08 May 2014

Quilts and Color

Streak of Lightning, detail. Amish maker, ca. 1930.

On Friday May 2, 2014, DH and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the much-promoted exhibit Quilts and Color, on view from April 6 through July 27, 2014. The MFA offered a number of color theory-related events as well this spring, such as a lecture by Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute.

Left, elevator to exhibit. Right, Entrance banner.

All quilts are from the collection of Gerald Roy and his late partner, Paul Pilgrim; they began collecting in 1974.  The curatorial theme of the exhibit is color theory as exemplified in the work of quilters, and the show is divided into sections, such as "Harmonies" and "Contrast." In addition to the quilts in each section, there is at least one work by a contemporary artist, such as Sol LeWitt or Bridget Riley, or the king of color theory himself, Josef Albers. So this exhibit is meant to appeal to two audiences - quilt and textile fans, and students of color theory to whom "quilt" might still mean bed-covering.

Installation and viewers.

The small, isolated modern works look a little, well, wimpy, surrounded as they are by the quilts which are just monumental presences. I'm all for finding affinities and the exhibit wall text draws connections between the modern works and the quilts, but the quilts need no such justification or validation. As Boston Globe critic Sebastion Smee said in his review, just go and enjoy the impact of the quilts. 

A note on my captions - in most cases the name of the quilt artist is not known, although her religious or ethnic community may be identified; for example a quilt may be made by a member of the Amish community. So, I follow the curatorial labeling, and identify the community of the maker where indicated.

Sunburst, Mrs. Ephraim Scott, ca. 1856.

One of Mr. Roy's conclusions is that until consumers of art  - the museum-going public as well as critics - were ready to accept abstract art (which acceptance occurred sometime in the mid-20th century) we weren't ready to understand quilts as art, because traditional quilts are abstract.

I would beg to differ.  Mr. Roy is correct that it is only relatively recently that quilts have been viewed as works of arts in and of themselves, rather than artifacts in the backwater that was the history of textiles.  However, non-representational, or abstract, art has been around even earlier than the 20th century.  So the barrier to acceptance, and to exhibits like the one now at the MFA, may not have been so much the abstract composition of the quilts but rather two other hurdles - the fabric medium and quilts' history as utilitarian objects. By focusing on color, this exhibit effectively makes all considerations of medium and functionality inconsequential - the quilts are simply masterworks of color usage.

Log Cabin, ca. 1890.

The fifty-nine quilts in the show have been meticulously mounted and dramatically lighted in such a way that the colors absolutely glow.

Scherenschitte, Mennonite maker, ca. 1880.

For the active quilter, the exhibit is a textbook of corner and border treatments as well as quilting patterns and textures. There is a companion book, but I found the photography and text disappointing, so try to see the exhibit in person if you can. 

Corner details.

Also problematic is Mr. Roy's statement that “I often wonder if what we know now as ‘color interaction’ was not something mysterious and spiritual to these quilt makers.” This is a bit patronizing - why is it when women use color effectively they're drawing on some quality not of the intellect but of some magic earth mother-y psychic power or something. How about giving credit to powers of close observation and planning? The quilts are, for the most part, models of precise piecing and quilting - let's assume that women who could teach technical skills could also impart lessons on use of color, even without a master of fine arts degree.

Economy Patch variation, ca. 1870.

However, these are minor quibbles from a feminist on her soapbox. We are very grateful to Mr. Roy and Mr. Pilgrim for gathering and protecting these beautiful quilts, a number of which have been acquired by the museum.

Thousand Pyramids, Amish maker, ca. 1930.

Double Irish Chain, on point. Mennonite maker, ca. 1880.

Double Wedding Ring, detail, African-American maker, ca. 1940.

Buggy Lap Robe, Mennonite, ca. 1900.

We also saw an anniversary display of the To Boston with Love banners - small cloth Boston-themed pennants made by artists from all over the world to show support for Boston in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. These banners are in the venerable but somewhat neglected tradition of commemorative textiles - fabric creations that document and respond to events and activities. I do hope the banners will find a permanent home in the museum.

To Boston with Love banners in the Shapiro Family Courtyard.