Rosie Lee Tompkins
African-American Quiltmaker

September 21 – November 23, 2002
at Peter Blum SoHo

Rosie Lee Tompkins at Peter Blum

Art in America
July 1, 2003

It is no longer revolutionary to suggest that work in craft mediums may attain the status of high art. Nevertheless, the formal sophistication and modernist esthetics of Rosie Lee Tompkins's quilts have placed her oeuvre in contexts where fabrics are rarely seen. Her work was included in last year's Whitney Biennial and, in this exhibition, in a gallery not known for an affinity with craft.

Rosie Lee Tompkins is in fact a pseudonym for a Bay Area who chooses to remain quilt maker who chooses to remain anonymous. Her quilts balance structure and free-form spontaneity. Although all of the piecework quilts here are roughly rectangular, their edges are irregular and corners rarely meet at strict right angles. The patterns within are even more erratic. In cases where there is a kind of framing border, its edges have a woozy unevenness. More often, the quilts are composed of pulsing patterns of triangles and squares whose visual logic cannot be rationally adduced.

Tompkins is a master colorist. Many of the quilts rely heavily on scraps of black that serve as a ground for sparkling mosaics of brilliant color. Each quilt has a different formal rhythm. The overall composition of Three Sixes (1986), which is limited to small, roughly similar rectangles of yellow, purple, orange and pink, makes one think of early Mondrian. Others are more diverse in their palettes. Half Squares (1994) is a riot of shapes and colors organized into small groupings. In one section, a checkerboard pattern of green and black is surrounded by a vibrant orange frame, while elsewhere squarish amalgams of black and white triangles interact with jewel-like sections made up of shards of red, blue, black and orange. The quilt as a whole has a busy, almost urban sense of movement, invoking artists like Paul Klee, Alfred Jensen and Stuart Davis.

This is in sharp contrast to the underwater flavor of Half Squares (1987). Limited to an aquatic palette, it employs pieces of black, gray and blue fabric set off by triangular patches of a glittering blue-black paisley pattern that operate like glints of light glancing off deeply submerged coral or tropical fish.

Resolutely nonreferential, Tompkins's quilts bring to mind the efforts of early American modernists to forge a language of pure abstraction. That she does so with scraps of cloth instead of paint in no way diminishes her achievement.