. The works’ presence on museum walls never eclipsed their original function: to keep bodies warm. Yet functionality didn’t preclude each quilter from developing her own independent style; even in a place as small as Gee’s Bend (population about 750), there is tremendous variety in the quilts produced.

By coincidence, the Whitney exhibition ran concurrently with the first New York solo show of quilts by Rosie Lee Tompkins, which provided the rare opportunity for comparison of different personal and regional styles. Tompkins, who comes from southeast Arkansas but now lives in northern California, shares affinities with the Alabama group. Like them, Tompkins emphasizes experimentation and references traditional African textile patterns, though her quilts seem less utilitarian. She uses plenty of plush dark green, blue, and black velvet punctuated with gold decorations and sudden accents of white. The imprecise, angled borders of her works contain dense aggregates of triangles, quilts within quilts, and gentle subversions on established quilt designs like the familiar log-cabin pattern, that in combination yield visual fields teetering between the pictorial and the decorative—a tension played out repeatedly in art history from Monet to Matisse to Pollock to Stella.

Tompkins has been included in numerous exhibitions of quilts since the late 1980s and previously appeared in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, where her vernacular art form fitted perfectly with Larry Rinder’s curatorial effort to shine a light on regional pockets of artistic production. Yet curators have been careful not to ascribe their interest merely to the work’s startling formal similarities to modernist abstraction—even while her quilts have been compared by various critics to Bauhaus textile designs and the paintings of Alfred Jensen, Agnes Martin, and Hans Hofmann. In this show it was in a 1996 version of a piece titled Three Sixes—a Jean Arp–like configuration of squares, seemingly arranged by chance—that comparisons to modern art were inevitable. A particularly strong correlative here was Paul Klee, once the master of the textile workshop at the Bauhaus: specifically, his insistence on communication with audiences through a personal abstract language and on the ties between art and music. (Indeed, for its lyricism and improvisation quilt making is regularly compared to jazz music, which is even taken as a narrative by some quilters.) I doubt that Tompkins set out to trump painting with her quilts, but with cloth and thread she does achieve a kind of improvisational restlessness, and ultimate coherence, that a lot of painters can only hope to approximate.

Meghan Dailey