My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The mix of specialties of the essayists–artists, historians, quilters, and museum curators–creates a conversation from a variety of perspectives. And they don’t always agree. One could wish for a panel discussion where they have a chance to comment on each others’ comments.
Some tell the old story and some revise it. Janneken Smucker, a historian specializing in American Material Culture, does both as she traces early quilting historians’ romanticization of colonial scrap quilting to the revision by later historians who question that reading. She places herself among those later historians, then tells of her further revision prompted by the Kiracofe collection.
Essayists also provide a range of opinion on the question of quilts as modern art. Elissa Author, an associate professor of contemporary art, provides an overview of rebellious fine artists who were influenced by quilts. Amelia Peck, a curator of American Art at the Museum of Modern Art, tells the criteria she uses to select art quilts and illustrates from the collection. Smucker and Ulysses Grant Dietz, another curator, tell the features of several quilts in the collection that appeal to them artistically; Dietz goes on with cultural critique, placing his taste in the era of the “Gees Bend syndrome,” noting the marketing of that collection and trendiness of curation. Alison Smith, an activist artist, probes with this question: “What is at stake in considering paintings and quilts as parallel endeavors? Do we reinforce their differences when we marvel at their similarities?” (158). She proceeds to analyze the differences.
“A Texas Quiltmaker’s Life: An Interview with Sherry Ann Byrd” provides an organizational scheme for my thinking (not for the structure of the book) about the quilts pictured: “precision quilt, M-provisational quilt, and throw together quilt” (52). Her term, “M-provisational” points beyond “improv” to an emphasis on syncopation that she sees in some designs. And Byrd says many in the collection represent the “throw together” category, made extremely quickly for extreme need.
I will confess that though all the quilts were historically interesting, I did not find them all equally appealing visually. However, artistic commentary in the essays and in a few captions led me to revaluate some of those judgments.