Thursday, January 28, 2016

Pushing the boundaries: paintings and art quilts

It seems that we are all walking very similar artistic journeys....

My husband and I were in New York a couple of weeks ago for a BIG culture blitz that included 4 plays, 1 opera, and 6 museums (and lots of good meals).

Our museum hopping took us from mechanical toys and superheroes at the New York Historical Society ...
  model train refreshment cart (photo:  D. Langsam)

Picasso's Head of a Woman (photo: D. Langsam) the Picasso sculpture exhibit at MOMA.

Picasso's The Bathers (photo:  D. Langsam)

 But a major highlight was the Frank Stella Retrospective at the Whitney Museum (now in a magnificent new meatpacking district building at the end of the NYC High Line). 

The Whitney Museum      (photo:
Why was it so special? 

Who can argue with the rare opportunity to see so many of Stella's works, outstandingly displayed,  in one incredibly beautiful exhibit space?

Installation view of Frank Stella: A Retrospective (October 30, 2015—February 7, 2016). © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Ronald AmstutzAdd caption

Or with a terrific audio tour (accessible online) that's made all the better because it includes a totally unpretentious and unassuming Frank Stella thoughtfully discussing his art? 

But what really struck me was how much of Stella's journey involved re-imagining traditional views of painting.  Hmmm...sounds an awful lot like the art quilters I know and the ever evolving art quilt genre.          

Here are some examples:

---  I thought of Rayna Gilman and her "Cinderella Quilts" when I saw Stella's Delta.      
Frank Stella (b.1936), Delta, 1958. Enamel on canvas, 85 3/8 × 97 in. (216.9 × 246.4 cm). Private collection. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Delta began when Stella, tired of a painting that just wasn't working, covered his canvas with black paint.

But the black paint didn't entirely obliterate the underlying shapes.  And bits of color peeking through lent nuanced tones that intrigued him.  Ultimately, the piece inspired him to purposely create his "black painting" series of work. 

Rayna has her own way of dealing with "it's not working for me" items (see her blog post for details).  In her case, it's ugly or old or unsuccessful blocks and UFO's.

an "unloved" stepsister block (photo:  Rayna Gilman)

 Her solution:  get out a rotary cutter.  She boldly slices and dices and recombines the pieces with new materials to transform them, Cinderella-style, into something new, fresh, and exciting....

Finished Cinderella quilt (photo:  Rayna Gilman)

Rayna's working in a different medium - but really, the artistic process is the same...

---  Another example:  at some point Stella doesn't want to force his colorful, hard-edged, geometric paintings into the traditional confines of squares and rectangles;  his solution...cut the canvas to fit his vision.   
Frank Stella (b.1936), Empress of India, 1965. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. . © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Sound familiar?  For hundreds of years, a "proper" quilt would have been defined as rectangular or square.   Not so much these days...quilts come in all manner of shapes.  Vicki Pignatelli's dream catcher is just one great example:

"Dreamcatcher" (photo:  Vicki Pignatelli)
Clearly, there's nothing square or rectangular about the edges of this quilt.  And Vicki goes one step further by cutting out the central portion as part of her dreamcatcher theme.  The traditional "rules" for quilts (or paintings, or sculptures) don't necessarily apply anymore.

--- And one final example:

In the 1970's and 80's Stella, literally, took his art into new dimensions.  No longer content to paint on flat surfaces, he begins to "build" his paintings out into 3 dimensional space by using using felt and wood to project out portions of his canvases... 

Jarmolince III (Frank Stella):  front and side view (photo:  D. Langsam)

 ...and then continues on to produce even more pronounced sculptural "paintings" using all sorts of supportive elements: 

Installation view of Frank Stella: A Retrospective (October 30, 2015—February 7, 2016). © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Ronald Amstutz

For quilters, this isn't exactly new...if you stitch through 2 layers of fabric and batting, there's going to be some 3 dimensionality.  Add some beads or trapunto and the effect is heightened (pun intended).

That being said, there are many quilt artists who are pushing themselves and their quilts even further into the 3rd dimension.   

Among the many, I'm thinking about Diane Savona and her extraordinary  "strata" series in which objects are sewn between the layers of the quilt sandwich.

Sewing Strata by Diane Savona   (photo:  Diane Savona)
 Or Naomi S. Adams' Diamonds.   Adams made 4 quilts (with dyed batting), cut crescent shapes from the quilts, and then attached the crescents to a 5th quilt which extends 3 inches from the wall.

Naomi S. Adams Diamonds:  "The Future of Quilting" Award @ 2010 IQF  (photo:  Naomi S. Adams)
Or going even further, Diane Núñez' quilted constructions....

Diane Núñez Cross Section:  Quilt Surface Design Symposium Award of Excellence @ 2015 Quilt National (phono:  Diane  Núñez)

I'm not enough of a visionary to know where art quilts and quilting will be in ten years.  But I left the Whitney knowing this:  we're all -- individually or collectively, as painters or sculptors or fiber artists -- pushing some very similar boundaries on our artistic journeys.



Deborah Langsam Fiber Art

also posted on:

Creations by Nina-Marie


  1. What a great and thought-provoking post, Debbie. Sometimes when I'm feeling grumpy, I think about how much men's art is valued more than women's. I think you've illustrated beautifully that quilters (women and men) are making innovative masterpieces.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Cathy. PS: you may be feeling grumpy when your thoughts go to gender biases on the art scene...but that doesn't mean the thoughts are unfounded. We still have a long way to go!

  2. Agreed! I would have loved loved the Picasso exhibit. What a trip!

    1. It really was a spectacular exhibit (we went back twice to get it all in!) was a real treat to see how his pieces evolved over time.

  3. What a wonderful thoughtful post! I live quite close to NYC and have not yet been to the Whitney. Now I know I have to go. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    1. Thanks Norma...the Whitney is a wonderful space -- so much light and spectacular views. I'll be curious to hear how you enjoy it.

  4. An interesting and insightful post,Debbie. Thanks for the mention -- and by the way, Diane Savona is a good friend of mine. We are in a small crit group together in NJ and you wouldn't believe what goes into her work. She is totally amazing and completely original. I'm going to send her this link; I know she would be tickled. Sorry I missed your visit - would love to have seen you both.

    1. So pleased you enjoyed it. How lucky for you and Diane to be in the same crit group. I love her work (and yours!)....Perhaps we'll get that visit another time!

  5. Lots of good stuff here, thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much Sue...glad it struck a chord with you.

  6. Thank you so much for this post. I've been attending lectures called "Do I have to Like It? about various art masters at our local museum and one of them was about Op Art and this was very interesting to see these quilts compared to Stella. It adds to the appreciation.

    1. Regina,
      Thanks for your comment. The lectures you're attending sound fascinating. I'm amazed at how often my "so-what" response to a piece of art is changed once I've been given some context for the work. By the time I left the Stella exhibit, I had an entirely new appreciation for his talent and vision.