We all had a basin full of quilts in the 1970s. The revival of interest in folk-art patchworks went well with the back-to-the-earth movement, with hippieism and the craze for organic foods. It seemed as if every other museum exhibition was of quilts. Antique shops were festooned with the things. And thousands of women (and some men) were making more quilts. By the end of the 1970s, the only way you would have got me to attend another quilts exhibition would have been to stick lighted matches between my toes.
But there has been a decent moratorium; and as I am no quilt maniac, you can take my word for it that "The Art Quilt," an exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery through Nov. 16, is a revelation. For a start, none of the quilts on show are musty, faded patchworks lovingly stitched by grandma and lately removed from somebody's attic. No antiques, no junk. This is an art exhibition, by contemporary artists who happen to have chosen quilts, rather than canvas and paint, as their medium.
Michael Kile, one of the show's two organizers, says:
"These quilts are not only designed by artists, they are made by artists. The snobbery that suggests that fabric can't be art and that quilts can't be art unless they're 100 years old has to be re-examined because of this show. I hope it will be a sort of celebration for the quilt community, because these artists have been on--pardon the pun--the cutting edge of quilt making for the past decade. They've caught a lot of attention, but they've also engendered a lot of strife for themselves. Many traditional quilt makers look at these works and say: 'What are they doing to quilts?' "
Some of the quilts parade the jazziest of abstract patterns, such as Michael James' "Rhythm / Color," which manages to juxtapose all the colors of the palette without having them clash. Others are figurative works, including Terrie Hancock Mangat's "American Heritage Flea Market," in which Barbie dolls, a Mickey Mouse clock and other flea-market trivia are picked out in scraps of cloth; Deborah J. Felix's bold vignette, "Discussing Plants for the Future," and Therese May's "For All the World to See" (a glass tank of goggling fish on a mat).
The techniques used by the exhibition's artists outrage traditionalists. For example, the artists leave unfinished, raw edges and don't clip off loose threads. They layer their materials to give an effect of luminescence. They work to a size larger than even Hugh Hefner's bed, and larger than most painted artworks, too. Mangat's "Dashboard Saints: in memory of Saint Christopher (Who lost his magnetism . . .) " measures 99 x 123 inches.
It was an exhibition in 1971 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City that first took the American quilt off the bed and put it on the wall. The quilts displayed were all antique examples. The show was titled "Abstract Design in American Quilts," and soon the critics were busy relating the designs of antique quilts to Abstract Expressionism, Op Art and Pop Art.
The growing women's movement got into the act too; quilts, it was alleged, showed the level of artistic genius that oppressed 19th-Century women had been capable of while imprisoned in their homemaker roles. "Quilts, for many women, became flags around which to rally," wrote Penny McMorris and Michael Kile in their book, "The Art Quilt."
Kile and McMorris, creator-producer of the PBS television series "Quilting" and "Quilting II," are co-organizers of the Municipal Art Gallery show. "The thing that interests me," McMorris says, "is the continuing of quilt design. Every different period has added its own designs, and there have been reasons for those kinds of designs being put on quilts. The designs should reflect the 1980s, should look to the '90s. And there's a difference now, because for the first time we have artists who have been trained in art school; these are not naive women who are developing designs that their neighbors have given them."
Michael Kile thinks that "what has been happening to 'modern art' in the last 15 years is that all of the different media have been coming together, and you're getting these incredible crossovers. Painting isn't simply painting anymore; sculpture isn't merely sculpture. They've all come together, and you see that in these quilts, over and over again--hand-painted fabrics, colored photocopies, gold thread, three dimensions, painting on silks, transparent gauzes, layering. With this medium, because it's so pliable, artists can use every technique."
Kile hopes that painters will see the show and say: "I can't do that with paint."
"With quilts," Kile says, "you don't have to put down 15 layers of paint to get luminescence. You can get it by using the right fabric."
He believes that the medium has infinite potential.
"I hope that the quilts in the exhibition will attract some very well-known people to make a few quilts and to play with the idea. David Hockney, for example. I hope that when David sees this show he'll decide to make a quilt or two. Once you get people like that experimenting with quilts, this art form is going to get enormous attention. I think it is a medium that, in terms of this individualist expression, is just at the very beginning."
The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is in Barnsdall Art Park, 4804 Hollywood Blvd.