The Whitney Museum's Abstract Design in American Quilts made quilts visible to a much larger segment of the American population, but it also sparked objections and new conversations about how quilts should be studied and exhibited.
In the years following 1971, critics and curators responded to what they saw as the exhibition’s decontextualization of quilts. Very few of the pieces that Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof had collected came with detailed provenance (history of creation and ownership), thus, they were seemingly presented as a homogeneously anonymous group, without reference to their female makers. This appearance was heightened by the fact that Holstein and van der Hoof’s curatorial focus was on the quilts’ visual properties and not their historical or social contexts.
One of the most vocal detractors of Abstract Design in American Quilts, Patricia Mainardi, a feminist artist and art historian, penned a defense of quilts as women’s art and included a critique aimed at Holstein and the Whitney for using women’s art to prop up male painting. Other quilt collectors and enthusiasts rejected the exclusively visual approach in favor of interpreting quilts through the lens of women’s lived experience. For example, Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Buferd saw Abstract Design in American Quilts in New York City in 1971, and in 1972 they began collecting quilts and stories from women in Texas and New Mexico for their own exhibition and book project. Their efforts eventually resulted in The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art, An Oral History, which in turn was adapted into the widely popular musical, "Quilters."
Julie Silber and Linda Reuther, quilt collectors and dealers, and Pat Ferrero, a filmmaker and professor at San Francisco State University, also responded to Abstract Design in American Quilts. They felt that the recent widespread recognition of quilts as aesthetic objects had obscured their value as documents of everyday experience. In their 1981 exhibition at the Oakland Museum, American Quilts: A Handmade Legacy, they aimed to "reconnect quilts to the lives of the people who made, used, and lived with them by suggesting the broad and multi-faceted contexts in which they were made.”