"Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Through Dec. 31

Seldom is the functional quilt considered cutting-edge art. But when the quilts of the women of Gee’s Bend, a rural community in Alabama an hour’s drive from Camden, were uncovered nearly 10 years ago, it created a sensation. The quilts are continuing to make the rounds, with growing interest and recognition of the women’s bold designs as fine art rather than, or superseding, the notion of the quilts as craft. This recognition has now reached Indianapolis: Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt pieces together this trajectory, one that began as a group of women sewing quilts for their families from worn out work clothes. Today, the quilts are considered “Some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced,” or so asserts New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman.

What makes the quilts so amazing? Certainly, they recall naïve art; and yet there’s a sophistication that has evolved over generations, as the women developed a unique, almost stylized aesthetic that incorporated a geometric, abstract sensibility. As if, from their rural outpost in the South, they were a part of the move towards minimalism without being intellectually connected to it. Our most important artistic movements have always had a synergy that defies the constraints of physical space, and yet their unique aesthetic was firmly rooted in place.

After the art establishment’s discovery of their quilts, the women experienced a sort of revival and many who had retired their shears and thread picked them up again, now creating art with intention. Loretta P. Bennett’s “Two-Sided Geometric” (2003) is a dance between hot pink and black triangles and rectangles, merging and separating as a map or a grid, but delightfully without logic. Ever since the first emancipated slave of Gee’s Bend picked up cloth and began to piece it together, the quilts have served as symbolic riffs on the fields, houses and roads of rural Gee’s Bend. This chronicling continues, but the women’s labor of love has become far more.

William Arnett, director of the Tinwood Alliance, present for the opening, remarked that black culture in this country is already known for producing great music. But to neglect visual art is “a big mistake.” With the Gee’s Bend quilts as evidence, the closed doors of institutional art are opening ever wider, as they are for other under-recognized constituencies, including women. The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s role in this goes back further than the current exhibition. Maxwell Anderson, recently installed director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York when he first brought the Gee’s Bend quilts to the public, dramatically breaking attendance records. Such a curatorial choice, Arnett said, “cost him dearly.” To our ultimate benefit.

Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt is on view through Dec. 31 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road. Call 317-923-1331 or visit www.ima-art.org for information.

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