"Once we started to look in earnest, we found wonderful quilts everywhere, and in quantity. ... Almost immediately we had to make a basic decision. ... Did we want to make a great collection? And if we did, shouldn't we be buying the most superb examples we could find of all types and ages? Our decision, when it came, was more philosophical than economic: We would buy only a few examples of each type for study, but we would concentrate all our efforts and resources on quilts of any age, area, condition, workmanship or type which were in our opinion of great aesthetic merit, which worked for us as 'paintings,' creations in which the maker had posed and successfully solved interesting aesthetic propositions. ... It became clear very quickly that this meant pieced quilts."
—Jonathan Holstein, Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition, 1991
Like many collectors, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof took a highly personal approach to building their collection: They collected what looked good to them, what appealed to them on a basic, visual level. Over time, they further developed their eye for knowing if a quilt "worked." And what worked most often was aesthetically distinct pieced quilts.
Once the quilts were shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971, their iconic status was established. They were published in books and magazines and they traveled all over the world. Abstract Design in American Quilts became a frequently cited moment in quilt history, when the status of American quilts made a huge shift toward widespread recognition.
But did the quilts' identities become entrenched or frozen over time? Can we see them as anything other than parts of an exhibition that took place at a famous art museum half a century ago? In this section of "The 1971 Story" we have arranged the quilts in groups that spark ways of seeing them in a new light. To understand them more deeply and richly we've also included detailed views of certain portions or characteristics of the quilts, most of which came with sparse provenance (history of creation and ownership). Take a fresh look at an iconic group of quilts and see if you can discover other new ways of considering them.