Material Meditations for an Unfocused Time

Cleveland Museum of Art
May 8 · 5 min read

By Key Jo Lee, Assistant Director of Academic Affairs

Cumulo, 2014. Sanford Biggers (American, b. 1970). Spray paint, interior paint, fabric treated acrylic paint; overall: 182.8 x 189.2 cm (71 15/16 x 74 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Agnes Gund 2015.82 © Sanford Biggers

We could all use a moment of meditation during these trying times. In the essay below, Key Jo Lee, assistant director of academic affairs, offers a close-looking reflection on one artwork, Sanford Biggers’s Cumulo.


In Sanford Biggers’s Cumulo, tumbling blocks of color, repetitive in shape and varied in pattern, form a cascade of diagonals — of stacks like my kindergarten blocks — of folds like the spines of books partly open. The rectangles of fabric are a heady mixture of narrow stripes, ditsy florals, mini paisleys, plaids, checks, and other geometric patterns, all bordered by merlot calico strewn in a pattern of tiny ivory leaves and dashes.

All of this is a backdrop for several dramatic interventions that transform a vintage quilt from a homebound object into a meditation on history, time, and how abrupt interruption of our mundane activities can provide an important moment for reflection and inspiration.

Looking closely at a work of art is an opportunity to practice embodied attention. In an earlier blog post, I emphasized how close looking allows us to experiment with new ways of seeing and ultimately to draw new understanding from an object, which can help us to better understand our world and ourselves. I want to focus on that last result, the understanding of ourselves. The methods and the yields of embodied attention to an artwork are similar to a personal practice of mindfulness meditation. The latter requires being present in the moment and asks me to deepen my attention such that the most minute transformations in my body are brought to the level of consciousness. In a comparable way, close looking can bring the most minute details of an artwork to the fore.

Cumulo (detail), 2014. Sanford Biggers (American, b. 1970). Spray paint, interior paint, fabric treated acrylic paint; overall: 182.8 x 189.2 cm (71 15/16 x 74 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Agnes Gund 2015.82 © Sanford Biggers

Biggers’s piece was the first work I encountered upon my first visit to the CMA, upon my first visit to Cleveland. And it is a work to which I have returned again and again for teaching, for scholarship, for inspiration and, in the days of solitude after the museum’s temporary closure, for comfort. Each interaction on my own, with student or public groups, and with friends and family has yielded some new detail or sentiment.

Biggers’s Cumulo is disrupted by two distinctly discordant moments.

First, a cube — rhombic like the others but larger and made of brighter and newer fabrics — hovers in the upper left quadrant of the composition. It is also distinguished by its more clumsily sewn application; the white hand-sewn stitches announce themselves while those that link the rest of the quilt are relatively invisible. In the traditional tumbling block quilt pattern, sometimes called “cubework,” quilters use specific colors or patterns to highlight and shade. Here we see dark grays and blues mixed with taupe, ivory, and especially varying hues of pink to effect depth and direction. Biggers takes that familiar form, enlarges it just enough, and marks its distinction in white thread. Further, the artist shifts the added cube’s placement to activate a new plane.

Cumulo (detail), 2014. Sanford Biggers (American, b. 1970). Spray paint, interior paint, fabric treated acrylic paint; overall: 182.8 x 189.2 cm (71 15/16 x 74 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Agnes Gund 2015.82 © Sanford Biggers

This taut relationship is mediated by daubs of bright paint in red, cerulean, and gold that have been brushed and sprayed onto the quilt and allowed to drip. The now asserts itself through synthetic pigments, but if you look very closely, the shapes and textures of the older quilt emerge as those pigments soak its surface. This juncture of paint and fabric breaks down the barrier between past and present.

Cumulo (detail), 2014. Sanford Biggers (American, b. 1970). Spray paint, interior paint, fabric treated acrylic paint; overall: 182.8 x 189.2 cm (71 15/16 x 74 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Agnes Gund 2015.82 © Sanford Biggers

Quilts carry histories of thought, touch, and care. They are the transformation of would-be discarded scraps of fabric, now cut and sewn into newly useful and warmth-providing coverlets. Biggers was attracted to the stories of quilts being used as signals to lead slaves to safety through the Underground Railroad. Though historians debate whether these codes existed, the ideas of developing a secret language out of necessity and of crafting something beautiful from awful circumstances resonate. These ideas are made palpable in the second and more idiosyncratic cloud that appears in the lower right.

Cumulo (detail), 2014. Sanford Biggers (American, b. 1970). Spray paint, interior paint, fabric treated acrylic paint; overall: 182.8 x 189.2 cm (71 15/16 x 74 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Agnes Gund 2015.82 © Sanford Biggers

The eponymous cumulo, or cumulonimbus cloud, billows in an ombré from bright white to shades of iron and ash. The cloud is backed by cerulean and gold, like the bright cube. However, the drips that glide down the left become shards casting skyward from the cloud mass.

Cumulo (detail), 2014. Sanford Biggers (American, b. 1970). Spray paint, interior paint, fabric treated acrylic paint; overall: 182.8 x 189.2 cm (71 15/16 x 74 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Agnes Gund 2015.82 © Sanford Biggers

Again, Biggers opens a space to contemplate the dualities he makes visible: past/present, art/craft, painting/sculpture, natural/synthetic, abstraction/figuration. But he simultaneously deconstructs any clear boundaries among these relationships.

Take for instance the deliberately pink diamond that punctuates the cumulo. Beyond the textural evidence of the quilt that has absorbed the spray and acrylic paints, this tiny emblem of artistic intention confuses time and process because it is impossible to tell if the artist has masked around an original moment to preserve it or merely painted it to match a hue found in the original quilt.

Cumulonimbi are storm clouds characterized by their puffy, mushroom-like shape and by their precipitation-carrying properties. The cloud in Cumulo speaks of storms weathered and of storms to come, yet behind the brewing weather an azure sky and glittering universe remain. We see the celestial bodies exceed the edges of the composition.

Cumulo (detail), 2014. Sanford Biggers (American, b. 1970). Spray paint, interior paint, fabric treated acrylic paint; overall: 182.8 x 189.2 cm (71 15/16 x 74 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Agnes Gund 2015.82 © Sanford Biggers

Spending significant time with a work like Cumulo is not only part of my scholarly and teaching practices but also central to my personal meditation practice. The notes and images I’ve collected serve as talismans of a moment, but each piece is drawn into connection with the others when I allow myself to sit, to immerse, and to reflect. And while we are in the storm, that emergent blue sky awaits our notice.

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