Over Time

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1971 exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts brought quilts to the forefront of the public’s mind in a new and unexpected way. In a departure from standard presentations of textile folk art, exhibition curators Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof displayed traditional pieced quilts in one of the nation’s foremost modern art museums. Thousands of New Yorkers and tourists viewed antique textiles in galleries usually reserved for artists such as Picasso, Pollock, and Rothko. This radical approach shifted the perception of quilts in a number of ways: a much larger and broader audience was now aware of them; critics who had never before considered quilts hailed them as works of art; and artists who had begun exploring the quiltmaking medium saw that the quilt form was being taken seriously in America’s cultural capital.

Other results of quilts being shown in the Whitney included:

  • further momentum for the country's nascent quiltmaking revival; 
  • formation of a market centered around the buying and selling of both antique and contemporary quilts;
  • professionalization of the study of quilts as an important form of material culture.

In 2021, the International Quilt Museum paid homage to the exhibition in its Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50 series. 58 of the original 60 Whitney quilts* were installed in the museum's West Gallery as a way for audiences to experience (or re-experience) the awe that Whitney visitors must have felt when they saw the quilts in 1971. In other galleries, the museum explored the ripple effects of the exhibition. New York Nexus examined the role New York artists, many of whom visited Abstract Design in American Quilts, played in forming what later came to be called the studio quilt or art quilt movement. Raising the Profile focused on the quilt revival of the 1960s and '70s, which was given dramatic energy after the Whitney exhibition's success. And Journey to Japan presented new works by Japanese artists, all of whom were among the early Japanese quiltmakers and who benefited from the introduction of American pieced quilts to Japan when pieces from Abstract Design in American Quilts traveled to Tokyo and Kyoto in 1975-1976.

*Two quilts had unfortunately gone missing during the many exhibition tours of the 1970s.