No light penetrated the stuffy interior. Jenevive Nykolak . In another untitled quilt Tompkins employed a similarly improvisatory method to join together “blocks” of pure color with swatches of fabric featuring recognizable motifs and images. She reluctantly agreed. It seemed like a map of the melting pot of American culture and politics.While works like this one relate to Pop Art, others had the power of abstraction. She was such a private person—in fact, she kept her real name, Effie Mae Howard, a secret. Bits of embroidery, Mexican textiles, fabrics printed with flamenco dancers and racing cars, hot pink batik and, front and center, a slightly cheesy manufactured tapestry of Jesus Christ.
I had known him for years, and we shared a passion for the quilts, but it was his singular focus and not mine. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Art Museum, 1997. But it will get there, and maybe sooner than we thought. But, somehow, he convinced her.
Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective is on view through July 19 at BAMPFA, 2120 Oxford St. The velvet added an astonishing sensuousness and depth to the essentially flat surface. I’d organized a solo exhibition of Tompkins’s work at BAMPFA in 1997 and included several of her pieces in the 2002 Whitney Biennial exhibition, as well as in the opening exhibition at BAMPFA’s new building in downtown Berkeley. It was even smaller than Eli’s. For many years, it was widely rumored that she was a fiction invented by Eli. But she was also adept with denim, faux furs, distressed T-shirts and fabrics printed with the faces of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Magic Johnson.A typical Tompkins quilt had an original, irresistible aliveness.
The art world still has some work to do before it is able to accept that art by women who learned to quilt from their mothers and friends can be of just as much value as paintings made by Yale MFA grads. Eli told me that he had been a psychologist.The clutter I’d seen in Eli’s house was nothing compared to what he was about to show me. The first work I ever saw by Rosie Lee Tompkins was in an exhibition titled Eli invited me to come to his home to see more of her works. He knew he didn’t have enough time left to fulfill his dream. Section by section of the heavy pieced velvet fell until the whole breathtaking composition was visible.
Inside it was neat and light. I left in a state of shock — I knew I had been instantly converted but I didn’t yet know to what.In memory the show became a jubilant fugue of small squares of velvet in deep gemstone hues, dancing with not much apparent order yet impeccably arranged for full effect. Then, he got the news that he was suffering from a degenerative mental condition. Tompkins was an inventive colorist whose generous use of black added to the gravity of her efforts. “Doorbells don’t work,” said a little sign taped next to the door, so I knocked. There were stacks of books on the coffee table. My first thought was of Paul Klee, that kind of love-at-first-sight allure, seductive hand-madeness and unfiltered accessibility, only bigger and stronger.The planets had aligned: I’d happened on the first solo show anywhere of Tompkins’s work, I came to realize, was one of the century’s major artistic accomplishments, giving quilt-making a radical new articulation and emotional urgency. I felt I had been given a new standard against which to measure contemporary art.Rosie Lee Tompkins was a pseudonym, I would learn, adopted by a fiercely private, deeply religious woman, who as her work received more and more attention, was almost never photographed or interviewed. Lawrence Rinder was Director from 2008 to 2020, to be succeeded by Julie Rodrigues Widholm in August, 2020. Eli’s house was singularly nondescript. Her quilts covered the walls, tables, couches, and chairs. Rosie Lee Tompkins. Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from February 19 to July 19. One of her narrative works was 14 feet across, the size of small billboard. Organized by Lawrence Rinder, the museum’s chief curator, it helped boost her reputation beyond the quilt world centered in and around San Francisco.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember what we spoke about, and I didn’t record the meeting. She didn’t want to meet me after all.
Though it began with Effie Mae Martin, it came to include a small, nervous collector named Eli Leon, who met her in 1985, fell in love with her quilts and those of many other African-American creators in and around Richmond — and devoted half his life to acquiring and studying, exhibiting and writing about their work.Copyright © 2017 UC Regents; all rights reserved | In 1997 I walked into the Berkeley Art Museum to be greeted by a staggering sight: an array of some 20 quilts unlike any I had ever seen. This made them canon-busting, and implicitly subversive. And what difference should this make?