The Common Threads Between Female Quilters and Abstract Expressionists

Installation view of Function to Freedom: Quilts and Abstract Expressions at Sara Kay Gallery, at left, Victoria Manganiello’s “El Trifinio” (2015)(all images by Adam Reich, courtesy Sara Kay Gallery unless otherwise noted)

Function to Freedom: Quilts and Abstract Expressions, an exhibition at the recently opened Sara Kay Gallery, elevates and celebrates artworks created by women across several mediums. The relatively small gallery space brims with 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century quilts, as well as Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture. The result is a panoply of pattern and color.

Featuring 23 pieces, the show illuminates and emphasizes the compositional continuities among the works. It’s fascinating to discover the echoes of patchwork within the paintings and, conversely, hints of the quintessential fluidity of Abstract Expressionism woven into the quilts. Among the very first works one encounters in the show are Helen Frankenthaler’s “Monoprint IX” made in 1987 and an “Antique African American Patchwork Quilt” from circa 1930s Texas. Though between them there are some aesthetic similarities in terms of coloration and forms, there are also jarring contrasts between the contexts, histories, and meanings of the pair. Considering the historical and social differences becomes a task for the viewer, who must work against the lack of wall text and the prioritizing of formal comparisons to do so. In fairness, though, specific information about many of the quilts is unavailable, lost to history.

On left, Grace Hartigan,“Petite,” (1963), on right, Artist Unknown, “Victorian Crazy Quilt Fragment” 1886

One of the most compelling conversations of the exhibition exists between “Petite,” a painting created in 1963 by Grace Hartigan, and a so-called “Victorian Crazy Quilt Fragment” made in Massachusetts in 1886. Both works possess clearly delineated fragments—I saw six parts within each work— and the quilt’s disordered lines and varied shapes certainly dialogue with Hartigan’s organic and supple forms. Another striking colloquy exists between Elaine de Kooning’s “March Sky” painted in 1959 and a “Folk Art Crazy Quilt” from circa 1885. This quilt is hung at an almost 90-degree angle to the painting, inviting the viewer to engage with both works simultaneously. Here, the similarity in color palette is most poignant.

On right, Elaine de Kooning’s “March Sky” (1959), on left, Artist Unknown, “Folk Art Crazy Quilt” circa 1885 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

These works are not only united by form, color, and abstraction. There is a kinship among these works because they were created by women whose craft, at one time or another, was either considered lowbrow or was measured against the work of male contemporaries and found to be derivative and unoriginal. Lee Krasner, for example, whose work appears in the exhibition, following her showing her paintings with works by her husband, Jackson Pollock, at an exhibition called Artists: Man and Wife, received this review from an Artnews critic in 1949: “There is also a tendency among some of these wives to ‘tidy up’ their husbands’ styles. Lee Krasner (Mrs. Jackson Pollock) takes her husband’s paints and enamels and changes his unrestrained, sweeping lines into neat little squares and triangles.” Abstract Expressionist scholar David Anfam has argued that Krasner later in her career “purged the remnants of Cubist organization that she had learned from Hans Hofmann” and managed to “exorcise Pollock’s ghost” from her work in the early 1960s. Escaping the far-reaching shadows of Pollock and Hofmann and proving her own autonomy and originality was a particularly strenuous task for Krasner. Regarding the fabric pieces, though the show provides some detail regarding the origins of the quilts, many of the quilt makers remain nameless — a symptom of quilt-making’s history as a domestic hobby rather than a legitimate art form. Indeed, a 1913 Armory Show cartoon titled “The Original Cubist” suggests that quilting was considered unrefined and slapdash. In these ways, Function to Freedom points to the erasures and invalidations of creativity and artistic worth experienced by women of different eras and mediums.

The show culminates with Victoria Manganiello’s “El Trifinio” (2015), a textile work that occupies the central space of the last gallery room. Surrounding Manganiello’s piece are Yayoi Kusama’s “Here Comes the Village of Satan” (1975), Lee Krasner’s “Untitled” (1962), and two quilts, a “World’s Fair Quilt” (ca. 1893), and a “Mennonite Folk Art Fan” (ca. 1895). “El Trifinio” feels like a contemporary, harmonious mixture of quilt making and abstraction, exemplifying in one work many elements seen in the exhibition. The piece is made up of three, dyed, diaphanous textiles connected by bright red threads that collect in a pool at one end of the dynamic, sculpture-like form. The piece, in the context of this exhibit and its ethos, represents a sort of triumphant moment for the unknown quilt makers and sometimes disparaged abstractionists. It feels like a fitting ending for an exhibition that considers the evolution of the legitimacy of women artists by way of centering the once diminished voices and talents of quilt makers and Abstract Expressionists alike.

Function to Freedom: Quilts and Abstract Expressions continues at Sara Kay Gallery (4 East 2nd Street, East Village, Manhattan) through January 27.

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