Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Quilt collector extraordinare

Just read an obituary on Eli Leon, one of the most famous quilt collectors of recent times. Starting in the 1970s he bought quilts at flea markets in California, and soon specialized in African-American quilts, drawn to "their irregular, improvisatory patterns."  His most important discovery was Rosie Lee Tompkins, whom he met at a flea market and who became famous thanks to Leon's buying her quilts and putting them into shows he organized.  Eventually she was hailed as one of the outsider artists who "have altered the shape of American art history."

New York Times

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Three Sixes

Leon also organized many exhibits of other quilt artists and wrote books about African-American quilts. 

Whenever I read about outsider quilt art -- Gees Bend comes to mind -- I am bemused at how the mainstream art world is eager to embrace improvisational, unpredictable quilts (or paintings or sculpture) made by marginalized people, but at the same time eager to ignore equally exciting quilts  (or paintings or sculpture) made by mainstream artists.  Nancy Crow's quilts are every bit as nontraditional and wonderful as Rosie Lee Tompkins', and yet Tompkins gets into the Whitney Biennial and Crow doesn't.

(By the way, Crow credits a glimpse of a Tompkins quilt for turning her away from the highly structured patterns of her early work into the improvisational style that she has used for several decades.)

It's as though you need the back story of poverty and isolation, perhaps a little mental illness, to make your work "authentic" before the mainstream art people are willing to call it art.  All the better if that back story involves picking cotton (the original Gees Bend exhibit and its book/catalog had lots of evocative photos of sharecroppers toiling in the fields, displayed next to the quilts).

I don't begrudge Leon or any other collector the right to decide what to collect, but I feel sorry that a guy who fell in love with quilts with "irregular, improvisatory patterns" didn't also look a little more widely at other people making such quilts.

Meanwhile, what's not to like about a guy who owned 3,500 quilts, loved them dearly, and worked tirelessly to promote and show them.  We need lots more like Eli Leon.


  1. I totally agree with your take on "outsider" quilts. Thank you for stating my thoughts so articulately.

  2. Agree. I think that is the very thing that irritated me about the Gees Exhibit at the Boise Art Museum. One of the info placards talked about how "younger women/girls would learn quilting from the older women" - as if doing that was some sort of rarified thing that only happened at Gees Bend. Hello! Happened all over the whole freakin country! Women made these beautiful art pieces out of love, their own aesthetic, and what they had on hand to warm their families. It wasn't just poor people or Boston ladies or.. or.. or.. Anyway. I enjoyed the quilts exhibited, but there are SO MANY others! Japanese internment camp women made "art" quilts just like that. So did Navajo women on the reservations. Heck I made my doll quilts just like that when I was 6. Men thinking they 'discovered' something just because they never bothered to notice stuff before is more than a little annoying.

  3. I have just spent an hour watching u-tube videos by Nancy Crow. I went though a Nancy "period" 12-14 years ago. It was lovely to revisit things.