An unusual opportunity to view an extravaganza of quilts is being offered by the American Folk Art Museum this week. In a highlight of the Museum’s Year of the Quilt, more than 650 red and white American textiles, the largest quilt exhibition ever presented in New York City, opens March 25th and runs through March 30th at the historic Park Avenue Armory. The pieces are on loan from Joanna Rose, a private New York collector. She has generously offered to donate fifty of the most beautiful and important ones to the museum at the conclusion of the show.
The show is unique in that all quilts on display are of one genre—two colors–and that there are so many of this genre gathered in one place allows viewers to compare them and to understand the diversity within the genre. It is also special for several other reasons: the sheer number of pieces on view; the fact that no two are exactly alike; its innovative display; and free open admission to the public. Not a traditional academic exhibition, as such, the show has been described as a happening, a glorious celebration of color and design, as well as an impressive demonstration of the keen intellect and unique taste of one particular collector.
Spanning 300 years, from the nineteeth to twenty-first centuries, the quilt designs range from dazzling optical effects to fanciful mazes to dynamic zigzag lightning bolts. The patterns are appliqued or pieced in red on a white ground or white on a red background.
The quilts will be dramatically displayed in an unusual way by the award-winning New York City exhibition design firm, Thinc Design. Its design was chosen from several submitted by a range of design firms. Installed in the Armory’s 55,000 square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, the quilts will be displayed on different levels so that visitors can experience the quilts in a three dimensional environment. Some will be hung high in the air so their full impact as graphic art can be more fully experienced, others highlighted on viewing platforms so that the expertise of the makers’ stitches and seams can be inspected and appreciated close up.
The exhibition is organized by guest curator Elizabeth V. Warren, a leading authority on quilts and a trustee of the American Folk Art Museum, and Stacy C. Hollander, project director and the museum’s senior curator. Research on the collection is ongoing and plans are to produce a book and arrange a worldwide traveling exhibition. Having this exhibition, and Ms. Rose’s donation will allow museum curators “to study a much longer period of creativity using this color scheme and a much wider scope of design than was ever envisioned,” explained Maria Ann Corelli, Executive Director of the American Folk Art Museum.
Red and white has been a classic color scheme for American quilts since the early nineteenth century, its popularity made possible by the remarkable colorfastness of Turkey red dye. This dye came to Europe from the eastern Mediterranean in the 1750s, but producing it then was an expensive and time-consuming process, so the resulting fabrics made from it were costly. However in the late 1860s a synthetic version became available, making the fabrics cheaper to produce and thus causing an explosion in the number of quilt patterns created to take advantage of it.
Many examples of traditional piecing, applique and embroidery techniques are all presented in the show, almost all by unidentified quilt makers. The bulk of designs in the show are imaginative combinations of geometric pieced patterns–rectangles, triangles, diamonds and circles–with a variety of designs and names such as Drunkard’s Path, Ocean Waves, Sawtooth and Schoolhouse. Applique designs, not limited to geometric patterns, feature animals, flowers, hearts and similar cutouts. Another favorite applique technique seen here is the “snowflake,” in which fabric is folded and cut in a fashion similar to traditional paper cutting, resulting in pleasing symmetrical shapes. In addition, by the end of the nineteenth century, red and white became a popular combination for quilts made for fund-raising. Donors could have their names included on a quilt to be raffled or sold. The Red Cross quilt, a natural choice for obvious reasons, became especially popular during World War I. At the time white quilts embroidered in red with designs from storybooks, nature, national exhibitions and famous people were much liked. Magazines printed designs that could be copied, and at the end of the century quilters could purchase preprinted squares for embroidery. And then some quilters came up with their own very personal designs that defy any category.
The show will include daily educational events and programs for adults and children led by Elizabeth V. Warren,Guest Curator of “Infinite Variety,” leading authority on quilts and trustee of the American Folk Art Museum; two of the most important figures in contemporary quilt making: international author, former host of HGTV”s “Simply Quilts” and current co-host of the on-line “The Quilt Show” Alex Anderson and renowned quilt artist, author and teacher Paula Nadelstern; writer, quiltmaker and Alliance for American Quilts president Meg Cox; and Tom Hennes and Steven Shaw, the design team from the award-winning Thinc Design firm that realized the brilliant vision of “Infinite Variety”. There will be a free cell phone audio tour and a digital guide to the exhibition available as a free app on various portable digital devices, including photos of all 650 quilts.
Infinite Variety can be seen at the Park Avenue Armory on 643 Park Avenue (between 66th -67th Sts.), New York City. The show starts Friday, March 25 and will run Saturday, March 26; Monday, March 28; Tuesday, March 29 from 11 am – 7 pm; and Sunday, March 27 and Wednesday, March 30, from 11 am – 5 pm. For more information, please visit www.folkartmuseum.org.
Alice Dana Spencer worked in production and fund-raising in public television (Channel 13, NYC), and later in museum education at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., arranging lectures, seminars and special events. She has had a life-long interest in design, crafts, and the arts–museums in particular.