Painting without brushes

By Rufus Foshee | Dec 19, 2009
Courtesy of: Portland Museum William Manning (United States, born 1936), "Monhegan," 1991, ink, gouache, and collage on paper.

Since by many steps, American quilts, especially the appliqued ones and the later crazy quilt ones, constitute the largest contribution to the concept of collage, it seems unfortunate that those at the Portland Museum responsible for "Collage: Piecing It Together" were not sensitive to that and did not include this important medium in the exhibition.

In 1971, Jonathan Holstein and Gail Van Der Hoof persuaded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that American quilting had an important history and they inspired the museum to mount "Abstract Design in American Quilts." Thirty years later, Shelly Zezart reconstructed the exhibition in Louisville, Ky., where I was fortunate to see it. Perhaps those at the Portland Museum responsible for "Collage" missed that stitch. About the same time, an Englishman living in Camden curated a quilt exhibition for Colby College.

In addition to influencing modern art, many examples of the American quilt are readily accepted as folk art, its examples included wherever there is a representation of American folk art. One of the most sophisticated examples of the crazy quilt is in the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland and was made by Josephine, Lucy Farnsworth's sister. Its fabrics indicate that this was not made from just any scraps but from carefully selected fabric that could have only been found in an upscale home.

All through the 20th century collage had a  presence, strongly evidenced in the works  of the American Conrad Marci-Relli and the Italian Alberto Burri. While Marci-Relli worked with conventional methods, Burri worked in fabrics and in metal, where glue was of no use.

What one may find in researching the crazy quilt is very fancy examples, far removed from the very ordinary ones, often made mostly from men's woolen trousers to keep warm when the only heat was a fireplace. They are usually dreary in color, void of the fancy embroidering around the edges of pieces of fabric making up the design, as is the case with sophisticated examples.

Just how influential crazy quilts may have been was seen most clearly in some of Marci-Relli's large canvases around 1960-61, when he used white dotted lines to emphasize the edges of his forms, just as quilters used embroidery at the fabric edges in quilts. They were not like anything he had done before nor like anything he did afterward.

It seems time to expand the meaning of collage. Why limit the meaning to glue, rather than expanding it to whatever holds the forms together? One may easily make a collage without sticking anything together by using two pieces of glass, therefore having a double collage.

Unfortunately, definitions are often thought of as if they were the Ten Commandments struck in stone.

In reality, definitions need to be flexible, not limited, and certainly not the word "collage," which has endless possibilities with both adults and children. If you want to have real fun, tear up sheets of colored paper and try to show children how they should be arranged to make a collage. You will get a quick art lesson.

There is no other media in which an artist has such flexibility. In addition, the influence that collage has had on painting is vast.

Many artists paint as if they were doing collage, perhaps influenced by Hans Hoffman, more than any other of the 20th century.

One of the artists most influenced by collage technique is the American Jim Dine. The first three works I saw of his about 1960 were three collages made from corrugated board, some of which had been stripped to the ribs and over-washed with white. Almost everything that followed was collage-like, including all his headless bodies in coats and robes, many of which are very accomplished works.

The collage is here to stay.


Rufus Foshee writes from his home in Camden.

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