Textile artists are back in the public spotlight in museums and galleries. Art collectors? They always catch up


In 2002, crowds lined the block in front of the Whitney Museum of American Art to see “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced,” according to a New York Times review.

They were not paintings or sculptures by contemporary artists. They were hand-stitched quilts by women in Gee’s Bend, a remote Alabama hamlet where descendants of slaves had created works “so beautiful it’s hard to know how to even begin to make them.” account,” critic Michael Kimmelman said. wrote.

Quiltmakers Gee’s Bend’s vibrant patched and sewn compositions, originally made with the humblest materials and for utilitarian purposes (like window insulation), have had a profound impact on a young generation of quilt makers. . These artists are now paying homage to Whitney’s historic exhibition, originally organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the heart of Chelsea.

At Hauser & Wirth, the gallery commissioned curator Legacy Russell, executive director and chief curator of the adjoining kitchen, to curate “The new turn“in a nod to Whitney’s”Gee’s Bend Quilts.” The show, which brings together 12 contemporary artists working with textiles and fibers, including Diedrick Brackens, Qualeasha Wood and Basil Kincaid, is a “Love letter” to the women of Gee’s Bend for “building an incredible canon of creative practice that extends to the present day,” Russell said at a preview this week.

Gee’s Bend quilter, Mary Margaret Pettway. Courtesy of Nest.

Bask in the limelight

Periodically overlooked and undervalued, textiles are (still) embraced by the art world and art market. And although auction prices remain relatively low compared to paintings, quilt making has a long and storied history, sranging from ancient Egypt to 15th century Indonesian batik and Renaissance tapestries to the works of Bauhaus master Anni Albers. More recently, Faith Ringgold’s storytelling quilts and El Anatsui’s expansive bottle cap installations have found new audiences.

“Artists have always worked in textiles,” said Adam Levine, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, which staged “Radical Tradition: American Quilts and Social Change” in 2021. The museum also recently acquired nine quilts from artists of Gee’s Bend.

“What may appear to be an explosion of textile producers, from a historical perspective, is an explosion of interest and awareness of a tradition that has always been important, deep and rich.”

Indeed, four blocks north of Hauser & Wirth, Paula Cooper shows “Sewn», a group exhibition in full expansion defining couture from the literal to the conceptual, with textiles, woven glass and knotted plastic works by artists such as Tauba Auerbach, Alighiero e Boetti and Rosemarie Trockel. And right downtown, the abandoned objects of Zimbabwean artist Moffat Takadiwa form mosaic-like tapestries in “Brutalized language», a personal exhibition at the Nicodim Gallery.

“Artists currently working in this medium are radically renegotiating the value that was historically assigned to weaving,” said Hendrik Folkerts, curator of international contemporary art at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and curator of an upcoming survey of abstract tapestries. and textile facilities by the South African artist Igshaan Adams, whose work recently sold at Phillips New York for $88,200, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Last year, the Chicago Museum organized an acclaimed solo show by African-American artist Bisa Butler, whose vibrant quilted portraits depict family members, neighbors and historical figures.

The renewed emphasis on textiles seems particularly urgent in an era of broader cultural consideration of race and inequality: it is no coincidence that textiles are actively and intentionally used by artists of color, who have also been excluded from the canon of art history, Folkerts said. .

A visitor watches

A visitor looks at ‘The Quilts of Gee’s Bend’, an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in February 2004. (Photo: STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP via Getty Images)

The long duration

The medium most recently burst into public consciousness in 2018, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a Gee’s Bend quilt show he received as a gift from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

The show, which received rave reviews, has become a watershed moment for critics, curators and marketers, said Maxwell Anderson, president of the foundation.

“It took an institution of the caliber of the Met,” he said.

Yet tradition has not always been considered high art. Anderson, the Whitney’s manager in 2002 when he hosted the Gee’s Bend traveling quilt show, faced resistance from the mainstream art world at the time.

“Why are you doing this Alabama quilt maker show?” How many mid-career artists haven’t had a show at the Whitney yet? Anderson said this week, recalling a comment from a Whitney museum administrator.

“I took quite a bit of flack,” Anderson said. “Then the Michael Kimmelman review came out and it helped turn the tide.”

Over the past few years, Anderson has met many artists, including Butler, Brackens and Sanford Biggers, who have been deeply impacted by Gee’s Bend quilts. Since becoming president of Souls Grown Deep in 2016, the organization has placed Gee’s Bend quilts in more than 30 US museums. Some, like the Met, received works as gifts; others paid a reduced price, Anderson said.

Contemporary works are also gaining ground. There is a long list of collectors clamoring for Butler’s works, many of which are in museum collections. Yet only one of his works has appeared at auction so far, fetching $75,000 last year from a low estimate of $7,000 at the Swann auction house, suggesting collectors have some catching up to do.

Bisa Butler in the studio.  Photograph by John Butler.

Bisa Butler in the studio. Photograph by John Butler.

Look forward

Europe is the next frontier, said London art dealer Alison Jacques, who represents Gee’s Bend artists. Last year, she organized the first exhibition in a European commercial gallery of their works.

“It’s hard to believe,” she said. “In Europe, it’s a bit of a blank slate.”

The works resonated with her because of their beauty and how the skills they exhibited were passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. Despite the challenges of segregation, racism and bigotry, the women of Gee’s Bend have created “something very positive, joyful and hopeful”. They also fit with its gallery program which represents artist Sheila Hicks, known for her fiber installations, and the estate of pioneering textile artist Lenore Tawny, who died in 2007.

With prizes ranging from $25,000 to $50,000, Jacques has placed works of art in museums and important private collections.

Its aim is to create a new context for the works.

“Paintings, they are not, but I equate them with that,” said Jacques. “It can’t be reduced to just, ‘Oh, it’s fabric.’ This is a very simplistic view which does not [artists] any service. They should be viewed for what their art says, rather than just the medium it is made of.

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