The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift is on view until September 23, 2018 and features 30 works from a donation the museum received in 2014. The exhibition is split between quilts sewn by African American women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, before the Civil Rights Movement, and other artists from the south. These artists are called outsider artists, because of their self-taught craftsmanship, and because African Americans were historically sequestered “outside” art in America.
Gee’s Bend Quilts have been in the news since last year because Michelle Obama’s portrait as First Lady raises allusions to the Gee’s Bend Quilts because of the patchwork nature of the dress and the dress’s eccentric use of color. Obama’s portrait is now on view in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Obama’s status as the first African American First Lady speaks to the Gee’s Bend Quilters as women and African Americans.
Joe Minter (born 1943) in his sculpture, “400 years of Free Labor,” from 1995 is a daunting and imposing sculpture made of found objects of rusty shovels, pitch forks, and pick axes. Children walking with their parents in front of the sculpture say it’s scary because the tools tower over the viewer. The sculpture is a little bit too tall, and even though the tools are upright to symbolize people, they don’t have faces to make them seem less anonymous, to humanize the tools to make them less intimidating. The tools do have chains around them, which speaks to a different absurdity that slavery is predicated on a ridiculous contradiction that slavery means treating people like machines or tools, but if they were tools and not people, they wouldn’t need to be in chains.
The exhibit’s “work clothes quilts,” in its first room, features four blankets made from used work clothes. The Gee’s Bend Quilts have kinship with Dada found objects, as in Joe Minter’s “400 Years,” and instead of Marcel Duchamp using a shovel in order to re-contextualize the tool and provide new perspectives, these women were re-contextualizing work clothes as blankets. It’s an alchemy of sorts. Lucy Mingo’s (b. 1931) “Blocks and Strips work-clothes quilt,” has blocks of blue and white that look like sky, and gray and brown that look like dirt farmland. In the quilt’s focal point, a square of deep dark blue pierces the entire scene, as if the quilter’s imagination blew open a hole in the real life farmer’s work-day, and Mingo could see through it as an omniscient angel. Such a supposition would mean a care and awareness for the work that the woman knew went into the work clothes she was then making into the blanket.
Denim is in fashion in 2018, and these blankets speak to denim as an American fabric in the carefree present day. Denim is a worker’s garment because it’s thick enough to work in and provide protection to a person who works the fields – it’s a farmer’s outfit in jeans and overalls because farming is hard work outdoors. Denim reminds one of painter Nelson Shanks’ 1987 self-portrait because that artist’s consternation is of that of a worker. His jean jacket was a painter’s smock, and his facial expression shows a patience and diligence associated with working. Work is what heroes do day in and day out, and therefore has a spiritual aspect. Because quilting is a craft that takes time and patience, the women who made these quilts had time to consider in grace and awareness what work is and what work means for someone who tills, cultivates, and harvests crops.
The curator’s notes from the work clothes quilts rooms speaks to a 1970 “Bricklayer quilt,” by Linda Diane Bennett (1955-1988) say, “the overall composition of this quilt speaks of the type of improvisation that typifies Gee’s Bend quilts,” because the quilt’s different denim squares were determined by the clothes Bennett had to work with. The quilt was meant for Bennett’s family and people she loved, and yet the curator’s notes for this piece say the pattern is often called a “Courthouse” pattern, which means Bennett was using a pattern that referred to social justice, regardless of her intentions of making the quilt for her loved ones. This ambiguity – the intentions of the blanket versus how the audience interprets the piece – increases the emotionality and resonance of the quilt. She was crafting in love in the style of justice.
Bennett’s ambiguity contrasts immediately with other artists in this exhibition. Thornton Dial’s (1928 to 2016) “End of November: The Birds that didn’t learn how to fly,” looks grotesque because the mixed-media work features dead black birds, which the curator’s notes say reference Jim Crowe segregation laws. On closer inspection, Dial used enamel on a quilt in order to make the background shimmer in the light with blues and pinks. Dial therefore made a statement about beautiful skies and sunsets available to people who escaped segregation by time or distance travelled. Because of its craftsmanship of the background, this is a work of great sadness and great beauty. Dial’s work here is similar to Hegel’s notion of consciousness, because this work is a quilt the artist made as art after the Gee’s Bend Quilts were made. In other words, Dial intentionally made artwork after the Gee’s Bend quilters made crafts. Because this work is an artwork of deliberation and consideration, there is an awe and insight Dial has, because he’s using the quilts as a touchstone to talk about Civil Rights in the way Pettway Campbell wasn’t. There is no ambiguity or lack, the viewer knows exactly what Dial was talking about.
The works of the outsider artists of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation gift have an antagonism of society versus social group, because of the problems of racism. Racism was a social injustice, and yet the artists of this collection worked together in small groups and bands, who would quilt together in small parties. They couldn’t solve the problems of the entire United States, so they focused on what they could control, which was making blankets for people they love. One easily imagines the joy and laughter of small get-togethers where people could come together and work on quilts. In parallel, there’s a similar antagonism between art and craft, which often regards with form and function. Just like Pettway Campbell made a blanket made for use by her loved ones – functionality, Dial made his quilt as a piece of form in symbolic and metaphoric language as aesthetic art. Following aesthetic philosopher Graham Harman, one might say Pettway Campbell’s blanket was meant to disappear because it was made to disappear, and one doesn’t notice something unless it’s not working. This confrontation is the subject of Harman’s Dante’s Broken Hammer, with the example that one doesn’t notice a hammer unless it breaks. Dial’s work is meant to be viewed, meant as a recognition of trauma, in recognition of something that’s broken.
History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift is an exhibition that confronts the viewer with the problems of segregation and the Civil Rights Era. Upon looking at these works of love, the viewer will be inspired and empowered to think of the love that went into these pieces, and will certainly find humanity and spiritual transcendence in these crafts. Because of their emotional resonance, they are as powerful as the most ambitious political works of art, and because of their authenticity, they are that much more effective.