Friday, August 13, 2010

Nancy Crow's show

Almost too late, I managed to transport my jet-lagged body to Auburn NY to see the huge Nancy Crow show at the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Gallery three days before it closed -- definitely worth the trip. You know that I consider Nancy to be my sensei, having taken 14 weeks of workshops with her over the last seven or eight years.  I had seen many of these quilts in person one place or another, and in fact three of them I saw intimately in progress because she asked me to machine-quilt them.  (Here's Constructions 91.) But it was stunning to see everything together, and beautifully displayed, representing some of her very old work and much of her very new.

I am sorry that the museum did not permit photography, because there were some glorious quilts -- 57 in all -- that you would love to see.  Check the link above and here and here for some pictures.  And I will provide links for other quilts that I talk about later.  Please do take the extra seconds to click on those links; the quilts are wonderful and well worth your time to have a look.

The show included five of Nancy's older quilts from the days when she was using templates and commercial fabrics.  You've probably seen pictures of these quilts, which were huge and spectacular and hit the art world with a smash because they referenced the traditions of quilting but looked like nothing ever seen before.  Nancy has written about her epiphany when she realized that improvisational cutting and composition beat the hell out of templates and advance planning, but I couldn't help but notice that some of her "template" quilts were actually straying toward improvisation.  For instance, on display was a double wedding ring quilt where the curves on the rings seemed definitely freehand and one of the four main motifs was considerably smaller than the other three.

Once Nancy made the big move to improvisational design, she started her vast "Constructions" series, inspired by the construction of the timber barn that now serves as the venue for her workshops.  I found it interesting, among other things, to see how long it took for her to abandon the traditional quilt practice of the border and binding.  Bindings were the first to be abandoned.  For a couple of years she put borders on everything; later she bordered two sides; finally she let the composition occupy the whole space of the quilt. Here's Constructions 17.

Perhaps my favorite quilt in the whole show is Constructions 65, a spare but complicated composition of three colors, which is obviously only one generation away from traditional quilt blocks.  Technically it's nine rail fence blocks, with blocks of horizontal stripes alternating with blocks of vertical stripes in a traditional nine-patch array.  Still has borders, but very modern borders that almost disappear because they're so well integrated into the composition.

Most recently Nancy's "Constructions" have featured mostly vertical bars, often overlaid by an X, a special shape that she drew extensively as a child.  Many of them are made in duplex format, where one horizontal composition is stacked on top of another one.  Several are in four-plex, where the composition has four separate sectors.  I am amused because those of us invited to participate in the Color Improvisations show Nancy curated were initially asked to make four-plex quilts; that request was later rescinded but not before many a quilt was made in that format.  It's a standard format that artists have used forever, and Nancy is clearly a master of it.

These pieces constitute the heart of the show, but there is also a significant presence of Nancy's whole-cloth or minimally pieced works using her own surface-designed fabrics.  A few years ago Nancy began experimenting with screen printing and monoprinting and made several quilts with these fabrics.  I think in these works she has come squarely to the same dilemma that many of the rest of us grapple with relation to surface design.  Namely, we make beautiful fabric, and then what?  Do we just turn it into a whole-cloth quilt, or does it demand something more, something to turn it from fabric into art?

I liked the quilts where Nancy cut into her screenprinted fabric and pieced it back together to give a bit more complexity.  I don't know whether she's still working in these series, although I know she continues to take the occasional workshop with surface-design artists.  Also have to give a big compliment to Sandy Ciolino, who magnificently machine-quilted one of the screenprinted quilts.

You still have till Sunday afternoon to see the show, if you're within driving distance of Auburn.  If not, eat your heart out.  Nancy Crow is the best of the best, and this show shows her work to its greatest advantage. 


  1. I saw the show a week ago and was very taken with the quilts using her surface designed fabric. Like you, I preferred the ones that had been cut and pieced back together. I was blown away by the body of work represented in the show. Really amazing.

  2. Quality and quantity is a great combination. Thank you for the show report. I'd like to add that quilting these works and doing it well is also a major accomplishment. They are dense with many many seams and they are 100 percent pimatex which anyone who uses it knows is hard to quilt. So congratulations to the quilters of this important work.

  3. Terry -- you're absolutely right! I am in awe of hand-quilters in general and noticed how beautifully Marla Hattabaugh and others quilted Nancy's pieces. Especially worthy of admiration were the perfectly straight grid lines that were ever-so-slightly not aligned with seams, so that the quilting line gradually crossed over the seams and seam allowances. I suppose they used masking tape to mark the straight line but it still seems impossible to me.