Mary Lee Bendolph’s designs are stunning works of contemporary design, lacking any taint of provincialism, with as much visual sophistication as you would find in any New York gallery.
Pierce Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph at the Mount Holyoke Museum of Art, South Hadley, MA through May 27.
By Peter Walsh
Over the early years of the 21st century, American quilt making made the final transition from its folk roots to fine art. Called “modern” or “art” quilt making, the medium was self-aware and also very aware of the broader art world — no longer a homespun craft but something that aimed to be taken seriously as fine art. The new quilts were made to be seen hung on a wall and, in reproduction, were largely indistinguishable from paintings on canvas. Brightly colored and geometric, often playing off traditional patters like Log Cabin and Wedding Ring, these works drew inspiration, in particular, from newly refashonable designs from the mid-20th-century—Op and Pop art, Minimalism, and color field in particular— making overt references to artists like Frank Stella, Josef and Anni Albers, Jasper Johns, even Andy Warhol. Books, associations, and museum exhibitions appeared. Quilts had at last arrived on the shores of the culturally relevant.
All that makes the achievement of quilter Mary Lee Bendolph seem even more remarkable. Bendolph was born, in the midst of the Great Depression in the poor, painfully isolated, oppressed backwater of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Gee’s Bend was a former cotton plantation and African-American settlement inhabited by the share-cropping descendants of slaves. The place was so obscure it lost its ferry service in 1962, lacked electricity, and sewers, and barely rated a place on the map. Gee’s Bend quilts grew out of making do with very little while refusing to give up expression and excellence in the face of poverty. When Gee’s Bend clothing became too tattered to patch, it was ripped apart for quilting patches. Even then, fabric was so rare and precious that, as a child, Bendolph scavenged bits of rag she found along the roadway to add to her supplies. In the settlement’s uninsulated cabins, heated in winter with a single fireplace, quilts were piled three or four on a bed for warmth — others covered the drafty windows. “When you are poor,” explains Rubin Bendolph, Jr., Mary Lee’s son, “you quickly learn to make do with what you have.”
But Bendolph, whose first solo exhibition is on view at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, did much more than make do. Despite her lack of formal art training and her lack of contact with 20th-century urban culture, Bendolph’s designs are stunning works of contemporary design, lacking any taint of provincialism, with as much visual sophistication as you would find in any New York gallery. Each piece is a complete and unique composition. Nothing is made from a pattern.
A brilliant colorist, Bendolph builds up a quilt from simple, slightly off true squares and rectangles, playing bright reds against faded blues and tans, challenging expectations of symmetry with randomness and unanticipated digressions. Her shape and color choices are remarkably original and self-assured. Her entirely abstract quilts are constantly playing with the eyes, suggesting movement, depth, and sudden openings into daylight.
But the complexities do not end with the quilts’ formal qualities. Because they are sewn from recycled clothing that had been worn for years, the finished pieces are both autobiography and family history. The patterns are not just pleasing — they are wordless records of generations of hard-lived lives.
“Ghost Pockets” (2003), the signature piece of the exhibition, is a fine example of how formalism meets poetic meaning in a Bendolph quilt. Stitched, in part, from scraps of her late husband’s faded work jeans, Bendolph has included the darker shapes left by the pockets as part of the composition. The surprising angles and subtle colors add another layer of richness to the piece and at the same time underscores the quilt’s role as memorial and portrait. (Mt. Holyoke acquired the piece in 2017.)
Major art museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York began exhibiting Bendolph’s work in 2002, along with other quilts from Gee’s Bend. The work of these quilters was praised for its “brilliant” and “improvisational” compositions, credited “with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters.” New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman hailed it as “’some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” Following the fame brought by these exhibitions, Bendolph’s quilts have been used in Hallmark cards and on U.S. Postage stamps.
The owners of Paulson Press were so impressed with Bendolph’s work that they invited her to Berkeley, CA, to collaborate with them on a series of prints. The Mt. Holyoke show includes a selection of these, along with works of five decades of Bendolph’s life, the first time the breadth of her career has been exhibited in one place.
Peter Walsh has worked as a staff member or consultant to such museums as the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Boston Athenaeum. As an art historian and media scholar, he has lectured in Boston, New York, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, London, and Milan, among other cities and has presented papers at MIT eight times. He has published in American and European newspapers, journals, and in anthologies. In recent years, he began a career as an actor and has since worked on more than eighty projects, including theater, national television, and such award-winning films as Spotlight, The Second Life, and Brute Sanity. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard University.