Installation view of 'Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective' at BAMPFA. (Impart Photography)
The most difficult thing about visiting the Rosie Lee Tompkins retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is maintaining self-restraint. After a year of pixels, disinfected surfaces and keeping loved ones at a distance, the scintillating tactility of Tompkins’ work—70 dazzling pieces of textile art and assemblages—just begs to be embraced.
At least, that’s how my addled, art-deprived brain responded when I visited just before the museum reopened to the public. Walking through the quiet galleries was like visiting a hushed cathedral; Tompkins’ colorful quilts easily summoned the reverent feel of stained glass windows. This is hyperbole, but also not. I dare you to leave Rosie Lee Tompkins without photographing nearly every piece on display in some desperate attempt to bask in their glow for several moments longer.
The retrospective marks the first in a series of shows that will draw from approximately 3,000 African American textile works bequeathed to BAMPFA by the estate of Oakland collector Eli Leon—items he accumulated over three decades until his home was filled to bursting. Organized by former BAMPFA director Lawrence Rinder and associate curator Elaine Yau, who now oversees the Leon bequest, Rosie Lee Tompkins is a triumphant coming-out for the collection, which contains over 500 pieces by Tompkins alone, alongside the work of some 400 other artists.
As I look back through the several dozen pictures I took at BAMPFA (knowing full well I would have access to the museum’s own high-quality documentation—you try fighting the impulse to keep her work close), Tompkins’ quilts are stunning. And yet no photograph can quite capture the dimensions and textures of her art. Their scale is elastic. The largest looks like it would cover a bed made for 20; the smallest (at approximately 30 by 12 inches) would barely cover a leg.
And the stuff they’re made of! In one particularly vertical piece dotted with soft pink triangles, Tompkins’ material list includes velvet, velveteen, knit velour, crushed velvet, printed velveteen and faux fur. Soft undulations, puckers and imperfect meeting points between blocks that refuse to lay flat are only emphasized by these luxurious fabrics, which intermittently catch the light as you walk by them. In her catalog essay, Yau likens a verdant green-and-black checkerboard quilt from 1986 to “the diffuse flicker of lights in the disco clubs of Saturday Night Fever.” (Apparently, Tompkins enjoyed listening to the movie’s soundtrack, and opera, while sewing.)
The quilts featuring the metallic fabrics that Tompkins dubbed “Christmas” material draw you close, even as your senses register just how uncomfortable it would be to wrap oneself in these scratchy, shimmery surfaces. One from 1986, with yellow yarn ties punctuating a fragmented pinwheel pattern, balances light blue against gold, pillowy softness against the sheen of metal. It easily conjures the sparkly feeling of an angel-topped Christmas tree draped with tinsel and gently twinkling lights.
When looking at art—and writing about art—there’s an impulse to know as much as possible about the person responsible for the work. What were they like, why did they make this, what influenced them and how did they talk about it? Rosie Lee Tompkins was the pseudonym of Richmond resident Effie Mae Howard, who died at age 70 in 2006 and likely never wanted to answer such questions. The pseudonym was Leon’s idea, accepted by Howard to accommodate her intense desire for privacy while Leon championed her work in publication after publication, exhibition after exhibition. In Yau’s excellent essay, which respectfully details as much as can be known about Howard’s life and practice, sentences are frequently couched in phrases like “seems to” and “possibly” and “perhaps.”
Her art “drapes and stretches across any artistic hierarchy to which one might seek to hang [it] on,” Yau writes. Leon worked to create a context around Tompkins’ practice by linking African American quilting—particularly its more abstract compositions—to African textiles. But as Yau points out, not all of Tompkins’ quilts are abstract. Even pieces devoid of pictorial elements may be layered with embroidered text (Bible verses, “Effie,” the word “love”), or made up of colors Tompkins called “Three Sixes” (yellow, coral and purple), which represented three family members with sixes in their birthdates. Even a 2003 quilt made up of blocks of ties connotes a sense of personhood: a person, or people, once wore these around their necks.
And some of the most powerful—and enigmatic—pieces in the show incorporate imagery that carries with it the connotations of its original everyday or commemorative use: the American flag; calendars printed on fabric; a Kellogg’s bag; tourist souvenirs; a blanket bearing the portraits of JFK, MLK and RFK. One untitled piece from 1996 covered in embroidered Bible verses incorporates T-shirts featuring the faces of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, O.J. Simpson and Nelson Mandela.
It is impossible to be definitive about certain aspects of Tompkins’ life and art, which poses interesting and potentially difficult questions for how this work is contextualized, historicized and exhibited moving forward. Here again, the quilts are elastic—they encompass an entire continuum between the designations of “lowly craft” and “high art.” They have moved from their maker’s home to flea markets to Leon’s collection to climate-controlled vertical museum display.
The effect her quilts have on people is easier to parse. In her exuberant color choices: joy. In the freedom of her designs, which nod to traditional quilt patterns, but remake them entirely: courage. And throughout, a sense of how Tompkins’ quilting was inextricable from her spirituality.
In the exhibition’s final gallery, Tompkins’ beliefs are stitched across nearly every quilt surface in crosses and Bible verses. After galleries of jewel-toned velvet and the sunny colors of “Three Sixes,” one of the final pieces in Rosie Lee Tompkins is a 96-inch tall black bedsheet with six rows of yo-yos (essentially, cinched fabric rosettes). Made in 2005, just a year before her death, it reads to me like a somber yet magnificent funeral shroud. Of course, I photographed that as well.
‘Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective’ is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through July 18. Details here.
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