"Workt by Hand": Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts

Review

of an Exhibition

by Sigrun Wolff Saphire

Published on April 11, 2013

  • Description:

    Bringing to light 35 works from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, “Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts shows beautiful samples of the form spanning two centuries, with the earliest dating to 1795 and the most recent to 1995. With the exception of one work, the quilts have apparently never been displayed in the museum. In the accompanying wall text panels illustrated with ephemera displayed in a handful of wall-mounted glass cases, the show invites viewers—at least those able to divert their attention from the treasures on display—to consider the changing reception of historical quilts over the past 150 years, and, more specifically, to examine the highly changeable response to domestic objects created by women.

    Juxtaposing current readings and period assumptions, the wall text explains, and documents with examples, how American quilts and their creation have been steeped in myths and nostalgia and handily served up as evidence of a “uniform and mythic national past.” In recent years, as the study of quilts has combined with textile science, anthropology, and material history, a more layered history has emerged that sets out “to document how historical quilts actually functioned: as both creative outlet and a repository of cultural history for various communities.” Case in point: The museum’s own collection largely reflects Anglo-European traditions, but contemporary scholarship confirms that (female) enslaved Africans, and later, African American domestic workers would have labored on quilts attributed to white households.

    Examined in the larger museum context, “Workt by Hand” serves to illustrate how the collection, display, and reception of objects are shaped by time and place. Presented in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, which opened in 2007, a physical reminder of the Museum’s intent to re-examine and re-contextualize its collections in light of feminist scholarship, “Workt by Hand” is described as the first large-scale exhibition to be presented at the Center. Wrapped around two sides of the triangular gallery that is host to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, the exhibition space is interestingly quirky, a long rectangle stitched at one corner to a triangle like two pieces of a crazy quilt. Visitors, who enter either from a far corner of the triangle or from the long end of the rectangle, can easily pick up the thread of the exhibition’s interpretation at any point. The nimble text panels’ modular quality makes them equally serviceable whether worked through one by one from beginning to end, in reverse, or attended to serendipitously. In addition to the historical re-examination, there are brief introductions to prominent quilt styles represented in the show, such as “Album,” “Log Cabin,” and “Double Wedding Band” to cite a few.

    Visitors who start their tour in the rectangular gallery follow a roughly chronological path, with quilts displayed vertically along the walls, as well as horizontally, as originally intended. The three sets of horizontal displays, in essence pairs of stylized double beds set headboard to headboard, allow the inclusion of works that may be too fragile to be hung on walls. Quilt designs build from older more subdued examples to a feast of bright colors and playful abstraction, usually with several examples of a style in close proximity.

    The exhibition’s introductory panel elaborates that museums have commonly shown quilts in one of several formats: as examples of craft, closely spaced and thematically arranged country-fair style; along gallery walls like large abstract paintings; or combined with archival materials or within period rooms to document historical settings. Lightly touching on aspects of all these formats, the museum achieves an attractive, visually cohesive display that allows for comparisons of interpretations of different styles, showcases stunning examples of abstraction, and offers historical ephemera for inspection. In a word, it’s an exhibition format that should satisfy a wide array of visitor preferences. Best of all, there’s no glass or barriers separating visitors and quilts, merely a polite sign at each entrance asking visitors to refrain from touching, as the grease and sweat on one’s fingers would damage the works.

    In case you’re wondering (as I did) about the quotation marks and unorthodox spelling in the exhibition’s title, the catalog explains that the title cites the archaic spelling of “worked,” which is apparently common in historical quilting literature, where it “indicates the distinctive and personal nature of an object produced by a skilled craftsperson.” The catalog’s essays delve in more depth into this and other themes touched in the exhibition. Judged by current expectations of color image quality, the catalog’s color printing is disappointingly off the mark, casting a dull gloom over works that are, for the most part, stunningly vivid in real life.

    At this writing, the online presence of “Workt by Hand” is minimal, just a handful of postcard-size images of quilts accompanied by a sparse selection of interpretative text. According to the museum website, the show is ready to go on the road after its initial Brooklyn run and looking for invitations.

    “Workt by Hand” is a lovely introduction to the art of quilt making for someone like me who is totally unfamiliar with the art, the craft, its histories, myth making, and evolving interpretations. I welcome the museum’s invitation to explore in depth themes of authorship, anonymity, and collectivity touched on in the show. “Workt by Hand” makes me look forward to other treasures Brooklyn Museum curators might bring up from the vault and curate from a feminist viewpoint or interpret through the lens of feminist scholarship, but I hope it won’t take another six years before that happens.

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