The years surrounding the Whitney Museum of American Art's Abstract Design in American Quilts exhibition—the 1960s and '70s—were a watershed era for the United States. The Civil Rights Movement that intensified in the mid-1950s and continued into the '60s, the Women’s and anti-Vietnam War Movements beginning in the mid-’60s, and the Gay Liberation movement beginning in the late-’60s had inalterably changed U.S. social and cultural life. Many Americans—especially younger people disillusioned with society's ills and the economic and ideological contributors to them—looked for better ways to live. Some gave up established modes of American life for a counter-cultural ideal that included seeking more peaceful and open relationships with themselves, others, and the earth. DIY and back-to-the-land movements often incorporated handcrafting skills into their ethos.
The 1960s and ‘70s was also a time of deepening nostalgia for America’s past—as represented by Bicentennial celebrations—and connection to one’s heritage. A desire to establish a sense of rootedness and identity in their pasts drew many Americans to explore family genealogy and to bring the past into the present by embracing older folkways, such as handicrafts.
Shifts in the relationship between folk art and fine art were also taking place. The formal visual qualities of folk art (including quilts), such as large planes of flat color, simple and economic line usage, and stylized/geometric (as opposed to realistic/naturalistic) depictions of form, were seen by some as precursors, facilitators, and/or complements to the Abstract Modernist artwork of the day. They were subsequently taken more seriously, even by the art world elite. And American visual and popular culture were becoming influential all over the globe, including in places like Japan.
Abstract Design in American Quilts was born amidst these interwoven aesthetic, historical, social, and cultural threads. And the exhibition immediately became another strand in the contextual cloth of the 1970s and beyond.