Newark Museum showcases part of its collection of quilts

It’s been nine years since the Newark Museum’s last exhibition of its remarkable collection of American quilts, which ranges all the way from the 18th century to today and was begun at the very beginning of the institution itself, almost 90 years ago.

Newark lays claim to one of the finest quilt collections in the country, not because it has spent so much to amass it but because the museum recognized folk art as a fine art long before most other institutions did.

Through Dec. 31, the museum is hosting “Patchwork from Folk Art to Fine Art,” which brings out 30 quilts from the permanent collection, as well as a smaller show, also drawn from the collection, called “The Global Art of Patchwork: Asia and Africa.”

Patchwork, of course, refers to the way quilts are made, by stitching together disparate bits of fabric into patterns (or not — random, abstract stitchings are called “crazy quilts”). In the smaller show we see examples from the two distant continents of how patchwork has been used to create tailored garments, not just blankets.

But it’s quilts that were first recognized as wonderful examples of folk art and then, after undergoing domestic revivals several times, finally earning recognition 30 or 40 years ago as an important subset of contemporary art. “Patchwork from Folk Art to Fine Art” pursues that evolution, beginning with “Wild Goose Chase,” the first quilt acquired by the museum and one of the oldest in its collection, made in the 1830s from homespun wool. “Wild Goose Chase” features a classic quilt-making pattern, basically a series of navy triangles arranged on a bright red pane of wool so that they suggest a flock of geese in flight.

Cut for a four-poster bed, it’s a standout because it looks so much like a Modernist painting — in fact, at the time of its purchase, American abstraction had not advanced to such hard-edged simplicity.

“I think that’s why (museum founder) John Cotton Dana bought this quilt in 1918, because of its resemblance to Modern painting,” says decorative arts curator Ulysses Dietz, who organized the show. “But needless to say, at the time nobody considered quilts to be anything but a handcraft. It was part of his amazing insight into American culture.”

And it was a women’s handcraft to boot, lowering it beneath aesthetic notice in those days. We know little more about “Wild Goose Chase” than its rough date, but most quilts in this show carry at least two well-documented stories. First, the story of who created it (all but two quilts in the entire collection were made by either a single woman or a group of women). Quilting was women’s work because it involved sewing fabrics, but in those days a quilting was one of the few private situations where women could gather without menfolk in large groups to socialize, and quilting groups could be families, social circles, or members of the same church. Many quilts carry written messages, in India ink, naming the women who made it, just like an artist’s signature.

Secondly, there’s the story of every quilt’s purpose, and how its style expresses it. The “Wild Goose Chase” was one early pattern, but there are many more — “basket” quilts, “log cabin” quilts (further subdivided into variations like “courthouse steps” or “sunshine and shadow” designs), Star of LeMoyne or Bethlehem quilts, florals, and so on. Some quilts were specifically created as “wedding quilts,” like the 1840 “album” quilt from Delaware or Maryland, at 10-by-10 feet the largest in the museum, which Dietz suspects was a wedding present because of its appliqued calico hearts.

But others were family documents, like the commemorative “Hurley Family quilt,” an album-style spread made by the Hurleys of Wall Township in 1867 (at least half the quilts in this show come from New Jersey). Inside the central medallion, in ink, are the names of all the Hurley children and their parents, inscribed as if they were on printed calling cards.

It’s quilts like the Hurleys’ that helped enshrine quilting in feminist tracts about “lost” or “hidden” feminine contributions to American aesthetics. Their resemblance to abstract art — which, when it arrived, was like most art movements dominated by loud, hard-drinking males — undercut some of their braggadocio. The girls were there first, after all.

latest acquisition

Beautiful quilts such as “Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance” (1985) by Michael James, the only quilt in this show done by a man (it was commissioned by the museum with help from a private foundation), only prove the rule. But James does symbolize, in a way, the acceptance of quilting as a contemporary art form. New Jersey artists such as Faith Ringgold have put quilts on a par with paintings, and most people accept textile art as a valid expression today, even if it still does not have the same price scale as painting.

And this recognition culminates in the latest acquisition by the museum, Maplewood artist Teresa Barkley’s amazing “Midtown Direct” (1998-2006), a paean to the train line that Barkley, who works for a dress designing firm in Manhattan, takes to the city.

Actually, that undersells the thematic interest of “Midtown Direct.” Set within a postage stamp-like border, the quilt is built up in registers, like a medieval altarpiece, its center dominated by an arch that is meant to symbolize the tunnels into the city; further, the arch is filled with a large souvenir depiction of the World Trade Center towers. Dietz says Barkley started work on this quilt in 1998, and when the 9/11 attacks occurred she put it aside for a time, unsure how to continue.

When she returned, she saw the chance to make it into a quilted memorial. The cartouches to the right of the arch are filled with printed cotton fabrics that suggest what Barkley sees on her way into the city, trees and houses giving way to factories and marshes and egrets, while the left side tells the story in reverse (ending with a printed maple leaf, for home in Maplewood). A few medallions show photo transfers of flags being raised by firemen in the WTC rubble. Throughout are endless representations of trains, steam engines to electric motors, connoting a kind of American optimism about movement into the future.

And laid over the now destroyed towers at the very center, from a child’s bedsheet, is a print of Superman, more powerful than a locomotive — certainly more powerful than one of those streamlined art deco 28-wheelers we see behind him — flying to restore truth, justice, and the American way.