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Friday, September 4, 2020

Sanford Biggers and the American Academy in Rome: Destruction and Creation

Sanford Biggers' art is astounding in its variety and materiality. We were fortunate to see several of his quilt works, and to talk with him, at the American Academy in Rome's Open Studios  in 2018.

Biggers and his art were profiled recently in a full-page New York Times Sunday feature.  He has shows coming up in the Bronx, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Biggers' art has ranged from his use of vintage quilts to create new art to his BAM series that deals with the killing of blacks by police (which he says he can't work on or watch at this time - "There's a point where there's no longer any detachment from these things happening").

The quilts were his primary focus when he was a Rome Prize Fellow in Visual Arts at the Academy. We took photos of five that were on the walls of his studio there.

Fascinated as we were with his work, I was also troubled by his cutting apart, or covering over parts of, vintage quilts. It reminded me of Ai Weiwei breaking a Han Dynasty vase. Of course, in that case the vase was worth $1 million, and breaking it was Ai's point. (Here's the video if you want to re-live it.)

In response to my questions, Biggers seemed untroubled by what some may think of as destruction of these objects, objects that he and others value. As he said to the NYT reporter, commenting on the seminal "Quilts of Gee's Bend" show he saw at the Whitney Museum in 2002,  "There was color, modulation, rhythm, and all these compositional things. But seeing them in these beautiful textile works made by a woman's hands, it was touching on sculpture, touching on the body, touching on politics."  (I was surprised the NYT didn't ask this question.)

A portion of Maude Bennett's quilt made for
Dianne from material used to make Dianne dresses.
I may be somewhat protective of "the quilt," because my grandmother was a quilter. She made me quilts, many from scraps of fabric she had after making me dresses.  So, as a girl, I had the echoes of my dresses in the quilt on my bed. (See photo left.)  And, of course, she's no longer here (she died in 1984 at age 98), but her quilts are still with our family.

Biggers said he saw himself, in contrast to destroying, as perpetuating the life of some of these quilts, making them more long-lasting and visible than not. One of his quilt projects projects "codes" from the Underground Railroad onto the quilts. And he also sees his quilts projects as more an art of process than of object. He said he sits with the quilts for months or years, and then when he starts working on one, "it's led by what the material is going to give back."

A Rome influence in Biggers art appears in busts he is making in bronze and marble, with artisans in Italy, combining African sculptural traits with Greco-Roman ones.

Biggers and a guest in his studio at the Academy.

As the Open Studio times were drawing to a close, Biggers and his wife and then infant daughter were enjoying the outdoor music and sculpture "unveiling" in the Academy's front courtyard. 

In a corner of the studio - an artwork or
the tools of his trade? Hard to tell with
Biggers (but I still didn't touch it).

The Open Studios - which our friend Dana Prescott (now Executive Director of Civitella Ranieri international cultural center in Umbria) began when she was Associate Director at the Academy - have been an annual ritual and we hope one that will start again post-Covid. They are a benefit the Academy - which itself benefits from Rome  (one might even say the experience is "priceless") - can give back to Romans.


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