Inventive quilts by Black artists in summer 2024 exhibition at High Museum of Art
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Inventive quilts by Black artists in summer 2024 exhibition at High Museum of Art
Maker Once Known, Untitled (Housetop Quilt with Multiple Borders), ca. 1940s, cotton,
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase through funds provided by patrons of the
Collectors Evening, 2017, 2017.183.

ATLANTA, GA.- Over the past six years, the High Museum of Art has more than quintupled its holdings of quilts made by Black women. In “Patterns in Abstraction: Black Quilts from the High’s Collection” (June 28, 2024-Jan. 5, 2025), the museum brings a number of these recent acquisitions together to answer a larger question: “How can quilts made by African American women change how we view the history of abstraction?”

The exhibition includes pieces by well-known quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, such as Mary Lee Bendolph, Louisiana Bendolph and Lucy T. Pettway, along with works by Atlanta-based quilters such as Marquetta Johnson and early 20th-century examples by makers once known. Many of the works are on view at the museum for the first time, and all were made by quilters in the Southeastern United States.

“In recent years, we have committed to increasing our holdings of quilts by Black women and have grown the collection to more than 50 works since 2017,” said Rand Suffolk, the museum’s director. “Our expanded holdings allow us to make quilts a reoccurring and dynamically changing fixture within our collection galleries as well as to develop exhibitions that further the dialogue around the significance of these works within the broader and overlapping histories of American and modern art, of which ‘Patterns in Abstraction’ is the first.”

The 17 quilts featured include variations on Birds in the Air and Housetop themes — two centuries-old quilt patterns that are geometric distillations of natural phenomenon and humanmade environments — while others have deeper meanings as memorials to family members. Presented as objects made for use and with the artistic intent to represent people, places and things abstractly and through layered symbolism, these quilts offer a larger window into how the production of nonacademic artists can transform our understanding of artistic innovation in American art.

In preparation for the exhibition, the museum convened a group of more than a dozen local and nationally recognized quilters, academics and curators in May 2023 to discuss the central question of the show and issues related to the future of collecting and displaying Black quilts.

“The lively discussions we had at our convening confirm that the High is in a unique position to build on the foundation laid by other champions of scholarship and preservation of Black quilts, especially given its long history of embracing artists who challenge conventional ideas about art and its proximity to the Atlanta Quilt Festival, the country’s largest annual festival dedicated to Black quilts,” said Katherine Jentleson, the High’s senior curator of American art and Merrie and Dan Boone curator of folk and self-taught art. “My hope is that this exhibition can help shift the conversation about quilters as artists who made things that don’t just look like abstract art but are abstract art. Quilters deserve credit for making the same kinds of choices about form, color and symbolic meaning as those typically male and white artists who we have historically privileged as the innovators of abstraction.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, the High will launch corresponding online content through the museum’s digital platform LINK. Those resources include essays by Jentleson, Destinee Filmore, and the majority of the convening participants, including Dr. Bridget R. Cooks, artist Dawn Williams Boyd, and quilt scholar Dr. Marsha MacDowell; filmed interviews with Gee’s Bend quilters China Pettway and Louisiana Bendolph; an interactive high-resolution image gallery that explores conservation stories and meaning in the exhibition’s quilts; and high-resolution photography of all the Black quilts in the High’s collection.

“Patterns in Abstraction: Black Quilts from the High’s Collection” is presented on the Lower Level of the High’s Wieland Pavilion.

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