The Montclair Art Museum is on a roll. Earlier this year the institution, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, presented “Robert Smithson’s New Jersey,” a scholarship-packed exhibition about the Earth artist’s work in the Garden State. Now it is hosting a very fine show called “From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,” which runs through January 4, 2015.
It includes 30 pieces, which is half the number the Whitney had in its 2002 show of quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama (the one that Michael Kimmelman termed the “most ebullient exhibition of the New York art season” back then), but more than enough to make the trip to Montclair, New Jersey worthwhile.
They’re glorious objects—casually sophisticated, stitched together from every type of fabric: corduroy, cotton, wool, and polyester, printed, dyed and raw. Even the names of the patterns delight: the lone star (an eight-pointed star, tricky to render), the pig pen and the housetop (two names for the same concentric squares), and the tombstone.
Unlike the Whitney show, which focused on the 1960s and ‘70s, most of these works from Alabama were made in the two decades, but stunners come from all over the place past half-century. There’s a 2001 fireworks show of a quilt by Tuscaloosa County’s Nora Ezell (1919–2007), with overlapping stars in wild arrays of colors; a dark blue and black number by Greene County’s Roberta Jemison (1928–) from 1994, crossed with a slightly awkward, electrifying red X; and a quiet circa 1960–70 housetop piece from Gee’s Bend’s Plummer T. Pettway, rich with blues, blacks, whites—it sneaks up on you.
They’re astounding abstract artworks, and also, of course, utilitarian objects—ready to provide warmth and comfort, embodying handmade histories that have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Below, select works from the show.