The modern-art movement that broke the pattern – ‘Quilts’ comes to SVMA

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“Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal”

– Expressionist painter

Egon Schiele

Roderick Kiracofe is blurring the line between “modern” and “eternal” like few other art collectors – and he’s doing it through quilts.

Kiracofe’s been collecting these colorful, quirkily patterned hand-sewn bed coverings for nearly 40 years. First mesmerized by hanging quilt displays he’d seen in his youth in the 1970s, Kiracofe’s interest in the below-the-radar contemporary quilt movement grew as fast as his amazingly diverse collection.

Before he knew it, the San Francisco quilt curator found himself specializing in a medium cloaked in tradition, yet growing increasingly avant-garde in its use of fabric, design and perspective. What for centuries had been a conventional use of textile for warmth and decoration – had in the 20th century become a form of modernist expression for, mostly, anonymous female homemakers armed with little more than a needle, stitches and an amazing eye for contemporary aesthetics.

Beginning Saturday, Feb. 14, Kiracofe brings 35 of the finest pieces from his massive collection to the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art for its latest exhibit, “Unconventional and Unexpected: Quilts Below the Radar, 1950 – 2000.” The exhibition runs through May 16, and will display alongside “Shaker Stories from the Collection of Benjamin H. Rose III.”

We asked Kiracofe why he finds such comfort in his vast collection of comforters.

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Let’s start with a question on everyone’s mind: Why quilts?

From the beginning – over 40 years ago – of seeing my first quilt ... it has been a two-fold love and appreciation fest. My grandmother was a seamstress – and when I looked at quilts I was reminded of the times I watched her at her sewing machine or doing hand sewing. Looking at a quilt made me wonder what the life of the maker was like – what was she thinking as she made her quilts? Secondly, I am (also) drawn to the beauty of quilts and how they stand up, or lie on a bed, as a work of art.

One of the fascinating things about the exhibition is that it involves such a traditional art medium adapting in similar way to a tradition-busting modern art movement. Is it another example of art reflecting the times?

My background is not art history; I have an untrained eye like most of the makers of these quilts. I look at a lot of art in museums, gallery walls, artists’ studios, magazines, books and on the Internet and have learned from this looking. When it comes to placing these quilts into context of historical art movements, I rely on those who know more than I for consultation.

Yet even you – with an untrained eye – recognized a different aesthetic in these quilts.

I can see it in a quilt, and marvel at the connection or similarities I see. My intention was never to compare them to particular artists or works of art. They stand on their own. I just find it so very curious to see those similarities when they show up.

How would 1950s and ’60s homemakers be so influenced by the modern art movement? I don’t recall June Cleaver hanging many Neo-Dadaist pieces in the living room.

Works of modern art and the artists who created them were being shown in Look, Life, and Time magazines in the 1950s. Andy Warhol, Kenneth Noland and Jim Dine are known to have collected quilts. Other well-known and lesser-known artists may have been exposed to quilts in various contexts. Many of the quilts in the exhibition and the (accompanying) book, “Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950-2000,” reflect the movements of Abstraction and certainly Pop Art. In some cases, some of these makers may have been creating their work ahead of these and other recognized art movements coming out of major art centers like New York.

How do the uses of color and pattern play out in this “below the radar” modern art?

Most quilt makers abhor polyester double-knit fabrics. I became completely fascinated by (the) quilts and unfinished tops I was finding made from these fabrics. The colors are fantastic and the belief is they will never fade. I discovered some very wonderful, quirky examples and the historian side of me felt these fabrics needed to be preserved for our quilt history along with the fine cottons of pieced and appliquéd quilts and the silks of the Victorian Crazy quilts, and fine wools of Pennsylvania Amish quilts.

What surprises you most about “maverick quilts” such as these?

The fact that an unknown maker had the eye and vision to let these creations flow through her; some of the makers may have known on some levels they were an artist. Also, the fact they had the courage and nerve to go against the grain of what their neighbors may have been making and to follow her own vision.

If there’s one thing visitors should come away with after seeing the quilt exhibit, what is that?

Oh, tough question. If I have to pick just one, I think it would be to have an appreciation of the imperfections in these everyday objects and to see the extraordinary in the “ordinary.”

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