On View

‘“Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts’ at The Brooklyn Museum

Victoria Royall Broadhead, Tumbling Blocks Quilt,' circa 1865–70. (Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum)

Victoria Royall Broadhead, Tumbling Blocks Quilt,’ circa 1865–70. (Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum)

These days, quilt-making is considered a quintessentially everyday American pastime, but it was actually the province of the elite until textile prices decreased in the mid-19th century and the end of the Civil War brought on a love for all things nostalgia-inducing and “olde tyme.” (Plus ça change.) Organized by Catherine Morris, the curator of the museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, “Workt by Hand” includes many such illuminating anecdotes, using about 35 quilts to tell the story of the medium’s surprising journey through American culture, and the varied responses it has earned along the way. The light, delicate colors in the fabrics making up the interlocking circles in a circa 1930 double-wedding-ring quilt, for instance, were the result of dye recipes forfeited by Germany as World War I reparations. The spare geometric quilts made by the Amish—a circa 1890 black and white bar quilt with red and blue borders is particularly strong—have long been prized by collectors, and found a new audience among abstract painters and their fans after World War II. It’s not the only work that seems to presage contemporary art. Maybe the most incredible piece here, a prize-winning 1865 quilt by one Victoria Royall Broadhead from Columbia, Mo., patterned with a grid of tumbling blocks and rimmed in glowing pink, is Op Art 100 years before that phrase was coined. Scholarship in recent decades has focused on the women behind the art, attributing artists’ names to what was long considered anonymous craft, and examining the communities that joined together to share techniques. To be sure, none are just decorative (not that there would be anything wrong with that): they recorded histories, promoted causes (wives of freemasons quilted to raise money), and even aimed to shape events, as in a political quilt from the 1830s, stitched with fabric printed with portraits of presidents. Its maker is lost to history, but we can guess that she was an Andrew Jackson supporter, Ms. Morris argues in a wall placard. Beneath a visage of the president, the quilt reads, “Magnanimous in Peace, Victorious in War.” (Through Sept. 15, 2013)

Follow Andrew Russeth on Twitter or via RSS. arusseth@observer.com