Sewing for Glory

When the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale shut down at the beginning of the summer, there was more than a little skepticism, in these pages and elsewhere. What could they be thinking? And more to the point, how could they leave the art-loving public high and dry for the long, hot summer?

The official explanation that the museum was undergoing renovations and upgrades sounded vaguely suspicious. After all, hadn't the place just spent many thousands in improvements in anticipation of the most successful exhibition in South Florida history, "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs"?

Such doubts were swept away when the museum reopened in grand style September 6. I don't normally go in for opening receptions, which are usually more about socializing and being seen than about looking at art. But this time, my curiosity got the best of me, especially since I had previously worked at the museum for nearly two and a half years. I was anxious to see if the wait was worth it.

The opening turned out to be a smashing success by just about anyone's standards. The museum had been expecting 450 to 500 people; nearly 800 showed up. The food was great, the drinks flowed, and everyone seemed to have a great time. Even the downstairs restrooms, which had been under renovation for a seeming eternity, are now worthy of a fine-arts museum — sleekly postmodern, with sculptural sink basins that are among the coolest I've ever seen.

And the elevator lobby just outside the restrooms? It has been repainted an impossibly rich, deep blue and relit, the better to highlight the permanent installation of Haitian artist Edouard Duval Carrié's The Indigo Room or Is Memory Water-Soluble?, which remains as gorgeous as when I first wrote about it years ago. There's even a Visitor Quilting Bee section at the end of the show, inviting museumgoers to glue pieces of fabric onto a makeshift quilt. (I contributed a couple of small bits of corduroy.)

Did I mention the art? I had also been skeptical when it was announced that the museum was reopening with an exhibition called "The Quilts of Gee's Bend." After a recent history that included such hits as the Tut show and "Diana: A Celebration" and the eye-popping "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge," the museum was going to reopen with a bunch of quilts? As someone born and raised in the Deep South, I have great admiration and appreciation for the time, skill, labor, and creativity that go into the making of even the most modest quilts. I just had a hard time thinking of them as something to hang an art exhibition on, so to speak.

Once again, my doubts proved unfounded. "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" turns out to be a spectacular exhibition, more akin to a show of abstract expressionist paintings than one of bed coverings.

There are more than 60 quilts in the show. Some are as muted as a Rothko painting while others are a riot of bright colors and intricate patterns. Symmetry sometimes prevails, although more often, the patchwork is dazzlingly, even feverishly, erratic. Here and there, you can find traces of what appear to be African, Aztec, Mayan, and Native American influences. Clearly, these are not the kinds of quilts my mother gave me when she packed me off to college.

As fantastic as the quilts themselves are, even more extraordinary is the narrative of their origin. The quilts are the work of nearly 40 African-American women from Gee's Bend, Alabama, a tiny, island-like community of only a few hundred people, hemmed in on three sides by the Alabama River to form an inland peninsula. Descendants of slaves, generations of these women lived and worked in isolation and poverty, piecing together scraps of fabric into the quilts that, at least initially, were meant to be used to warm people living in shacks. The women worked with the most rudimentary materials available, from fragments of cloth picked up on the side of the road and bits and pieces of worn-out work clothes to gunny sacks and feed bags.

Then, nearly a decade ago, the quilts were "rediscovered" by Georgia-based art enthusiasts Matthew Arnett and his father, William, who co-curated the exhibition, which was organized by Houston's Museum of Fine Arts and has traveled to several other cities. By 2002, the women of Gee's Bend found themselves celebrities of sorts and saw their quilts handled lovingly and presented on museum walls.

The exhibition is formally divided into six sections — Work Clothes, My Way, Patterns, Housetop, Triangles, and Sears Corduroy — although the energy and flow are such that the sections start to run together in a blur as you make your way through. After two separate visits and several passes through the galleries, the only distinct sections I could remember were Patterns, which features some geometric configurations as rigorous as anything out of Mondrian or Pousette-Dart, and Triangles, which is perhaps the least interesting section overall, with one exception.

That exception is Essie Bendolph Pettway's Pinwheel (2002), in which she takes the potentially prosaic triangles and activates them by grouping sets of four to form basic pinwheel patterns. The pinwheels generate surprising energy and a sense of motion. At the same time, Pettway uses an amazing palette of rich blues and greens to create a sense of calm. It's easily one of the most accomplished pieces in the show.

The museum brought 16 of the quilters — including the oldest, 90-year-old Nettie Young — to town for a long weekend of public appearances, including a book signing at the opening reception and a panel discussion. They were as lively as you might expect them to be based on their quilting, engaging in spirited explanations of their work and performing a stirring rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" on opening night. It was a fine example of their long tradition of singing hymns while they quilt.

But in the end, the quilts themselves leave the most lingering impressions. As Michael Kimmelman, an art critic at the New York Times, has written, the quilts "turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South."

"The Quilts of Gee's Bend" is meant to be a lead-in to the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale's 50th-anniversary celebration. It's an excellent start.