American Culture

Unsolicited museum review: Quilts and Color at the Museum of Fine Arts

The Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy quilting collection both instructs and exhilarates.

IMG_0267If you wander over to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and plunk down the $25 admission fee (more on that later), you will see one of the best shows around – Quilts and Color, the quilt collection of Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy. They started collecting in the 1970s, around the time we did, although they had more money and better taste. And what a selection it is. As abstract artists, they collected quilts that reflected their interests in color and design, themes that were erupting in the abstract expressionism and op art of the period. So the curators have done an excellent thing here – they have interspersed the (mostly) abstract quilts with the occasional piece of op art, from artists like Bridget Riley, Josef Alpers (whose influence is felt throughout the show) and Sol LeWitt.<! – more – >

But it’s the quilts themselves that are the focus of the show, and these are splendid works of art in their own right. Much ink has been spilled the past forty years on the resurgence of folk arts of various sorts into, if not the mainstream, then at least a regarded periphery. My own education here, such as it is, has been developed by several decades of tagging along at a quilt show or two a year with Mrs W – who is  a quilter herself. Quilts are an astonishing art form, with its combination of visual design and the actual craft of sewing the thing together. Plus, quilts themselves are the creation of women over the years, and represent a genuine thread of, if not feminist, at least women’s art, if there is such a thing. I don’t know what category applies here, really – these were objects that were created as utilitarian objects, to be slept under, and more. There is always a family history – children were born under these quilts, and people died under them as well. And if quilts are in someone’s collection, that means they left the family at some point, for whatever reason. You always have to get back to the fact that this was an object created to be used. And used they were.

But they are also astonishing works of visual art, and of craftsmanship. Consider this quilt, A Feathered Diamond in a Square, made about 1880 in Pennsylvania by an unknown artist:

OK, check out the hand stitching. No machine quilting back then.

Mrs W usually just sort of sighs when she sees stitching like this, and moves on. These things took some time to make.

But it’s the color arrangements that impress, which is why Pilgrim and Roy chose the quilts they did. Some of the color combinations are straight out of Albers color theories, or would have been if not for the fact that they were created a century before Albers was doing his work on color. For example, here’s a pretty straightforward set of colors, in about as bold a presentation you can think of, given the constraints of the medium:

This is a Framed Diamond in a Square, also from Pennsylvania, around 1890, and also from someone we don’t know. The color blockings here are bold, dramatic, and simple – straight out of Alber’s Interactions of Color.

And the variations on some central themes of color and pattern recur frequently. There are, of course, established quilt designs that have evolved over the years, often passed on from mother to daughter, or woman to woman – men were rarely involved in these interactions. Here’s a Tumbling Blocks quilt, from Ohio or Indiana, again from someone we don’t know:

Midwestern farm wives were creating op art a century before New York artists stumbled on it. Similarly, consider this next one, a Sunshine and Shadow, also from a Pennsylvania woman we again don’t know. New York artists of the 1960s would have sold their collective souls to have come up with this:
And finally, if I have a favorite, it’s this Many Colors quilt from Pennsylvania, from the Mennonite community:

Who would not want this on their wall?

So, as a museum exhibit, this show does what any good one does – instruct and exhilarate. By all means, go.

But, of course, it would be a rare post from me that didn’t vent about something. I live in a country where museum admissions are generally free. So what’s with this $25 admission fee per adult? We waste enough tax dollars on unnecessary wars and absurd fossil fuel industry subsidies. How about increasing the arts subsidies so that the American museum experience can be one that doesn’t involve taking out a personal loan in order to take your kids to see some great art? If the arts are to be an integral part of education and life, as I believe they should be, then they should at least be affordable.

The quilt at the top of this post is a Flying Geese pattern, from Pennsylvania, probably from the 1880s.

5 replies »

  1. “So what’s with this $25 admission fee per adult?”

    The idea that those who want something should pay for it?

  2. If you’re saying what I think you’re saying, I simply disagree–the idea is that the arts should be available for all. I didn’t even mention what the senior and student charge is–$23. This is practically a deterrent to taking your kids to the museum for an afternoon.

  3. Read Jonathan Holstein’s “The Pieced Quilt” and “Abstract Design in American Quilts” – the premise for this exhibition = 1970s ideas. 🙂