Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Rosie Lee Tompkins Review

Quilt, 1985
Irene Howard quilted many of Effie's tops.

I belong to a small group of amateur critics (Fabulous Five of us) who email often about politics, the museum world, textiles and general fatuousness of fellow humans. Servers California to D.C. were buzzing last week when the New York Times published an article called "The Radical Quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins."
The Link:

Header photo of Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006)
whose name was actually Effie Mae Martin Howard, 
the name we will use for her here. 

Julie Silber began with two words:
Virginia Vis tried to calm us (an unusual position vis-à-vis Ms Vis*):
"I  was impressed the NY Times gave that much page space to quilts - with pics. While the white male thing infuriated me re: the Gees Bend quilt phenomena, once deep into the article I felt better about the attitude of the white male involved here."
From the Eli Leon collection
Effie often used synthetic fabrics of velvet and satinweave, 
textured weaves that take color and reflect and absorb light
 more dramatically than the usual cotton broadcloth.

Julie pointed out the author was not your white male critic but Roberta Smith, the newspaper's female co-chief art critic. Ms. Smith had been to see a show by the artist in Berkeley in 1987 and was impressed enough to recall it lyrically almost 35 years later.

Julie circled this sentence in the second paragraph:
"They were crafted objects that transcended quilting, with the power of painting."

Three words
Julie's interpretation of what Smith was saying:

"These quilts are great because they are almost like paintings" a statement she described as
"demeaning, condescending, dismissive (even contradictory.)"
Julie's opinion:
"Quilts are not great because they look like other forms. They stand on their own---and the makers who excelled (reaching aesthetic heights) need to be acknowledged as 'masters' ('mistresses)?' "


Now, me---I glanced at the story last week. I try to avoid reading about quilts in the New York Times---well, actually any newspaper. I have my blood pressure to worry about. I'm sick of cliches about women's work, of knee-jerk cultural condescension, of Painters' Privilege in the art world.

I got as far as the words "transcended quilting." I've been fighting the attitude since I was 21 years old and turned in a full-size quilt for my senior art education project and was told it didn't count as art. I substituted a few cranked-out paintings/collages and passed with a B.

Alden translates "transcended quilting" to mean these pieces are "something better, because trust me, we would NEVER claim QUILTS are worth talking about as art."

Looking at this quilt I realize it's a family history quilt. 
It says Effie 36 & Mark, John, Barrett, Luke, etc.
 probably with birthdates & Richmond.

Debby Cooney highlighted the article's comparisons to male painters---Klee, Van Gogh---something we see constantly. Alden's translation: "It reminds me of oil paintings done by a white man in the modern canon, therefore it's worth talking about." 

Not only are such comparisons patronizing---implying the textile is just as good (or almost as good) as paintings by men, it's using short-hand cliches of visual imagery rather than fresh words to  describe a work of art---sloppy art criticism.

Collection of the Whitney Museum of Art, 1986
Effie seems to have worked in series, using different shapes at times.
We must assume much of her fabric was found or given
rather than purchased as yardage.
Eli Leon supplied her with some.

Collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
They accepted the 400 quilts from Leon's collection.

Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

So should we be pleased the New York Times has featured quilts on the art pages? 

 "As for the article going far and wide... I disagree that this is good. Bad news. SO many people will now miss the point. 'Legitimizes' the wrong ideas."

Well, at least it's been enjoyable to look at the color & composition.
The artist in me will undoubtedly steal that set and 
come to believe it was my idea.

Virginia remained calm:
"This discussion has made me really examine why I'm not outraged--- and I am sorry to say it is at least partly because I don't expect any better from...Public Opinion of Textile Arts in general."
She's worked in the art world.

1997 catalog by Eli Leon & Lawrence Rinder

We can view Eli Leon as Effie's partner like her quilter Irene Banks. He gave Effie her pseudonym, promoted the work of a woman who requested privacy and collected her quilts as obsessively as she sewed them. (He had 400 when he died last year.)

1987 catalog by Eli Leon: 
Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking. 
San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum

Effie Mae Martin Howard (1936-2006)

Relevant quilt by Joe Cunningham

*Sorry, VV


  1. BAMPFA (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive) is currently doing a virtual exhibit of Rosie Lee Tompkins quilts. I think it can be accessed bampfa.org/rosie-lee-tompkins

  2. My friend (who knows I don't read the NY Times) sent me this link yesterday. I was so proud of my white male art critic, as he used the exact same initials that Julie used in his note to me. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Thanks for the NYT link. The museum link that worked for me was bampfa.org/rosie-lee-tompkins-media

    I wonder if the constant comparisons to paintings is due to the writers and critics thinking people are more familiar with abstract/modern paintings than they are with non-traditional quilts? I know back in the day, art classes did not cover any textile art works. Nothing at all. Not even the home ec classes as they were then known did. Then again, I don't think the art classes covered much abstract painted art works in what little art history that was covered either.

    Or is it due to the writers' and critics' lack of familiarity with non-traditional and art quilts, trying to find a comparison that makes these quilts "fit in" somewhere?

    At any rate - Ms Tomkins/Ms Howard quilts... gorgeous and the more you look the more there is to see. I bet they are even better in person.

  4. Gail---that's one of the problems. When are the writers and critics going to get familiar with women's work?

  5. What disturbs me is the tendency of the art world to get excited about the vibrant, energy filled improv quilts that have been "discovered" in recent years. While these quilts are wonderful, amazing, and full of spirit, I can't help but feel the corollary that those quilts which are made with hours and hours of meticulous, exacting piecing and extraordinary quilting aren't art or, at least, worthy of noting. I am thinking of the many "Best of Show" and other winners and the unbelievable Japanese quilts. Perhaps they are too much akin to quilts used as "blankets."

  6. Hmmm.... Is it just women's textile arts that arts critics and writers know little of, women's arts in general, or textile arts in general? Then I wonder (since Black History month just was, it's sort of still on my mind) - is the the biggest shock to the critics and writers - what glorious works a black woman made?

  7. Or just what glorious works a woman made?

  8. I received my formal art training in London in the 1970's, exhibited and taught sculpture for decades using 'hard' media including welded mild steel. I now spin, weave sew and construct with mixed fibers. I am not concerned whether the outcome is described as 'art' 'craft' or other! The reviewer's attempt to invite her readers to open themselves to these quilts is laudable. Say "quilt" and most people...........men, women, young, old.......image a bed-spread made of cotton squares. This review can open minds and dialogue.

  9. Wilma Fletcher ScottJuly 3, 2020 at 11:55 AM

    Why are we so upset about how men interpret quilting art? Isn't it enough that women appreciate the work? Many men do, as well, but the comments of the 5 critics smacks of the early women's rights movement, when men were objects of hate and despair. Haven't we moved forward enough to value our own opinions on art? I found the article a little over the top in the first paragraphs, but as I continued to read (all the way to the end) I was fascinated with this woman's body of work. She quilted hundreds of quilts during a period when we still used scissors and rulers. Her innate sense of color and placement inspired me, as I'm someone who struggles with color in each new endeavor. I agree with the comments of "Skydancer" above, but must take exception to the words of Andrea Harles. Sorry. I do not compare the quilts of 2020 to the quilts of the past in terms of "hours and hours of meticulous, exacting piecing and extraordinary quilting." My mother, grandmothers, and great grandmothers spent hours and hours meticulously piecing and quilting every utilitarian quilt they created, without the tools we have at our fingertips today. The beauty and originality of their quilts cannot be fairly compared to quilts cut with lasers or mechanized stamp cutters, sewn with computerized domestic machines, and quilted with computerized long-arm machines with thousands of pantographs. Our quilts of today are stand-alone pieces of art, but should not detract from the work of an artist such as Rosie Lee Thompkins.

  10. Effie was a beautiful woman, you can see it in her photo and in her work.
    Not everyone understands or appreciates art or creativity. That's life.
    But it doesn't stop the reality that it exists.
    Those who have eyes to see do see and appreciate it.

  11. Traditional thinking, include men here, means what women do is still highly underrated. I graduated with a Home Ec. major, and likely enough credits to be an Art major as well. but without the show at the end of my season of schooling. To me, my creations are as worthy as any famous artist, in that they are made from the heart! Inspired by this or that, and something that i just had to make, to satisfy me.

  12. Germaine Greer said, “Women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand." But when men do such things and call it art, is it still frittering?

    Many quilters, knitters, stitchers (etc.) have protested Greer's statement, saying that they LIKE making their fiber art.

  13. i had to quit reading at 'gimlet eye' lol but i looked at ALL the pictures, and will dream real big tonight!!! those brown crosses with the crazy buttonhole-ish stitch.. wowowow.

    the good news about this whole discussion is that noone can deny these quilts speak for themselves. there is only before and after- seeing these quilts for the first time. even better that some of them feel like the first time every time.

    GEES BENDS quilts for president 2020!

  14. Huh. *I* thought the whole point of the post was reviewers and critics always comparing quilts and other textile arts to paintings, not that it was male vs female writers/critics.

    I just read an article in QN (Dec-Jan 2016) that you wrote, about unimaginative, lazy writers using phrases like "not your grandma's " And that it's been going on since at least the early 1800s in print, and probably much longer. The other point of the article was writing things to the effect of "amazing what she can do at that advanced age!".

    I'm going to add the possibility of lazy, unimaginative reviewers/critics that can't figure out how to write about quilts or other textile arts without falling back on trite, over-used, and wrong words and ideas.