Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective

Too many art lovers have yet to fully appreciate the towering achievements of this country’s African-American visual artists, said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Still, there can be no debate that quilter Rosie Lee Tompkins belongs in the pantheon. “An artist of singular greatness,” the Arkansas native (1936–2006) learned quilting from her mother, extending a tradition rooted in African textile making. Tompkins proved a virtuoso. “The sheer joy of her best quilts cannot be overstated. They come at us with the force and sophistication of so-called high art, but are more democratic.” And I can’t be the only critic who saw them, upon first encounter, as “a new standard against which to measure contemporary art.” The Berkeley Art Museum, which acquired most of her work last year, mounted an exhibition of 62 Tompkins quilts before Covid-19 struck. Even in its online-only current version, the show provides a window into one of the major artistic achievements of the 20th century.

The quilts’ journey to the museum is “a fascinating story in itself,” said Emily Mendel in Tompkins, whose real name was Effie Mae Howard, worked for decades as nurse in Richmond, Calif., and began quilting seriously only after suffering a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s. Inspired by her Christian faith, she incorporated Bible verse, religious iconography, and various unconventional materials and found images into improvised patterns that achieve “beautiful, often dramatic, cohesion.” In 1985, collector Eli Leon met her while she was selling her wares at a flea market; he eventually bought several hundred of her pieces and included them, along with thousands of other quilts by African-American artists, in a recent bequest to the Berkeley museum. Though Tompkins shunned attention, “there is nothing shy about the quilts,” said Lou Fancher in the Oakland Monthly. “The wavering lines and shimmering depth of velvet and velveteen in String (1985) capture a fundamental flow, a life energy.” In an untitled 2003 quilt, an array of “Stonehenge-like columns”—all made from neckties—“carries a jazzy musicality, as if improvising on a riff of solid and patterned masculinity.”

“What strikes one most are the beyondvivid, killer colors,” said Sura Wood in the Bay Area Reporter. In one work, from 1986, “midnight-blue velvets structured in an uneven square medallion pull the eye into untold depths.” In another, 68 yo-yo shapes made of terry cloth, corduroy, embroidery, and cotton bedding call to mind “the mouthwatering choices at an ice cream parlor.” These are quilts that “should be hung on the wall, marveled at, and spotlighted.” This important show does that.