You still have a couple weeks to get to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see the temporary exhibit, Quilts and Color. It’s a total knockout, but not necessarily for the reasons why the MFA thinks it is. Here’s how the museum describes the show:
“Quilts and Color” celebrates the vibrant color palette and inventive design seen in the acclaimed Pilgrim/Roy Quilt Collection. The exhibition features nearly 60 distinctive quilts from the renowned collection and is the first to explore how, over five decades, trained artists Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy searched out and collected quilts with bold, eye-popping designs that echoed the work of mid-20th century Abstract Expressionist and Op Artists.
“Quilts and Color,” as this summary describes, focuses on the quilt collection of a pair of artists, whose interest in color theory and Modern art led them to collect unappreciated and undervalued examples of mostly 19th century handmade American quilts, quilts with “eye-popping designs.” This tight focus to the show led to two unusual and distinctive curatorial choices. First: the quilts are hung in the exhibition language of Modern art. Here’s a photo of the first gallery — the walls are black, causing the colors of the quilt to pop from the wall. There’s a railing where the text is installed; you’re kept far away from the quilt, which is presented as a purely visual object. Each gallery in the exhibition focuses on a concept and color theory, which is exemplified by a painting from the MFA’s collection (colorfield, op-art, minimalist, etc), highlighting the conceptual parallel being drawn between the quilts and this genre of art.
The second outcome of this curatorial focus is the way in which the exhibition interprets the process of collecting, and how private collectors, with their personal taste and obsessions, craft what ends up at museums. And, by extension, how we see, and what we look at. This exhibition had the feeling, in moments, of an in-depth investigation of provenance, and why anyone — collector, visitor, or scholar — should care about it. Have you seen other quilts hung like this in a museum? Have you ever seen a quilt on a wall at an art museum? The reason why you see them here is because of the particular mission of the collectors and the closeness with which the curators worked with their collection.
Which brings me to the more important point about this exhibition. What happens in this show is that a folk art with a long tradition — American quilting — is identified as, and with, fine art. By virtue of its institutional context, the hanging decisions I described above, and the way the pieces are interpreted in terms of their formal and conceptual characteristics, rather than their technical, personal, or historical ones. They were presented, in other words, as visual art, rather than material culture.
That these were quilts made by people, for use, passed down maybe as family heirlooms, objects for warmth, for protection, objects that brought a little color into a quiet, maybe even dull life — was totally elided from the stories of these quilts. The women who made them hovered like clouds of breath in the air of the galleries. I imagined their quiet conversation, their squinting, their sore and muscular fingertips. I wondered whether they had a favorite thimble, whether this was their first quilt or their 20th. What compelled these women to make such bold color decisions? And what did the other members of their community think of them, these women and their colorfield quilts? Not even the virtuosic needlework — hard to see in the dark lighting and at a distance that discourages tactile experience — gets attention from the formal interpretation.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. On the left quilt below, you can see a stain on the fabric, an indication of the piece’s former life as a household object. I love this small moment of use. On the right is some of the most impressive needlework in the show.
The approach to this exhibition could be seen as an “elevation” of the quilt, from craft to artform. And I certainly loved the bold simplicity of the galleries, the contained, specific story, and the information about color theory that I learned along the way. It is unconventional thinking to say the least that hangs Op Art next to Quaker quilts, which speaks to the unique eye of these singular collectors. But I’m not sure I believe that we need quilts to be juxtaposed with Modern art in order for us to see that they are Art, that they are meaningful, beautiful, or worthy of our aesthetic consideration. And what I am sure of is that focusing on the collectors rather than the makers of these works in fact separates the quilts from a Jackson Pollock or a Barnett Newman, which are of course called by name for their makers, and not for which savvy buyer purchased them at which gallery show in New York.
Certainly, one of the beauties of an exhibition is that the visitor can receive the narrative of the curators while also being invited to look at the objects themselves, and have their own meaningful experiences with them as physical entities. And in this case, the absence of many specific backstories about the quilts themselves left me free to imagine them, which was certainly more gratifying than something like the “Mrs. So-and-so learned needlework from her mother and worked in the X style that was inherited from X tradition” that one might see in a more traditional folk art context.
Perhaps the lesson here is that beautiful, well-used objects can speak for themselves. These quilts vibrated with a their rich histories as well as their bold colors. I wish their makers had been able to speak, too.