The Virtual Quilt, A
Newsletter for Computing Quilters

Number Eleven * October 1, 1996

Renewing Its Viability as Art

By Catherine Jones

In a time of great experimentation with quilts, when a lot of cloth is being hand-painted, hand-dyed, and assembled by applique and other non-linear methods, I wonder about the status of straightforward patchwork: triangles and rectangles of commercial fabric neatly sewn together. Does the visible geometry of such patchwork -- the fact that it could seemingly be done by any patient needleworker willing to follow directions -- make it somehow less viable as art? If not, if such patchwork can indeed be serious art fit to take a place alongside great painting and sculpture, where does its artistic essence reside -- in the pattern, in the choice of fabrics, in the labors of the fabric designers, or in the hours of stitching that put everything together?

These questions are not new. Geometric art, which looks deceptively simple, challenges common expectations of art. Its straight lines conceal the mark of the maker's hand, and its orderly arrangement of parts discourages last-minute creative revision. In an era that prizes individuality and the frenzy of artistic inspiration, geometric work can come across as too impersonal, too well-crafted, and too deliberate.

It's also true that except in the Islamic world geometric art forms (patchwork and basketry, for example) have been associated with relatively underprivileged social groups, with people who don't function as mainstream arbiters of artistic taste. The art historian Oleg Grabar made some blunt observations on this in a lecture he gave at the National Gallery of Art (available in his book The Mediation of Ornament, see p.129). After making a survey of non-Islamic ornament, Grabar concluded that ". . . the areas and times that most consistently exhibit geometric ornament are at the periphery of major cultural centers or at the edges of dominating social classes." He went on to speculate that ". . . geometry was the privilege of the illiterate, the remote, the popularly pious, the women using (and/or making) textiles and ceramics." Grabar also noted that M. C. Escher, a graphic artist famous for his geometric work who falls into none of these underprivileged categories, is nonetheless "an orphan within the pantheon of contemporary painters and draftsmen."

While some twentieth-century abstract painters have worked with hard-edged geometric shapes -- notably the Russian constructivists, Mondrian, and American op and minimal artists of the 1960s -- they've generally used these shapes as major elements in a painting rather than as subordinate units in an overall decorative pattern. There have been many acclaimed painters of rectangles and triangles, but few concerned with geometric design of the sort that has evolved in patchwork quilts. Escher is indeed an orphan among modern artists in his love of complex ornamental geometry.

Given the marginal situation of geometric art, it's hardly surprising that people pushing for acceptance of quilts as art sometimes play down the geometric aspect of patchwork. Penny McMorris, for example, in introducing Nancy Crow's new book Improvisational Quilts, proclaims that "Nancy Crow works now like a great jazz musician." And Dorothy Joiner, reviewing a show of Yvonne Porcella's quilts for Surface Design Journal, compares her work to the celebrated painting by Mondrian known as Broadway Boogie Woogie. Linking quilt-making with jazz -- with free-form, urban music performed mostly by men -- is a tempting way to upgrade the status of a geometric and traditionally rural, feminine, textile-based art form. But I question whether the analogy holds and whether the constrained, geometric nature of patchwork may not, in fact, be a positive feature, a source of artistic power.

As far as I know, Eli Leon was the first writer to compare patchwork with jazz. He studied African textiles and music and found a possible common source in African aesthetic traditions for both jazz and certain kinds of African-American quilt-making. He also speculated on the origin of the geometric quilt block patterns adopted by white American women and on how these might have evolved from less rigid African-American prototypes. While Leon is clearly a man with an agenda -- giving credit to the African roots of certain American art forms -- he approaches his subject in a scholarly way and avoids any too-direct comparison between quilt-making and improvisation during a live performance. After all, the quilt-maker can rip out stitches or refrain from using a certain patch or block in the first place; the musician performing live can't take back a note that's already been played. Patchwork, like any art, involves choice and the risk of failure. But it's not quite the same as improvisational jazz.

Nancy Crow, in the foreword to her Improvisational Quilts, writes about the "frankly obsessive, unrelenting and too time-consuming" techniques of traditional quilt- making and about her need to work in a more spontaneous way so as to produce compositions that "dance with a magic freshness." But her latest quilts reveal only a limited rebellion against premeditation and geometry. She now dyes her own fabric and cuts patches without templates, thus eliminating the machined look of roller-printed goods and the regularity of multiple identical patches. On the other hand, the very act of assembling an inventory of pre-dyed cloth for use in a given series imposes certain design constraints. As does the sewing process itself. Since Crow needs to work efficiently, she uses rectangles and assembles them by strip-piecing and log-cabin techniques. The resulting work is both free and unfree, both reflective of her individual moments of inspiration and subject to predetermined rules of construction.

I don't see the lack of freedom in Crow's quilts or in patchwork generally as needing any apology. An intractable medium (e.g., cloth with seams tend to be straight), can sometimes inspire better work than a very adaptable medium like paint. Anni Albers, the weaver and printmaker who taught at the Bauhaus, had much to say in favor of "material that demands circumvention and invention." She thought the advent of commercial tube paint had made life too easy for slovenly painters and that they'd lost a useful discipline when they ceased grinding and mixing their own colors. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I do admire the way Albers turned to aesthetic advantage the restrictions imposed by industrial weaving processes and the way her graphic work exploits straight lines and geometry.

So if geometric art needn't apologize for its limitations, if it has such distinguished defenders as Anni Albers, why do so many artists making quilts today avoid patchwork altogether or assemble patches in a seemingly random way that minimizes geometric patterning? I can think of at least two reasons. First, as quilts have gained recognition as a valid art form, they may have attracted artists interested more in color, texture, and non-geometric imagery than in qualities specific to patchwork. Second, after two decades or so of intensive exploitation of the design possibilities inherent in traditional quilt blocks, a sense of deja vu and weariness may have set in.

While quilt-maker Ruth McDowell has written about underutilized kinds of geometric patterning (about the seventeen mathematical symmetry groups beloved by crystallographers), her work has not so far sparked a major new movement of geometric design in quilts. In fact, as mathematician Doris Schattschneider points out in her book (Visions of Symmetry) on M. C. Escher, those seventeen symmetry groups don't necessarily represent the only way or the most artistically productive way to approach problems of two-dimensional design. The concerns of crystallographers, mathematicians, and artists overlap, but don't always coincide.

While I believe there are vast and thrilling design possibilities as yet unexplored in geometric patchwork, I think the surface of this field is already well picked over. Going deeper may require the use of computers, which can be programmed to generate random patchwork designs and then reprogrammed, through feedback from artists, to generate more interesting designs. Exciting and disquieting opportunities may arise for collaboration between machines and artists. Quilts that are already a collaborative effort, involving one person to plan the pattern and select and assemble the fabric, others to color or decorate the fabric in the first place, and, often, still another to do the actual quilting, may come to involve whole teams of unseen artists.

Given the modular way that software gets built today, I can readily imagine a team of software designers consulting with artists to produce a pattern-generating engine, which might in turn get licensed to other software developers for use in a quilt-design program shaped by still other artists. How could such a program's ultimate user lay claim to any pattern generated? Maybe in the same way quilt-makers have traditionally laid claim to a pattern: by tinkering with it slightly and then spending hours and hours applying it to scraps of old cloth that hold personal memories.

I don't think that geometric patchwork is dead, even if artist- quilters are at the moment moving more toward fabric embellishment and free-form construction. I just think it's hard for an art form that's already somewhat marginal, due to the peculiar position of geometric work within the world of art, to find its way in a time of technological change. Commercial fabrics have changed, and so have rag-saving habits since the early days of quilt-making. Meanwhile, television and computers, not to mention various art movements, have changed the way we see pattern. Light- and-dark log-cabin designs that were dazzling a few generations ago when implemented in 500 shades of faded cotton, may look less impressive today made up in a smaller selection of new cloth. To maintain its power as art geometric patchwork may need to explore new designs, make more use of computers, and possibly even return to its humble, recycling roots. I can imagine this kind of quilt-making becoming still more collaborative, but not fading away.

CATHERINE JONES lives in Berkeley, California. She is a painter, quilter, and mathematician, and has authored a software program that generates random geometric quilt designs. She can be reached at



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© 1996 by Robert Holland. All rights reserved. This file may not be reproduced in any form except to be printed out for the personal use of its owner without the expressed, written consent of the copyright holder.


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