Abstract Design In American Quilts

Widely credited with helping bring art world attention to quilts, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1971 exhibit, Abstract Design in American Quilts, featured graphic pieced quilts hanging on the walls architect Marcel Breuer had intended to showcase the large abstract paintings artists created in the mid-20th century. The exhibit’s curators, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof, had begun comparing the antique American bed quilts in their collection to these very same paintings, identifying visual similarities in the use of hard edges, optical illusions, repetition, saturation of color, and graphic simplicity.

The Whitney took a risk in exhibiting works typically considered as craft or folk art on its gallery walls. But by this time, enough art enthusiasts were accustomed to seeing non-”high” art forms treated in this way, due to expanding definitions of art, brought about through forms of modernism, including pop art, minimalism, and performance art. Prior to Abstract Design, a few museums, including the Newark Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Craft (now Museum of Arts and Design), and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, had hung quilts on their walls as works of art. Quilts in general had begun receiving widespread attention from the press during the late 1960s. The 60 quilts showcased at the Whitney brought this interest to a new level, with Abstract Design breaking the Whitney’s attendance record and selling out its catalog.

Art critics bestowed near universal praise on the exhibit, and soon Holstein and van der Hoof received requests from venues across the United States and Europe to host similar exhibits. Abstract Design did not single-handedly transform quilts into works of art, but the lavish attention it brought to quilts signaled a new era, as artists, critics, and the general public began to see quilts as much more than bed covers.