‘Patterns in Abstraction’ highlight High’s growing quilt collection

Collection includes quilts from Gee’s Bend first exhibited at the museum in 2006.
A common abstract quilting pattern "Housetop" is featured in a High Museum show centered on the use of abstraction in traditional quilt-making. Shown here: an unidentified maker's quilt ca. 1940s featuring the housetop pattern.
(Courtesy of High Museum of Art)

Credit: High Museum of Art

Credit: High Museum of Art

A common abstract quilting pattern "Housetop" is featured in a High Museum show centered on the use of abstraction in traditional quilt-making. Shown here: an unidentified maker's quilt ca. 1940s featuring the housetop pattern. (Courtesy of High Museum of Art)

The exhibition “Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” which appeared at the High Museum of Art in 2006, featured 60 colorful, geometrically designed quilts hand-stitched by the direct descendants of slaves living in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The traveling show was a sensation — a celebration of craft veering into the sublime.

It also marked a shift in the art world’s perspective on this seemingly humble, homey art form.

The High acquired five quilts from that show to create a burgeoning collection that began with the 1982 acquisition of Jessie Telfair’s “Freedom” quilt, an expression of her indignation at being fired after registering to vote in 1964.

Under the direction of Katherine Jentleson, High curator of folk and self-taught art, the museum’s collection of quilts has grown substantially since the “Gee’s Bend” show. In 2017, another 12 quilts were added to the museum’s holdings.

“I think that Black quilts are one of the greatest and most unsung traditions in American art,” said Jentleson, who joined the High in 2015.

“What I really wanted was for anybody who comes to the High at any point in the year to be able to see Black quilts represented. And we did not have enough quilts to do that.”

To continue building the High’s representation of Black quilters, the High launched its Black Quilts and Contemporary Art Collecting Initiative in 2023. Today the collection includes quilts by contemporary artists including Faith Ringgold, Bisa Butler, Dawn Williams Boyd and Hank Willis Thomas. Jentleson noted that many contemporary artists across media had their first introduction to art-making with a quilter mother or grandmother.

Lucy T. Pettway's "Birds in the Air" (1981) quilt represents a natural phenomenon in abstract form.
(Courtesy of High Museum of Art)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

The fruits of those collecting efforts are on view at the museum in “Patterns in Abstraction: Black Quilts from the High’s Collection,” which runs through the end of the year.

The central theme of the exhibition is the rendering of the physical world into “geometric shapes and color compositions,” said Jentleson. Despite lacking the formal training of many abstract artists, Jentleson notes that quilting practices often translate visual phenomena into abstract ones, an interpretive act also practiced by modern art stalwarts like Helen Frankenthaler or Mark Rothko.

That shared impulse is part of what Jentleson calls the “human impulse to translate things seen in the real world, things felt in the real world, to some other kind of artistic expression that’s more reductive.”

Jentleson observes that there are “many expressions of self-taught artists where they’re either anticipating, or in parallel, or maybe a little bit afterwards, doing the same things” as trained artists. It’s her hope that shows like “Patterns in Abstraction will help “break down these kinds of arbitrary boundaries between quilts and larger histories of art.”

Two popular quilting patterns — “Housetop,” distinguished by concentric squares, and “Birds in the Air,” featuring repeated triangles — are a focus of “Patterns in Abstraction” because of how they turn everyday phenomena into abstraction, said Jentleson.

The exhibition will use other quilts as illustrative contrast to those two key abstract forms. For instance, a section of “Patterns in Abstraction” focuses on portrait quilts, which often memorialize loved ones by weaving their clothing into quilt patterns.

“In that sense, they’re another kind of abstraction, a material abstraction of a human existence or legacy,” said Jentleson.

Included in the exhibition are quilts by Gee’s Bend artists Mary Lee Bendolph, Louisiana Bendolph and Lucy T. Pettway, as well as Atlanta quilter Marquetta B. Johnson, whose unique contribution to the form is hand-dying the fabric for her quilts.

“As many of the quilters represented in the High’s collection are deceased or unnamed,” states Jentleson in a learning guide that accompanies the exhibition, “supporting the work of living quilters, including the many world-class practitioners here in Atlanta, has become an important dimension of the High’s present and future acquisition of Black quilts.”

Despite their veneer of hominess and association with labors of love, quilting has had a complex relationship to the museum world, which Jentleson hopes to rectify in both “Patterns in Abstraction” and her ongoing curatorial practice. In many cases, shows like “Gee’s Bend,” featuring the labor of Black women, were curated and exhibited by white institutions that have often seen women’s labor and craft forms like quilting as lacking in intent, rigor and the conceptual chops required to penetrate the citadel of high art.

During the process of creating “Patterns in Abstraction,” Jentleson worked closely with the quilting community like Atlanta’s 24-year-old Brown Sugar Stitchers Quilt Guild to make the exhibition experience collaborative and inclusive. Through ongoing discussions, they sussed out the show’s central proposition.

An untitled quilt from an unknown maker, ca. 1940s.
(Courtesy of High Museum of Art)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

“We brought together about 15 art historians, curators, quilters, scholars — most of whom were Black women,” said Jentleson. The group addressed the question of abstraction in quilting, offering their own perspectives of its relevance.

Art museums around the world are grappling to find ways to be more inclusive, to reflect multiple viewpoints and to engage with the community. Toward that end, the gallery wall text for “Patterns in Abstraction” combine Jentleson’s insights with those of quilters to achieve what Jentleson calls a “patchwork” of ideas and inspiration.

“With quilts in general there’s always been this tension between how art curators want to see quilts and how quilters themselves want to be seen or talked about,” said Jentleson.

As evidence of that disparity, “Patterns in Abstraction” will feature videos made during the annual “Gee’s Bend Airing of the Quilts” event held in October in the town of Boykin, Alabama. Instead of the anthropological oral histories that had previously been collected from the Gee’s Bend quilters, it was important for Jentleson to engage the quilters as artists and ask them “about their choices as artists, and the specificity of the fabric or design of that specific quilt.”

Jentleson wanted “an object-focused discussion,” she said, “which is what you would do with an artist.”


“Patterns in Abstraction: Black Quilts from the High’s Collection.” Through Jan. 5, 2025. $23.50. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, high.org.