“Quilts have an interesting history, amazing stories about their creation abound, and the techniques used by their makers vary extensively,” explains Martha Stewart in the forward to the book Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (Rizzoli, $75).
“What nimble fingers, what imagination, what lovely combinations of coloring and patterning, and what extraordinary artisanship went into the fabrication of these works of art,” she continues. “There is a style of quilt for every taste, and every taste will discover more than a few quilts to covet and admire.” Stewart isn’t exaggerating.
The American Folk Art Museum’s collection will give you an entirely new appreciation for the medium. Placing quilts on museum walls as powerful works of abstract art is only a recent phenomenon, after all. In the book’s introduction, Stacy C. Hollander credits the American bicentennial celebrations in 1976 along with two groundbreaking exhibitions with helping the American public embrace what was once a familiar and celebrated medium.
The elevation of quilts to the plane of fine art also pushed the contributions of American women to the visual arts to the forefront. “Quilts, physically and visually monumental testaments to the ongoing creativity and participation of women in American life, became emblematic of the silent majority: vital and beautiful, powerful and skilled, individual and diverse—and hidden in plain sight,” Hollander says.
“Textiles were among the most valued family possessions until far into the nineteenth century,” explains guest curator and author Elizabeth V. Warren. “The American quiltmaking tradition draws from many sources, but it was first practiced by English immigrants to New England, who used heavy wools to make warm bedcovers.” Skills and patterns expanded south and west, constantly changing to reflect local cultures and new technologies—an interesting visual evolution when shown together.
It becomes readily apparent when viewing quilts chronologically that the medium morphed from objects of necessity to wall hangings expressly intended to reflect the creativity of the makers. Contemporary quilts in particular often transcend time and place, Warren explains, by using the historical concept as a framework to make social and political statements.
“It’s important to consider each textile in the context of the time and place it was made,” Warren says.
The lavishly illustrated, full-color volume documents the 200 most important examples from the American Folk Art Museum’s permanent collection (which numbers more than 500 works in all), paired with detail shots of particularly interesting sections of the quilts, and information about the artists and their origins. The collection is particularly strong in Amish quilts, whitework, Victorian show quilts, Double Wedding Ring quilts and 20th-century Revival quilts, Hollander notes.
Divided into 11 sections, the book introduces quilts in themes, including whole-cloth, pieced, Amish, African American and contemporary quilts. It’s at this point that you’ll have more than a little difficulty narrowing down a particular favorite. The book’s layout and design allows you to immerse yourself in the details of each quilt—right down to the stitching.
Each section is preceded by a brief overview of the style, including histories and timelines to explain why certain materials were chosen, or how it evolved with the introduction of modern day technologies and dyes.
“Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum” was originally published as a companion piece to a 12-month series of exhibitions and special events at the American Museum of Folk Art’s location on West 53rd Street in New York. With the closing of that location earlier this summer, however, some of the quilts from have been transferred uptown to the museum’s original Lincoln Square location, where they can be seen through Sept. 25 in “Superstars: Quilts from the American Folk Art Museum.”
“Superstars: Quilts from the American Folk Art Museum,” is on view at 2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Ave. at 66th Street. The exhibit is scheduled to remain up through Sept. 25, although it may run longer. To learn more, check out the museum’s website at www.folkartmuseum.org. For more information about the book, go to www.rizzoliusa.com.