At the start of the year I pick a word or theme to model at least the beginning of the year but the hope is to carry it throughout the year. This year, my word was simplicity. My first project of the year was a small blue and white quilt and my intention was to do more two-color quilts because they evoke simplicity and understatement. Today, I was cleaning up old photos and happened upon the folder from the Infinite Variety show of red and white quilts owned by Joanna Rose in New York City in March 2011. The simplicity of a two-color quilt is far from understated when it comes to this collection and especially the way they were all displayed for one glorious week earlier this decade.
The image above is my favorite from the entire show. It was held in the New York Armory on Park Avenue, a lovely Gothic Revival building. Coming in from a sunny day, the lobby was very dark and visitors proceeded through the darkness to the large drill hall. There, the doors were thrown open and this breathtaking sight of hundreds of red and white quilts glowing from the lights that were shining just on them.
My second favorite image from the exhibit is the circle of chairs grouped in the center of the venue. It was intended to represent a circle of quilters and the community that quilters build, both past and present. To me, the images of a quilt draped over each chair is poignant. Think about all the anonymous women (almost always women) who made so many of the antique quilts we treasure today. They are represented and remembered by their needlework that survives today. Metaphorically, each quilt in this circle is that quiltmaker from the past.
Another aspect of the exhibit I particularly liked was the way everything surrounding the quilts was in darkness and the light focused solely on the quilts. For a show that drew about 25,000 visitors over about five days, the quilts were hung in a way that allowed viewers an almost unobstructed view. When taking pictures, even the visitors appeared in silhouette which, to me, enhanced the mood of the photo. Visitors could wander around the installations, go inside the columns to see more, and even repose in seats around the outside and simply take in the beauty in front of them.
When I revisit the images of these quilts, it makes me wonder why it has such a strong impact. Sometimes I think it is because of the way they appear to glow, or the contrast between black and red and white. I recently read that Alice in Wonderland was an inspiration, and in meetings with designers the museum curators cited John Tenniel’s engraving of Alice fending off a pack of red and white playing cards thrown in the air, and frozen mid-air in the moment. Like in Wonderland, these red and white objects appeared almost alive.
Like the genius of the exhibit, I marveled that these 600+ quilts were all made from red and white fabric yet not one quilt was really anything like any other quilt. Some were based on similar themes (airplanes, dots, houses, Irish chain), yet each was differentiated by number of pieces, color, design, size and quilting.
Another marvel is that in this room of quilts where many were more than a century old, the Turkey red fabric was still rich and bright. The colorfastness of the dye probably accounts for the popularity of the red/white color combination which led to Joanna Rose amassing so many quilts which led to an exhibit that still makes me catch my breath when I see the images. Thanks for wandering through it with me today.