August 13, 2011

At the Shelburne Museum: Abstraction in the Decorative Arts

For many centuries, in quite different cultures, abstract patterns have been used to decorate objects designed for everyday or ceremonial use. What most comes to my mind are pots with geometric designs, ancient or traditional Native American. There is a rich history of pattern in textile work; with quilting there are two strong recent abstract traditions: the simple drama of colored shapes in Amish quilts, and the remarkable inventiveness and modernity of the quilts of Gee's Bend. So, while I was wandering through the incredible collections at the Shelburne Museum, I thought I'd concentrate on abstraction. The photo above is a detail of a quilt made around 1900; its pattern is called Pincushion and it is rarely seen. I love the way the circles are held in larger concentric squares of color, making the design very complex.

This is a detail of a quilt made around 1890-1900, which looks at first glance like a crazy quilt, with no definable pattern. But if you look carefully, you'll see that the triangular shapes that surround the open diamonds are actually points of an eight-pointed star whose centers are wildly mixed shapes and colors.

Quilt patterns are often very clever: here a design is produced by flipping colors and by turning the shapes within their small squares. One of the names for this pattern is Drunkard's Path and was often associated with the temperance movement. It's also known as Robbing Peter to Pay Paul and Wanderer's Path.

This American quilt from the 1940s uses the Hexagonal pattern, which is thought to be one of the oldest pieced patterns, since it appeared in a ladies magazine in 1835. It may have been influenced by mosaic tile design, which to me looks very likely. The maker of this quilt used many different commercially printed fabrics which give it a marvelously dizzying quality.

This tapestry-like fabric with an interlocking pattern of multi-hued feathery shapes for a man's vest must have made him strut like a peacock. And for extra effect, the inverted triangular lines of buttons and the drama of black velvet.

The blobby painting with little circles on this English compote of the early 19th century speaks of someone who was having a very good time with their glazes, enjoying freedom and invention and sharing it with us.

The museum had several platters from the late 18th-early 19th century made with the technique of combed slipware; a tool with evenly spaced teeth is dragged across the fluid slip making a pattern that is regular but not rigid, that has a feeling of flow, as though someone had painted the lines with a watercolor brush.

What a wonderful array of color and shape and design in this case of 19th century Mochaware. The wavy and straight lines, the dots and swirls on vessels of many shapes and sizes made my eyes bounce around happily. I'm particularly fond of the repeating curves, like vibrant waves, and the white-on-black leaning leaf shapes. I feel great admiration for the craftspeople who had the skill to make these pieces look so fresh and effortless.

There was a small room at the museum given over to displaying a collection of glass canes, which for me were pure pleasure; the translucent nature of glass makes the color in it that much more vivid as light plays over and through. I couldn't help but think of holidays and candy canes looking at these fanciful objects. And looking at these objects, I wonder why it is that some people have such a difficult time with abstract painting when they are surrounded by abstract pattern. Are paintings judged too differently, or design valued too little?

Previous blog post from the Shelburne Museum:
At the Shelburne Museum: Daily Life


  1. Old quilts and early ceramics are really wonderful.The maker's couldn't help themselves, they embellish the most utilitarian objects. Quilters out of necessity were using up their scraps, but then they start playing with design. I saw some of the Gee's Bend quilts at Yale several years ago. Some are pieced so they don't lie flat, a big no no in current traditional quilting circles. It made them three dimensional and interesting.

    My husband and I have been having an ongoing discussion about ordinary people's unconscious aesthetic judgements for a couple of decades. He'd go out and photograph utility workers' markings on the street or some arrangement of objects in a shop window or somebody's yard and they would be just wonderful. People can't help themselves. They are always arranging things in really interesting ways,but if you call it art it's suddenly serious and has rules.

    Thanks for reminding me that I have to get up to Shelburne.

  2. That first quilt detail is a beauty!

  3. Bettina, I saw the show of Gee's Bend quilts at the Whitney several years ago and was completely stunned at their beauty. And I love the story of you and your husband's interest in ordinary aesthetics. The "suddenly serious and has rules" rings very true for me; it'd be great if people could approach "art" in the same free way they deal with their everyday surroundings.
    Maggie, yes, that quilt is wonderful and an even closer view would show some interesting stitching around and between the shapes.

  4. That "clever" simple pattern above is very nice.
    I often look at textiles and fabrics in the garment district and find inspiration there.
    Interesting what you mentioned about abstract painting not being tolerated but it certainly is in everyday objects. Maybe it has something to do with the object's function or practical use enhanced by decoration while paintings are just to look at.

  5. alicia, I believe you're right about paintings being just there to look at, having not specific function, which might make abstraction in them harder to understand. They are not just "decoration" and so seem more mysterious, "serious" as Bettina mentions above.

  6. Yes, function seems to make an object understandable, there is no mystery to figure out. Some cultures only make functional art.

    A quilt is acceptable because it is used in every day life. But this doesn't explain the urge to create that has been evident in non-functional art for thousands of years.

  7. alicia, I've been fascinated by the art-making need that sometimes I think is hard-wired into Homo sapiens; just look at cave paintings made tens of thousands of years ago.

  8. Altoon, yes, that is just what I was thinking of above. The cave paintings. And they probably had a lot to do to survive but still made creative work. I agree its hard-wired, a good way of putting it into words.
    Since you grow food and do so many things on your own, you would know about this kind of creative urge. I had friends living in Vermont and growing all their food years ago and it bothered me that they didn't think art was necessary. They made pots out of clay they found themselves.