In April 1971, with an introduction from a New York curator friend, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof approached the Whitney Museum of American Art with a quilt exhibition proposal. They argued to the Whitney staff that the museum should exhibit a group of their quilts, not as craft but as art, as objects of aesthetic distinction with parallels to the modern art the Whitney normally showed. Within weeks, Holstein and van der Hoof had been invited to produce the exhibition, and a couple of months later, the exhibition's 61 quilts went up on the museum's walls. Opening on July 1, Abstract Design in American Quilts immediately attracted unexpectedly large and enthusiastic numbers and quickly sold out its catalog. As a result, the Whitney extended the exhibition’s run by several weeks. The quilts were a hit with visitors.
Just as important, the quilts were a hit with critics. In the review that essentially put the exhibition on the map, New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer noted the quilts’ visual resonance with modern abstract painting and credited their makers with developing sophisticated abstract forms well before painters did:
"For a century or more preceding the self-conscious invention of pictorial abstraction in European painting, the anonymous quilt-makers of the American provinces created a remarkable succession of visual masterpieces that anticipated many of the forms that were later prized for their originality and courage."
Praise was also extended to the exhibition as a whole. Lester Abelman of the New York Daily News opined that the Whitney had “given the homely quilt its artistic stamp of approval.” And the New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm marveled that, as demonstrated in Abstract Design in American Quilts, “a quilt that looks merely homey lying at the foot of a bed may become a great work of abstract design when it is hung on an enormous white wall and regarded from a distance.” With outstanding attendance figures and overwhelmingly positive media reviews, the exhibition's legacy had already started to become firmly established.