Kaleidoscopic Quilts: Paula Nadelstern

Kaleidoscopic Quilts: Paula Nadelstern

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Kaleidoscopic XXXI: The Other Side of the Circle, 2006, machine-pieced, hand-quilted cotton and obi silk, 72 by 63 inches.Photo/Lluke Mulks and Diane Pederson, courtesy C & T Publishing.

Kaleidoscopic Quilts: The Art of Paula Nadelstern
American Folk Art Museum
New York, New York
April 21-September 13, 2009


Remember your own childlike wonder when you held a kaleidoscope in your hands and quietly marveled at the shifting, dissolving color patterns created by a gentle turn? The quilt artist Paula Nadelstern takes a viewer back to that wonder, the pure visual pleasure first seen in a small tube.

In this exhibition the American Folk Art Museum has, for the first time, offered a one-person show to a contemporary quilt maker, pairing her work with a traditional 19th-century mosaic-patterned American folk Sunburst Quilt, and with scientific tools: old and new kaleidoscopes. These include the original kaleidoscope, made by the Scottish inventor Sir David Brewster in 1816. With its optical, reflective mirrors capable of creating a burst of images, the device came to inspire designs for carpets, wallpapers and other useful and “ornamental” arts.

Quilt historians refer to the 1971 landmark exhibition, “Abstract Design in American Quilts” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as the moment that sparked an international quilt revival. It did this by comparing the graphic and painterly qualities of quilts with those found in modern abstract art, thus freeing quilts from the confines of women’s domestic arts.

The folk art museum is making its own new connections by exhibiting a contemporary artist. Nadelstern gives credit to the kaleidoscope for her way of seeing shard-like designs, inspiring her quilt aesthetic. She understands fabric—the lay of the cloth, reflective qualities of silk juxtaposed with cotton, differences in textural weave structures. Nadelstern uses no true solid colors. Even when cloth reads from a distance as “solid,” upon close inspection, it is discovered to be mottled. Everything is patterned—and active. She is a master at having one pattern piece or color seamlessly merge into the one next to it; designs flow across seam joins, making them almost invisible. In Kaleidoscope XXXI: The Other Side of the Circle, 2006, as in her other quilts, the arrangements are strictly mathematical, bilaterally symmetrical, and jewel-like. Nothing is improvised in her layering of minute, geometric shapes—patterned angles—cut from whole cloth. With remarkable technical expertise, Nadelstern has deconstructed and reassembled cloth. Out of tiny fractal pieces that appear shattered and jumbled she has created a world of order. In her work there is the sensation that time has stopped, that the artist has captured a frozen moment, though one knows another turn of the hand would create an entirely different pattern. Childlike wonder remains.

Pat Hickman, a fiber artist, is president of the Textile Society of America. Gail Hovey is a writer and editor.