No splitting hares, it’s the Year of the Quilt

“Vortex” quilt was pieced and appliqued from cotton by an unknown artist in the United States between 1890 and 1910. It measures 80 inches by 82 inches. This quilt is one of more than 650 to be shown March 25-30 at Park Avenue Armory in New York City in “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts.” The quilts are from the private collection of Joanna Rose of New York.

This Chinese New Year, ushered in Feb. 3, is heralded as the Year of the Rabbit — decreed as the fourth year in a 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. Animals denote the Chinese astrological signs, as they often do in Western astrology.

Here in America, though, 2011 officially has been dubbed the Year of the Quilt by the American Folk Art Museum of New York City.

The creative contributions of three centuries of talented women are the focus of a two-part exhibit, “QUILTS: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum.”

Guest curator Elizabeth V. Warren selected each quilt as an example of its time, style and technique. The inaugural presentation is 35 quilts from the museum’s hundreds of holdings, some of which are new acquisitions and on view for the first time.

Included are “old favorites,” recognized as cornerstones of the collection, as well as several that have rarely been exhibited. The installation covers three floors of the museum and is on view now until April 24.

The second installation is scheduled for May 10 to Oct. 16 at the museum at 45 West 53 St.

The Year of the Quilt focuses on the historic importance of this artistic tradition and the many skilled women who gave it shape.

“It’s important to consider each quilt in the context of the time and place in which it is made,” Warren says.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when quilts were no longer needed for warmth, quilt makers used the art form to express their creativity. Some did so within the confines of popular decorating trends, including the Aesthetic movement and the Colonial Revival styles.

“Contemporary quilt artists have the opportunity to transcend time and place, using the historical concept of a quilt as a starting point for their artistic, and often social and political statements,” she says.

Warren also has written a book that accompanies the exhibition and documents the 200 most important examples from the museum’s collection. America’s maven of domesticity Martha Stewart wrote the forward.

The collection includes all the primary forms and designs from “Tree of Life,” a 1796 stuffed and corded white work, to “More is More,” a 1996 kaleidoscope quilt by renowned quilter Paula Nadelstern.

Also shown are chintz quilts, signature and album quilts, pieced, applique and log cabin quilts, doll quilts, Amish quilts, African American quilts and contemporary quilts.

Two noteworthy bedcovers of historical importance — rarely seen before, says Warren — are the “Reiter Family Album Quilt” and the “Hewson Center Quilt with Multiple Border.”

Iconic quilts, such as “Bird of Paradise,” “Harlequin Medallion,” “Double Wedding Ring” and the “Flag Quilt,” demonstrate the quality and range of the museum’s holdings.

But that’s not all. Through Sept. 25 at the museum’s Lincoln Square branch, another display of 20 quilts titled “Super Stars” sparkles with the diversity of the time-honored star pattern. A beloved and enduring motif in American quilts, the star has appeared in pieced bedcovers as early as the 18th century and remains popular with quilt artists today.

As the highlight of the American Folk Art Museum’s tribute to the Year of the Quilt, museum officials are planning an extravaganza of 650 red and white textiles on loan from Joanna Rose, a private New York collector. A dramatic installation, “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts,” is scheduled March 25–30 at the 55,000-square-foot Park Avenue Armory.

No two quilts are exactly alike, and they will appear to spiral in midair, creating circular pavilions so the quilts can be experienced in a three-dimensional environment. Optical effects, fanciful mazes and zigzag lightning bolts are a few of the patterns.

“We have known that many red and white quilts were made during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries,” Warren says, “but this large collection allows us to study a much longer period of creativity using this color scheme and a much wider scope of design than was ever envisioned.”

I don’t know how many of you readers may have the opportunity to view these Year of the Quilt master works in the months ahead, but I’ll wager their visual power and significance will have wide-ranging influence on today’s quilters and the continuation of this great American art form.

Let quilters everywhere celebrate the Year of the Quilt.

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