Surrealism has had a major impact on both the art world and popular visual culture. Its influences are evident in Pop art, Abstract Expressionism, and time-based media installations, and in contemporary film, music, and advertising. In Dior: From Paris to the World, you can see Surrealism’s influence as a continuing inspiration in haute couture fashion.
Maria Grazia Chiuri explored Surrealist symbolism in her Spring–Summer 2018 show, where monochromatic black and white dresses were offset by a black-and-white chessboard runway “in a not-so-subtle nod to the world of games,” according to Dior, “conjuring an otherworldliness and constant optical illusion.”
Chiuri explored Surrealism in her collection with a focus on American photographer Man Ray and female Surrealists Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini. It’s no coincidence that she found inspiration in Fini, as Christian Dior, an art gallerist turned couturier, organized Fini’s first solo exhibition in November 1932.
Fini, a young and audacious artist, was a celebrity in her time, in part thanks to Dior. She often wore his designs—although in a memorable 1936 episode she attended a party wearing only “knee-length white leatherette boots and a cape of white feathers.”
Look 19. Christian Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri. Haute Couture Spring–Summer 2018. Courtesy of Dior.
Alchimiste, a checkerboard ensemble that includes a long dress made of organza inserts with a feather-embroidered short cape (Look 5, Maria Grazia Chiuri: The New Feminity), reimagines a representation of Fini’s famous party ensemble against the Surrealist chessboard.
Look 48. Christian Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri. Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2018. Courtesy of Dior.
More literally, Chiuri’s dress Nude (Look 8, Maria Grazia Chiuri: The New Feminity), with its trompe l’oeil dress embroidered with metallic sequins, is a literal interpretation of Man Ray’s 1929 Nude. A copy of Man Ray’s work can be found on Chiuri’s mood board.
In a way, the dress also pays homage to René Magritte’s The Light of Coincidences, on view in the DMA’s European Galleries on Level 2. In creating Chiuri’s Nude, hand-embroidered silver metal sequins were specially placed so the results mimicked light reflecting on the body, similar to the candlelight against Magritte’s sculptural torso.
Dior also debuted Salvador Dalí’s masterpiece The Persistence of Memory as part of a larger solo exhibition in 1931. The painting famously depicts Dalí’s melting clocks, which Dior presented when he worked at the Galérie Bonjean. Chiuri also displays Dalí’s 1944 Vogue cover on her mood board in the exhibition.
The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” played over the last looks in the runway show—New York’s Newsday described the band as having “blurring effects [that] stretch and contract the music into the liquid surrealism of a Salvador Dalí painting.” Their 1992 Gravity Grave EP cover nods to The Persistence of Memory.
The Verve’s Gravity Grave EP cover
However, it was most likely Fini that Chiuri was channeling when she chose The Verve, using graphic masks to note literally Fini’s passion for grand balls, which allowed her to impersonate different characters. An extraordinary ball held at Venice’s Palazzo Labia on September 3, 1951, organized by Charles de Beistegui, would go down in posterity as “The Ball of the Century” and an unforgettable fusion of the arts. Dior, Fini, and Dalí were among the 1,500 guests.
Andre Ostier, Leonor Fini, 1951, gelatin silver print, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Mr. and Mrs. Harry B. Gordon, 80.22
And what is a ball without a mask? Is fashion not a daily mask we can use like a Surrealist to explore playing with reality?
As The Verve sang over Chiuri’s runway: “I’m a million different people from one day to the next, I can’t change my mold no, no, no, no.”
Explore these Surrealist connections and more in Dior: From Paris to the World through September 1. Visitors must purchase timed tickets in advance at DMA.org/Dior.
Clara Cobb is the Senior Marketing Manager at the DMA.
I think we can all agree—Texas summers are one of a kind. Growing up, my family frequently piled into a car and braved the murky water of Galveston beach to escape from the heat. Little did I know, someday I would spend my summers in a temperature-controlled paradise called the Dallas Museum of Art. If you are looking for a way to make it a cool summer break, head to the DMA for some free family fun!
Whether you are in the mood for a group activity or craving some quiet time, we have a program for you! Starting on June 11 and running through August 9, our Summer Family Fun programs give you the chance to enjoy a new experience every day. Participate in story time, interactive tours, or visit the Pop-Up Art Spot to engage with the Museum’s collection through fun activities.
Leading the way for the majority of our summer family programs is a group of art-loving teenagers called the DMA Teen Ambassadors. The Teen Ambassadors dedicate part of their summer to learning AND leading at the Museum. These enthusiastic teens learn the ins and outs of museum teaching and then spend the rest of the summer putting their skills to work through engaging story times, interactive tours and more. Keep an eye out for this enthusiastic and talented group of teens!
I know crowds aren’t for everyone—if you’re looking for some quiet time and want help exploring the galleries at your own pace, Family Gallery Guides are available anytime the Museum is open. These paper guides are designed to send you on your own adventure through the galleries! If you’re looking for another way to explore on your own, make your way to the Center for Creative Connections (C3), a space designed for visitors of all ages to wander and interact with art in new and innovative ways.
Denise Gonzalez is the Manager of Family and Early Learning Programs at the DMA.
The Inspired City, planned by the DMA’s literary series Arts & Letters Live, connects art, people, books, and ideas in creative ways, ignites curiosity, and offers unique experiences for all ages. On June 1, hear acclaimed authors talk about their latest books, meet them personally at book signings, and experience the DMA in new ways through interactive workshops and gallery walks led by authors, activities with artists, and more! All programs are FREE.
Challenge yourself to examine all the works in a particular space and decide which of the artworks you’d be willing to buy, which one you despise so much you’d like to burn it, and which one you love so much you’d steal it.
CONDUCT AN UNRELATED ACTIVITY
Maybe it’s worth playfully accepting the notion of a museum as mere background, an environment we inhabit incidentally, as we do other spaces. At the DMA, we suggest walking and meditating. Come up with your own suitable physical and mental health regimens.
DISCOVER THE BIG WITHIN THE SMALL
Look carefully and seek out the humanity and the humor and absurdity in things.
Always be very curious and always be looking around.
Find the joy in wondering about a toilet paper roll or a coffee cup lid.
MAKE IT ART
Grant yourself the superpower of making “art” wherever you go, and see how that changes what you perceive. Art is everywhere, if you say so.
CHANGE IS TO COULD BE
Try your hand at conditional thinking: prime yourself to think in conditionals instead of absolutes—see something not for what it is, but what it could be.
Look for an answer instead of the answer, and see how you can shift and broaden your vision.
Suppose the next time you’re tempted to capture a snapshot of an appealing or interesting scene, you draw it instead?
Many people believe that they “can’t draw,” meaning that they’re not terribly good at drawing, or find trying to draw either frustrating or embarrassing. Be heartened that you don’t need to show your drawing to anyone!
Get yourself a cheap little notebook and pull it out the next time you’re tempted to reach for your phone. Draw one thing—just one! Then do it again. Fill your notebook.
Haute couture heaven has arrived at the DMA, and it’s here for fashionistas to feast their eyes on throughout the summer. From the moment you enter Dior: From Paris to the World, there is no shortage of “wow” moments around every corner—luxurious vintage looks dating back to the 1940s, impeccably white toiles hanging high under a mirrored ceiling, a cathedral-like wall displaying dresses worn by iconic celebrities—all of which are made even more magnificent by the space in which they are presented.
If you’ve visited the Museum some months ago, you may remember the last presentation that was held in the Barrel Vault, An Enduring Legacy. From then to now, the space has completely transformed. See for yourself:
Installation photo of An Enduring Legacy: The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Collection of Impressionist and Modern Art
Installation photo of Dior: From Paris to the World, courtesy of James Florio
To gain some behind-the-scenes insights about the making of this exhibition, I asked Skye Malish-Olson, Exhibition Designer, and Jaclyn Le, Senior Graphic Designer, some questions about what it was like working on this show.
How does Dior compare to other DMA exhibitions you’ve worked on? Skye: This was different from other exhibitions, where the whole team is DMA staff. In my role as designer, typically I work directly with representatives of each DMA department and with the curator to understand their vision in order to translate it to a physical exhibition presentation. In this case, designers from OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture) created the experience of the space in collaboration with Dior. OMA also designed the exhibition for the Denver Art Museum (DAM), the show’s previous venue, but they designed a very different experience for each institution because the architecture of the two museums is so different. One thing that was important was that visitors would move from one gallery to the next in a prescribed path, not the open-ended grid of galleries that our Barrel Vault and Quads typically provide. To create this pathway, while using the full height of the existing architecture, OMA totally changed the space with a full architectural intervention, re-imagining the physical possibilities of this gallery.
Jaclyn: I had to make sure that all environmental graphics and wayfinding were consistent throughout all locations of the exhibition. Dior is also different from other exhibitions I’ve worked on because I typically create the exhibition identity and environmental graphics for our exhibitions in collaboration with the curator and our internal team. In this case, I worked with Dior’s identity, OMA’s concept direction, and design assets from DAM, and many more stakeholders were involved in the approval of all the exhibition and interpretive graphics.
Were there any aspects of this exhibition that you worked on most? Skye: I worked between OMA’s concept, our internal team, and external fabricators and contractors to help make this conceptual vision a physical reality. With our DMA team leading the planning process, it was a big challenge to pull this off with so many stakeholders in multiple locations. It was a truly ambitious design that required a lot of troubleshooting and multiple rounds of specifying materials.
Jaclyn: Following OMA’s concepts and some of the exhibition graphics from DAM, and working with our internal team, I was involved in all of the components of the exhibition environmental graphics and interpretation graphics. Everything from handling the Concourse mural of Christian Dior’s sketches, manipulating the façade design of Dior’s Atelier Design House to fit the arched entrance to our exhibition, and designing the headers for each gallery, the exhibition map, wayfinding, and labels and identification numbers. It took a lot of coordination between the various teams and vendors, and taking mock-ups of all the designs into the galleries to get a feel for how all the graphics would play in the space.
What was the biggest challenge in the exhibition graphic design or in transforming this space? Skye: With all of the complex and impressive design elements, the biggest challenge actually turned out to be the lighting. Each piece needs to be properly lit from multiple angles, something that needed to be built in to the infrastructure, especially in places with high ceilings or in recessed areas.
Jaclyn: The biggest challenge was probably the Concourse mural of Christian Dior’s historic sketches. It was challenging because I was working with scans of his beautiful drawings, and I wanted to keep their organic quality when reproducing them as larger-than-life graphics. Our Concourse walls are long and angled, and I had to make sure that the layout of dresses fit nicely down the length of the Concourse.
Which is your favorite room or section of the show? Jaclyn: I really love the Creative Director galleries. Each creative director had such a distinct vision and I enjoy seeing their inspirations, mood boards, sketches, and completed works all together and showcased in such a beautiful way.
Skye: My favorite space is the Office of Dreams. I love the simple, clean construction of the space, which mirrors the clean construction of the toiles. Seeing the handwork that designed these incredible garments in three dimensions creates such a direct connection to the artful process of their creation.
Images courtesy of James Florio
Any other hidden gems or interesting tidbits about this space? Skye: The top 40 feet of mirror at the back of the Barrel Vault is actually a stretched mirror fabric that is incredibly lightweight.
Describe this space in three words. Jaclyn: Innovative, magnificent, magical. Skye: Transformed, complex, impressive.
Visitors can be dazzled by Dior: From Paris to the World at the DMA now through September 1. Timed tickets are required for all visitors and must be purchased or reserved in advance. Check out our FAQ page for more information, and we hope you enjoy the show!
Hayley Caldwell is the Copy and Content Marketing Writer at the DMA.
For 40 years, Go van Gogh® programs have traveled to kindergarten through 6th grade classrooms throughout Dallas, bringing the DMA to students through art-making activities and interactive presentations of works from the Museum’s collection. Building on the program’s mission of expanding our outreach, and as a follow up to our recent Go van Gogh post, we are excited to preview our newest Go van Gogh offering—a program designed for bilingual classrooms!
Estampas de la Memoria is a one-hour outreach experience for Spanish-speaking elementary students. The program, which I developed with C3 Visiting Artist Karla Garcia, is facilitated in Spanish and is designed to activate students’ voices and experiences.
Students gathered during a small group discussion.
Students begin their journey with image theater activities that involve them as co-creators of content. These activities are designed to increase students’ comfort level in interpreting body language and facial expressions and preface a discussion of three retablos—artworks that serve as offerings of gratitude—from the Museum’s Latin American art collection. During the discussion, students also participate in a collaborative story-writing activity that allows them to develop their own interpretations in their language(s) of choice.
Students participating in a collaborative story-writing activity.
The final portion of the program consists of a printmaking activity designed to foster connections to students’ daily lives. The blocks student use to make their prints were created by Karla Garcia, whose own work explores concepts of memory and home as someone raised along the US-Mexico border.
Students participating in a printmaking activity designed by Karla Garcia.
Estampas de la Memoria was piloted with kindergarten through 5th grade classrooms this spring and will be offered as part of our suite of Go van Gogh programs during the 2019–2020 school year. Visit our website in August for booking information!
Si le interesa enseñar nuestro programa bilingüe, ¡considere ser un voluntario para Go van Gogh! Bernardo Velez Rico is the Teaching Specialist for School Programs at the DMA.
During the first ten years of the House of Dior’s existence, Dallas played a pivotal role in the label’s expansion across the Atlantic. Dallas was the first city that Christian Dior visited in the US, when he traveled in 1947 to receive the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion (called the “Oscars of the fashion industry”). Not only was Dior impressed by the city and by Neiman Marcus itself, which became from that point forward a major retailer of Dior, but he also became close friends with Stanley Marcus, the store’s then-owner. Their relationship is recorded in photographs taken by Marcus as well as in telegrams and letters now kept in the Stanley Marcus Papers at SMU. Collectively, they demonstrate the importance of Dallas to this iconic label and its founder.
Christian Dior accepting the Neiman Marcus Award from Stanley Marcus, 1947, gelatin silver print, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
Dior’s 1947 visit to Dallas, when he was recognized with the Neiman Marcus Award as “master of the moment in the ranks of French couture,” introduced him to the world of American fashion. Honored alongside Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo, British fashion designer Norman Hartnell, Hollywood costume designer Irene, and actress Dolores del Rio, Dior presented his revolutionary “New Look” to the American South with three outfits specially commissioned for the exposition. The trip inspired him to think of adapting his work to the less formal dressing style of American consumers. A year after his Dallas trip, Dior created his Christian Dior-New York label of ready-to-wear outfits for the American lifestyle. Sold primarily through the house’s boutique in New York, the label was also sold in select stores throughout the US, including at Neiman Marcus. Dior likely exhibited works from this new label when he returned a second time to Dallas in 1950 to show outfits and examples from his new line of men’s ties. Dallas was the site of a major exhibition of Dior’s fashion again in 1954 when it was the only US stop in a Pan-American tour of the recent Paris line.
Christian Dior handing a flower to Billie Marcus, La Colle Noire, photo by Stanley Marcus, 1954, gelatin silver print, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
During this time, Stanley Marcus and Dior continued to develop their friendship. Numerous photos in the collection show that Marcus visited Dior in France at both his Paris apartment and his country home in Grasse. Letters and telegrams back and forth show the two discussing business as well as personal events in their lives. The relationship between Dior and Stanley Marcus resulted in a large representation of Dior’s products at Neiman Marcus’s 1957 French Fortnight, a two-week-long event that honored the store’s fiftieth anniversary. The accompanying booklet highlighted the range of goods from France’s most well known brands available for purchase, as well as local events celebrating French culture. Dior was represented in a stall that reproduced the original boutique on the Avenue Montaigne, and the company launched its perfume Diorissimo there. Dior was unfortunately unable to attend, and, in fact, he would die before the Fortnight ended. Nevertheless, Dior’s close relationship with Dallas was highlighted by the fact that a poster advertising the Fortnight hung for a time in Dior’s Paris boutique. The next year, Yves Saint Laurent’s first US visit was also to Dallas to receive the Neiman Marcus Award, citing the trip his predecessor took 11 years before. Dallas was a clear focal point of activity for Christian Dior and a city of enormous symbolic importance, and it is therefore appropriate that the man and his label are currently being celebrated at the DMA.
Stanley Marcus and Yves Saint Laurent, photo by Georgette de Bruchard, 1958, gelatin silver print, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
My thanks to Hillary Bober, archivist at the DMA, Natalie “Schatzie” Lee, research volunteer, and the librarians at SMU for their assistance in this research.
Nicholas de Godoy Lopes is the McDermott Intern for Decorative Arts and Design at the DMA.
 Marihelen McDuff, Neiman-Marcus Award press release (Dallas: Neiman-Marcus, 1947), 1.  Tenth Annual Fashion Exposition Show invitation (Dallas, Texas: Neiman-Marcus, 1947), 2.  McDuff, Neiman-Marcus Award press release, 3.  Alexandra Palmer, “Global Expansions and Licenses,” in Dior: A New Look, A New Enterprise, 1947-1957 (London: V&A Publishing, 2009), 78.  Ibid.  Katherine Dillard, “Christian Dior Says Fashion Will Stress Feminine Curves,” The Dallas Morning News, October 17, 1950.  Palmer, “Global Expansions and Licenses,” 107; “Dior’s Paris Collection to Make Only U.S. Appearance in Dallas,” The Dallas Morning News, November 7, 1954.  Anne Wright to Stanley Marcus, May 1, 1957; Neiman-Marcus, Neiman-Marcus Brings France to Texas: Everything from A to Z (Dallas: Neiman-Marcus, 1957), unpaginated.  Stanley Marcus to Christian Dior, October 2, 1957.  “For N-M Award: Shy Young Designing Genius Plans First Trip to America,” The Dallas Morning News, August 2, 1958.
As a kid, I went to two different versions of summer camp—Girl Scout camp and music camp. One was hot and dusty, the other seemed to have been a tricky way to get me to practice my viola more! But either way, summer camp brings fond memories of making new friends, learning new things, and never being bored.
Now that I’m all grown-up, I DREAM of having a week off to go
to summer camp. The next best thing? Living vicariously through the DMA’s
summer camps! You too can experience the fun of DMA-style camping (or glamping)
through your kids. Need something to keep your children from being bored? We
have camps for:
Basically, we have camps for every kid! Each day campers get to spend time in the galleries looking at art from all around the world. Then they take their ideas and creativity (and plenty of glue and paint) and create their own masterpieces in the studio. This year campers will strut their style through the Dior exhibition, build miniature play houses, create art that’s good enough to eat, and so much more. If you’re still looking for something fun to do this summer, come spend some time at the DMA! Register for camps here.
Leah Hanson is the Director of Family, Youth, and School Programs at the DMA.
If you love working with children, have a passion for art, and want to support Dallas students, we want you to join our team as a DMA School Programs volunteer! DMA docents lead tours in the Museum galleries, facilitating meaningful experiences for visitors of all ages. Go van Gogh® school outreach volunteers lead experiences in Dallas elementary classrooms that encourage students to look closely at works of art and express creativity through art-making activities. Applications to become a DMA docent or Go van Gogh volunteer for the 2019–2020 school year are now open. Click here to learn more and apply!
Curious about what it’s really like to serve as a DMA School Programs volunteer? A couple of our experienced volunteers have shared some of their reflections on the impact and rewards of their volunteer work.
Marilyn Willems, DMA Docent
Describe a typical day as a DMA docent. What does leading a program look like? A typical day starts with a tinge of nervousness only to help build excitement and anticipation for the visitors that are coming. Camaraderie with fellow docents and sharing experiences set the day in motion. I enjoy thinking about and planning how I want to engage the visitors in hopes their “takeaway” encourages them to better understand and appreciate the art and discover how much fun they can experience at the Museum. That is what makes the time spent in training worth every minute.
Why do you like volunteering for the DMA? How has your volunteer service enriched your experience? I feel I am being rewarded by sharing the art with visitors when my enthusiasm increases their enthusiasm for the art.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time as a DMA docent? I am amazed by the insightful thoughts expressed by our young visitors. Those are my most rewarding experiences. Being a docent has become a very important part of my life.
What would you tell someone who’s interested in serving as a docent volunteer? If you have a passion for lifelong learning, get joy from being with a group who share this passion, and enjoy sharing it with others, you will be rewarded and feel you are making a valuable contribution.
Terei Khoury, Go van Gogh (GvG) Volunteer
Why do you like volunteering for the DMA? How has your volunteer service enriched your experience? Not only are the GvG training programs and access to the staff instructive and enriching, but the programs make a visible impact in each classroom and venue we visit. You can see and sense the enthusiasm as we introduce each program, and the hands-on experience is always a special plus as the students express themselves. I’m SO proud to say that over my four years in the program, I’ve touched the lives of at least 2,500 children and had the opportunity to tie STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) together for them all!
Do you have a favorite memory from your time as a GvG volunteer?There’s just no question that our impact with the Color My World program is TREMENDOUS! When we work with special needs children, see the expressions on their faces, hold their hands as they play with clay, paint, and tools, and see their eyes light up with delight and pride as they experience their own artwork—there is no better feeling on earth knowing you’re making such a difference in the world!
What would you tell someone who’s interested in serving as a GvG volunteer? GvG provides an outlet for one of the most meaningful interactions a volunteer in the arts can have. You touch so many minds and hearts with the generosity of BEING THERE. You aid the teachers and administrators by BEING THERE. You create enthusiasm and energy by BEING THERE. You make a difference by BEING THERE.
If you’ve ever attended one of our free summer programs for families, you’ve probably met a Teen Ambassador. The Teen Ambassador Program has been around in some shape or form since 2001, providing fun and interactive experiences to thousands of visitors each summer.
Teen Ambassadors volunteer at the Museum for a short period of time, but they’re at the Museum a lot between June and August. Our 2018 class volunteered over 560 hours in 2018! In just two and a half months, participating teens get comfortable with their voice, learn how to be a good team member, and become experts in the DMA galleries. They truly embody what it means to be a leader—but what does leadership mean to a Teen Ambassador?
For participating teens, leadership is more than just having confidence. “A leader is not about someone in charge that you have to listen to,” one Teen Ambassador said. “It is about someone who takes initiative. If they find a problem they work with it. [They are] not afraid to make mistakes [and] learn from them.” Another Teen Ambassador described a leader as someone “who can take control of the situation and lead others onto a good path. A leader is always kind and has good integrity.”
Many Teen Ambassadors feel that a real leader is someone who listens to and respects others. While a Teen Ambassador can confidently stand up and give a tour to a large group without breaking a sweat, most find themselves learning how to communicate with others and be themselves. “I’ve learned how to make others feel welcome,” one Teen Ambassador reported at the end of last summer. “I was able to break out of my shell to connect with more people.”
Inspired by these teens’ experiences? Applications for the 2019 Teen Ambassador Program are now open! If you’re a teen who is at least 14 years old and interested in getting involved at the Museum, find out more by clicking here. Applications are due on Sunday, April 28. Jessica Thompson-Castillo is the Manager of Teen Programs at the DMA.
America Will Be!: Surveying the Contemporary Landscape, the DMA’s new free exhibition on view April 6 through October 6, 2019, ends with “The Home.” One of six thematic galleries, “The Home” is the last in the exhibition and features one object in particular whose form is at once familiar and comforting—a worn and humble quilt, Amelia Bennett’s Bars and Strips. The quilt is included in the exhibition after a recent acquisition of seven artworks from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which collects and advocates for the work of self-taught African American artists from the Deep South. Amelia Bennett is one of over 100 women collectively referred to as the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers. These women are part of a rich tradition of quilt making in their shared community in Alabama, dating as far back as the mid-19th century. The story of how these quilts, made for intimate spaces of the home, have ended up on the walls of major museums asks viewers to consider the roles race and class play in the formation of art history.
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation advocates for works such as Bennett’s quilt to be considered on par with modernist paintings in the art historical canon. Incorporating what is considered craft or folk art into the larger framework of high art begins to historically correct for the absence of women, and more specifically, women of color, in the mainstream narrative of US art production; however, major efforts to introduce the quilts of Gee’s Bend to the larger art world have inadvertently reinforced harmful understandings about why we should value the art production of black women living in remote parts of the country.
In attempts to make them legible to art audiences, the quilts were introduced as reflecting the aesthetics of modernist art movements such as Abstract Expressionism. Valuing these quilts only as approximations of abstract painting diminishes the inherent creativity and worth of the quilts themselves when, in fact, the Gee’s Bend quilts are not derivative but a historical part of Abstract Expressionism’s development. Founders of Abstract Expressionism originally drew from sources such as folk and classical art to legitimize their art movement as one that spoke to a universal humanity. Barnett Newman, Robert Murray, and Roy Lichtenstein looked to quilts to develop a sense of home-grown American art aesthetics and identity unique to the nation. Discussing the quilts as attempts at modernist painting erases this history and does not validate their status as art objects produced by women of color without connecting them to a formal, masculine, and traditionally accepted art movement.
The second popular reading of the quilts was developed by Souls Grown Deep founder Will Arnett, who believed that the quilts and other assemblage works by Souls Grown Deep artists actually embodied a complex and private system of communication among black community members in the South. Other related readings connected the colors and patterns in Gee’s Bend quilts to those used in textiles in West Africa. Maude Southwell Wahlman, an African and African American art historian, believed these techniques were passed down from generation to generation, so that contemporary quilters were embedding codes into their works that even they no longer knew the significance of; however, textile historian Amelia Peck quickly sets straight that these readings, “about most African Americans being unaware of the symbols and signs in their quilts makes the concept both paternalistic and suspect.”
The quilts of Gee’s Bend are compelling on their own, unrelated to what these interpretations impose on them. Bennett’s Bars and Strips was made to captivate the viewer with its block patchwork composition and gradations of blues and grays. It wears its history, its over 90 years of age. The small tears, discolorations, patches, wrinkles, and uneven wear speak to the former lives of the fabric pieces, when they covered legs, soaked up sweat, and faded in the sun. The quilt moves beyond holding our aesthetic attention. Bennett’s work visually embodies the hard labor of her family and community members, and the poverty in their community that necessitated recycling every small bit of cloth. Its colors and patterns speak not to Mark Rothko’s color fields or to lost secret codes, but to the rich history of a multi-generational art practice and the ability to glean creativity and beauty out of hardship. While America Will Be! ends with “The Home,” contemporary understandings of US art history should begin in the domestic and creative sites of women and people of color so long overlooked.
Amelia Bennett, Bars and Strips, 1929, cotton, denim, and muslin, Dallas Museum of Art, Discretionary Decorative Arts Fund and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Foundation, 2019.3.6
Read more about the Gee’s Bend Quilts as contemporary art objects: Peck, Amelia. “Quilt/Art: Deconstructing the Gee’s Bend Quilt Phenomenon.” In My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South, edited by Kamilah Foreman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018: 53-91.
Kimberly Yu is the McDermott Intern for Contemporary Art at the DMA.