Published: January 18, 2011
It is the critic’s task to decide when a subject is ripe for reappraisal. Thus it seems appropriate that Elizabeth V. Warren, an art historian whose first project at the American Folk Art Museum was an exhibition of Pennsylvania Amish quilts in 1983, should return to mount a retrospective view of the museum’s quilt collection, now 40 years in the making.
“Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum” is Warren’s stimulating recap of the heady years between 1961 and 2010, when, guided by several luminaries in the field, the American Folk Art Museum assembled a collection of 500 American quilts.
The show is the centerpiece of the Year of the Quilt, an ongoing series of displays and events reasserting the American Folk Art Museum’s leadership in this arena. The first installation of 39 quilts continues through April 24, at the museum’s 45 West 53rd Street headquarters. It will be followed by a second installment of similar size and scope, on view from May 10 to October 16.
Rizzoli International’s decision to publish an updated collection catalog acted as a catalyst to the project. In 1996, Warren and then-collaborator Sharon L. Eisenstat produced Glorious American Quilt . The first comprehensive guide to a holding then numbering 400 quilts, the book organized the bedcovers into 11 stylistic categories, from whole-cloth quilts to contemporary quilts.
Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum includes new research and recent acquisitions, along with old favorites, such as the Bird of Paradise quilt top, selected for the cover of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1974 catalog, The Flowering of American Folk Art .
Since 1996, the American Folk Art Museum has added 100 bedcovers to its collection, most of them gifts to the institution. Too late for inclusion in the new catalog is the museum’s latest acquisition, the Sunflowers and Trailing Vine quilt made by Catherine Lowrance Newton with fragments of her wedding dress between 1783 and 1830. Lowrance married John Newton, a Revolutionary War chaplain who was educated at what is now Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C. The couple later moved to Georgia, where Newton was a minister and physician.
“It is one of the earliest bedcovers in our collection and also one of the few in our holdings with a reliable Southern provenance,” says Warren.
Visually, the Rizzoli catalog represents a major advance in color illustration. It devotes an entire page, sometimes two, to each of the 200 bedcovers chosen for inclusion. Offering inspiration to collectors and designers alike, the publication has “gift” written all over it. The hardcover edition retails for $75.
The museum’s senior curator Stacy C. Hollander traces the beginning of the modern-day quilt revival to the Whitney Museum’s 1971 exhibition “Abstract Design in American Quilts.” Based on the private collection of its organizers, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof, the show, writes Hollander, “unapologetically placed quilts on museum walls as powerful works of abstract art.”
The American Folk Art Museum was close on the Whitney’s heels. The institution acquired its first quilt in 1972, the same year that it organized its first exhibition devoted entirely to textiles, “The Fabric of the State.”
Robert Bishop’s zealous interest in quilts and quilting accelerated the pace. Having published America’s Quilts and Coverlets with Carlton L. Safford in 1972, Bishop was already an authority when he became the museum’s director in 1977, a post he held until his death in 1991.
Bishop, writes Hollander, had a “profound belief in the deserved place of quilts in the art canon.” The director also shrewdly recognized their grass-roots appeal and saw their publication and display as a path to national prominence for the fledgling museum.
Spread over three floors of the compact museum, the show opens in the ground-level atrium with the Flag quilt made by Mary C. Baxter of Kearney, N.J., around 1900 to commemorate a local regiment that served in the Spanish-American War. The textile’s latter-day significance is that it was chosen as the emblem of the Great American Quilt Festival in 1986, another Bishop brainstorm that brought tens of thousands of quilters to New York City in the centennial year of the Statue of Liberty.
Bishop formed an invaluable alliance with Cyril Irwin Nelson, an editor at E.P. Dutton, who over the years published folk art classics, such as Neat and Tidy and Little by Little by the collector Nina Fletcher Little, and the annual Quilt Engagement Calendar, which developed taste and stimulated the market for antique quilts.
Alongside the Flag quilt is a trio of Amish examples, unsurpassed in their power, majesty and dignity. The museum’s enviable collection of Amish quilts began in 1980 with a gift from the Indiana dealer and collector David Pottinger of nearly 100 examples made in Amish communities in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Subsequent gifts from other benefactors expanded the museum’s holdings of Pennsylvania Amish and Mennonite examples, particularly from Lancaster and Mifflin Counties.
If the present exhibition is a referendum on connoisseurship, then Cyril Nelson fares well. His annual gifts comprise some of the museum’s greatest treasures. They include the Harlequin Medallion quilt pictured on the catalog’s cover, a whole-cloth bedcover of glazed wool that is stunningly sophisticated in its rich, warm palette and spare, geometric design. Nelson favored similarly understated whitework bedcovers, whose decorative interest relies on the subtle enhancements of stitching, stuffing and cording on a monochromatic field.
Warren observes that quilts speak volumes about the social, political and economic circumstances of the times in which they were made. The oldest quilt in the museum’s collection, dating to perhaps 1790, has a center block printed by English immigrant textile printer and manufacturer John Hewson (1744‱821), suggesting that an industry began to coalesce around quilting much earlier than many visitors imagine.
Kathyanne White, an Arizona quilter who dyes most of her own cloth, made the newest quilt on view, dated 2001. White’s painterly creation underscores the degree to which quilting is now recognized as a full-fledged artistic discipline, an advancement that the American Folk Art Museum can take pride in having promoted.
Arrayed throughout the galleries are chintz quilts, signature quilts, appliqué quilts, pieced quilts, Log Cabin quilts, show quilts, revival quilts and quilts by African Americans. Each one tells a story. The most graphic narrative of all belongs to the National Tribute quilt, made by the Steel Quilters of the United States Steel Corporation after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Measuring 8 by 30 feet and inscribed with the names of the dead, the National Tribute quilt is on view at museum’s Lincoln Center venue.
Of the many programs and events planned around the Year of the Quilt, the most novel may be a six-day satellite show of more than 650 red and white quilts from the collection of Joanna Rose, a New Yorker who began acquiring the bedcovers after she received one as a gift in honor of the birth of her first child. On view from March 25 to 30 at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts” demonstrates the imaginative latitude enjoyed by quilters working within a limited palette. As a final fillip, exhibitions curators Elizabeth V. Warren and Stacy C. Hollander have been invited to select 50 of the best quilts for the museum’s permanent collection. A red and white quilt challenge is also in the works, says Warren.
In her foreword to Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum , decorating maven Martha Stewart writes that she began buying quilts in the 1960s to “fit into the decorating schemes” in her New York apartment and her country house in Middlefield, Mass. America’s foremost domestic goddess recalls using quilt fragments for “table coverings for country suppers.” In an earlier era with fewer prohibitions on altering antiques, Henry F. DuPont blithely used antique quilts to reupholster seating furniture, as Linda Eaton describes in Quilts in a Material World: Selections from the Winterthur Collection .
We will leave it to another generation to take full measure of Stewart’s contribution to the current antiques revival. In the meantime, “Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum” is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the late Twentieth Century’s romance with the all-American quilt.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 45 West 53 Street. For information, 212-265-1040 or www.folkartmuseum.org .
‘Super Stars’ Quilts At Lincoln Square Branch
Welcome to the Year of the Quilt, the American Folk Art Museum’s celebration of a glorious American art form. This exhibition is part of a 12-month series of shows, special events and educational programming organized by the museum to emphasize the creative contributions of three centuries of talented women. Presented in conjunction with the main exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, “Super Stars,” on view at the Museum’s Lincoln Center branch, illuminates one theme in these textile masterpieces from the collection †stars.
Quiltmakers have always sought inspiration from the world around them, introducing the outdoors into the domestic interior through bedcovers that may reflect the colors of the landscape, the imagery of flowers in a garden or animal and insect life. Stars, some of the most important elements of the natural world, are also a beloved and enduring motif in American quilts.
Stars appeared in pieced bedcovers as early as the Eighteenth Century and remain popular with quilt artists today. Their ethereal light has guided nighttime travelers on sea and on land; their faraway presence has become the stuff of dreams when pieced, appliquéd or embroidered into the form of a quilt. “Super Stars” highlights the dazzling diversity of this variable pattern as interpreted through more than 100 years of quilt artistry.
Stars have always signified something special: brilliance, power, magic. Their symbolic association with God and his created universe removed the icon from ordinary usage. Although eight-pointed stars appear frequently in Islamic decorative arts and on early non-Western textiles, in Western culture the imagery largely had been reserved for painted representations of the canopy of heaven: a host of stars against an ultramarine or cobalt ground.
It was not until the turn of the Nineteenth Century that a single eight-pointed star moved front and center in whole-cloth quilts, usually pieced in a solid-color glazed wool known as calimanco. But with the invention of the kaleidoscope in 1816, art and science took an unanticipated and dazzling turn. Quiltmakers, especially, embraced the refracted imagery produced by the kaleidoscope.
Large single stars now blazed across cotton quilt tops, pieced from multitudes of diamonds that scintillated in rings from the center to the points. Staggered rows of repeated stars danced across the surfaces of bedcovers. By the Victorian era, the aspect of stars changed once again with the influence of exotic ideas from the Near East. Star motifs were interpreted for a new age in silk, velvet and brocade show quilts.
About 20 quilts are included in the display at the museum’s Lincoln Center branch, 2 Lincoln Square, through September 25. For information, www.folkartmuseum.org or 212-265-1040.
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