Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective
On ViewUniversity of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive
Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective
February 19 – December 20, 2020
There are two very different ways to make a work of art. The artist may create something or the creator may appropriate already-made elements. When an artist makes something, we ask what subject, if any, they chose and why. And when an artist appropriates, we ask why they employed these particular already-existing materials. Thus, when considering why Pablo Picasso recycled a bicycle seat and handlebars to create Bull’s Head (1942), it’s natural to ask why he chose to weld together those two objects. And when Joseph Cornell assembled found objects in his boxes, we consider both the significance of the individual elements and the ways that they are composed. Such artifacts may carry their original significance into this new work and can also acquire new meanings in conjunction with the other elements present, as happens with images in some of Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages. Rosie Lee Tompkins was an assemblage artist. Born in Arkansas as Effie Mae Martin Howard (1936–2006), she was an African American woman who moved to Richmond, California when she was 22 and took a pseudonym to separate her art world quilts from her everyday life.
Almost inevitably, we initially describe and understand what is marvelous but unfamiliar in terms of what we know. And so the quilts of Tompkins have been compared with the paintings of Josef Albers, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian; and her improvisations related to those of jazz musicians. (She also enjoyed opera and disco.) It’s true that some of her quilts look like abstractions and making them did involve improvisation—and since abstract painting involves a self-conscious rejection of figuration—at most these visual parallels show that modernism prepared the way for the appreciation of her art. What Joseph Masheck dubbed ‘the carpet paradigm,’ identification of the artwork as “fundamentally a plane surface whose literal, concrete flatness properly demands an integral planarity of whatever forms are inscribed or…‘figured’ upon it,” certainly is a description of her quilts.
Using the PDF catalogue documentation of her large oeuvre, let’s describe some of Tompkins’s artworks—with the exception of the three-dimensional pieces which are too elusive when viewed online. Her quilts generally are not symmetrical. The designs and the colors are extremely varied. Her own name, and those of siblings, sons, and grandchildren appear in several wall hangings. She plays with the number “6.” Now and then, she incorporates images: one fabric shows Jesus and others depict Black Civil Rights heroes, including Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad, and are printed with the colors of the Pan-African flag. She also includes flowers. Sometimes Tompkins creates all-over designs, but often she composes using a patchwork of smaller elements. In one quilt, she frames the central composition. Some were sewn by hand, others by machine. There are what are called “yo-yo quilts,” small circular pieces of fabric with the edges threaded and pulled together to form rosettes that when joined form a decorative spread. Generally, she doesn’t give her works titles and so far as I can see, the dates given in the catalogue don’t reveal any obvious development. Not that she needed to develop: judging by the works presented in the catalogue, Tomkins was always great.
Tompkins was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and some of her quilts have multiple crosses, but there are no stars of David or Islamic crescent moons. Old master sacred painting shows its religious subjects. In using thrift shop materials, decorative fragments, and industrially manufactured fabrics to create visual luxury, Tompkins’s art rather exemplifies a Christian worldview. As the Gospel tells: The “first will be the last and the last, first” (Matthew 19:30). No wonder she often spoke of herself as God’s instrument.
In his much-cited essay, Leo Steinberg argued that Postmodern artwork employs the picture surface as a flatbed, as if it were the surface of a printing press. To usefully parody that account, these quilts ideally should be spread on a flat bed. Here, of course, they are hung on walls, like the flatbed paintings of Rauschenberg. If, however, you could treat these artworks as utilitarian artifacts, I would love to crawl underneath one and curl up for a nap. What magical dreams it would inspire.
At a local flea market where Tompkins went to collect fabrics, she met Eli Leon (1935–2018), a white man who became her devoted champion and collector. For several decades, he played an important role in her artistic life. Leon would purchase Howard’s tops and pay other local quilters to adjust hems, finish borders, and ultimately quilt them. He also organized the presentation of her work in numerous museums and galleries and later bequeathed his large collection of Tompkins’s quilts to the Berkeley Museum. This memorial exhibition presents part of his collection of her work.
This high-profile presentation is one stage in the development over the past century that brought Islamic carpets, African masks, sculpture from Oceania, and a host of artifacts from cultures outside Western art into the art museum. And although Tompkins’s quilts have been prominently shown in the art world for almost two decades there is resistance, still, to presenting craft work in museums. Yet in our immediate present history, this show is a prominent, welcome recognition of the importance of African American visual culture.
In 1976, my interest in the aesthetics of decoration was sparked by a very long essay by Joseph Masheck published in Arts Magazine, more recently republished in expanded form as a short book: The Carpet Paradigm: Integral Flatness from Decorative to Fine Art (New York: Edgewise, 2010); quotation 19.