Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
On display until July 27
Free with MIT ID
Are quilts fine art or folk art? The exhibit Quilts and Color, currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, invites viewers to answer the question for themselves.
Unlike many traditional artistic forms, such as paintings or sculptures, quilts are highly utilitarian. In fact, many of the quilts were created by Amish and Mennonite women for use by their families. But even the simplest of quilts on display should be considered works of fine art.
The first quilt in the exhibit features a relatively simple “Carpenter’s Wheel Pattern,” consisting of a tessellation of rhomboids, squares, and triangles. But upon closer inspection, the basic pattern is overlaid with intricate stitching. The stitches holding the decorative cover, batting, and backing formed delicate flowers and concentric ovals, evoking the shape of vibrations on water.
The quilt was composed of red- and green-hued squares of the same intensity, creating the effect of “vibration,” which occurs when complementary colors (such as red and green) on the color wheel cannot be distinguished by our eyes, causing the fabric to appear to pulse or vibrate. This effect was softened by the inclusion of orange squares, since orange is analogous or adjacent to red on the color wheel.
Vibration is actually a complex color effect, and other quilts throughout this exhibit featured similarly complex color schemes. Even more astonishing is the fact the quiltmakers did not have the advanced training of painters. They combined these colors instinctively to amazing effects. Their techniques predate much of color theory, as well as modern art’s exploration of colors in the mid-twentieth century.
These masterpieces, however, could not employ the range of colors at the disposal of painters. The makers were limited to the fabrics that they could buy or make, and their pieces must have required even more planning to create. Even with these limitations, or perhaps because of these limitations, the quilters works are simply breathtaking.
The exhibit was structured around major designs and color theoretic themes, including gradations, vibrations, mixtures, harmony, contrast, optical illusions, variations, and singular visions. The organization of the gallery around the themes highlighted contemporary art that formalized the quilters’ instincts.
As with any work of art, you need to view the quilt up close to appreciate the fine stitching and at a distance to truly appreciate its artistic effect. The combinations of the colors is surprising and beautiful, evoking the names of the pieces, such as “Sunshine and Shadow” and “Field of Diamonds.”
According to Gerald E. Roy, one of the exhibit’s collectors, “Quiltmaking offered an artistic voice to those who might have otherwise remained silent.” The exhibit preserved unique and often overlooked works. The exhibit’s focus on Mennonite and Amish quilts, as well as less-explicitly religious quilts, certainly opened the exhibit to other voices.
It was interesting to examine the contrasts between quilts — where Mennonite and Amish quilts were more restrained, with simpler patterns and more muted colors, other quilts derived inspiration from everyday life and used a wider variety of fabrics in surprising and sublime combinations. The note on one of the quilts even states that the Amish quilter had to obtain permission from her bishop to use printed fabrics!
The exhibit is particularly striking for its focus on a female-dominated art. While many of the quilts are not attributed to an artist, and there is little information available about the named artists, these quilts — particularly the less ornate quilts at the beginning of the exhibit — offer a small window into the lives of these women and their art within the bounds of a much stricter time.