Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50: Raising the Profile

Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50: Raising the Profile

Since the early 1800s, the most common place to see quilts displayed—other than on beds—was in women’s exhibits at state and county agricultural fairs. For more than two centuries, quilts have remained objects intimately connected with women’s lives. By the 1970s, however, art museums opened exhibitions that recognized quilts as objects of art for their audiences.

In 1971, one such exhibition, Abstract Design in American Quilts, opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. This exhibition, along with other significant cultural factors, raised quilts’ profile in multiple ways. First, the art world’s new esteem of quilts bolstered a revival of American quiltmaking by new and long-time quiltmakers. In addition, quilts’ display in major art museums kindled a serious interest in quilts as collectible artworks, which in turn created a market framework to serve collectors. Lastly, the disappearance of American quilts from their ancestral homes in a journey to antique shops and collectors’ walls fueled unprecedented grassroots-to-academic documentation and study of American quilts.

The quilts in Raising the Profile introduce us to the deeply personal and particular details of these phenomena.

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Friendship Plume
Marie Hart Mattison
Minneapolis, Minnesota, dated 1976
Cotton blend; hand appliquéd and quilted
Gift of Marie Hart Mattison
IQM 2013.015.0001.01

In 1973, when Marie Mattison was in her mid-30s, her mother suggested they make a quilt together. They had often cooperated on sewing home-decor projects, so this, according to Mattison, “...was just the next project to work on.” After this, Mattison saw Friendship Plume, a Mountain Mist quilt design, in a magazine and ordered the pattern. The quilt became the centerpiece of her redecorated master bedroom, complete with coordinating curtains, green plaid wallpaper, and green shag carpeting. Mattison and her mother reflect the do-it-yourself decorating trend that paralleled shelter magazine editors who featured quilts in professional interior designs.

Coxcomb
Sarah Margaret Franklin Hart
Probably made in Clark County, Kentucky, dated 1858
Cotton; hand appliquéd and quilted
Ardis and Robert James Collection
IQM 1997.007.0720

“S. M. Hart, Oct. 1858,” is quilted in the white background of this quilt. The Ohio quilt dealer who sold it to collectors Ardis and Robert James had no information on the quilt’s place of origin other than the Kentucky Quilt Project had documented a nearly identical quilt made by a member of the Hart family of Clark County, Kentucky. With this lead, IQM genealogists identified Sarah Margaret Hart as the maker. 

Documentation efforts by state documentation projects, collecting institutions, and individuals have re-established connections between quilts and their origins.

Peony Variation
Mary Campbell Ghormley
Lincoln, Nebraska, dated 1992
Cotton; hand pieced, appliquéd, and quilted
Mary and Roger Ghormley Collection 
IQM 2007.031.0002

Just as American women have done for two centuries, Mary Ghormley (1919-2015) displayed her quilts in agricultural fairs. Peony Variation earned first prize at the 1992 Nebraska State Fair. 

In the early 1970s, Ghormley significantly influenced display, documentation, and study of quilts in Nebraska. As interest in DIY quiltmaking grew, she taught quilting and co-founded the Lincoln Quilters Guild (LQG) in 1973. She saw the Holstein and van der Hoof Collection at the University of Iowa’s art museum and then initiated a guild-sponsored exhibition of Nebraska quilts at the University of Nebraska’s Sheldon Art Gallery in 1974. In addition, Ghormley was instrumental in LQG’s organization of a national quilt symposium in 1977 and the Nebraska Quilt Documentation Project a decade later.

Album
Salinda W. Rupp
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 1870-1890
Cotton; hand pieced and quilted
Robert and Ardis James Collection
IQM 2006.043.0226

Had it not been for the inscription on this quilt, “Salinda W. Rupp,” its history might have been lost forever. As the antique quilt market developed during the 1970s and ‘80s, it was not typical for pickers to gather a quilt’s history before selling it to retail dealers. As a result, when Kate and Joel Kopp, leading New York City retail quilt dealers, sold it to collectors Ardis and Robert James they had no provenance to share. Fortunately, recent genealogical research established the quilt’s relationship to other similar quilts made in a community of Mennonite women in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Tumbling Blocks
L. Miller
Wayne County, Ohio, circa 1975
Cotton; machine pieced, hand quilted
Ardis and Robert James Collection
IQM 1997.007.0512

Classic Amish quilts made with fine woolens in deeply saturated colors were the quintessential quilt analog to the work of acclaimed mid-twentieth-century modernist Abstract painters such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Because of the similarity, demand for Amish quilts drove prices quickly upwards. Ohio dealers Susan and George Delagrange offered an alternative: Susan designed quilts inspired by classic Amish quilts, and their company, Amish Design, hired Amish women to make them. Though sold as new quilts, these pieces have been easily mistaken for older classics. 

Friendship Block
Betty June “Bets” Ramsey and friends
Chattanooga, Tennessee, dated 1973
Cotton; hand pieced, appliquéd, and quilted 
Gift of Bets Ramsey
IQM 2018.004.0001

About 1970, while reading extensively on quilt history for her master’s degree in craft, Bets Ramsey asked family, friends, and fellow artists in Chattanooga to contribute blocks for this Friendship quilt. 

The Hunter Museum, Chattanooga, hosted Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof’s The Pieced Quilt in 1974. Holstein declined to speak during the exhibition; owing to her master’s work, and because she taught fiber arts at the Museum, Ramsey spoke in his place. She also organized the Southern Quilt Symposium for the museum, the first public seminar devoted to quilts, which became an annual event through 1991. Years later, Ramsey told Holstein that his decision not to speak had launched her lifelong career in quilts.

Log Cabin variation
RSVP Club
Greene County, Alabama, circa 1987
Cotton blend; hand pieced and quilted
Robert and Helen Cargo Collection
IQM 2000.004.0112
Members of the Greene County, Alabama Retired Senior Volunteer Corps (RSVP) chapter sold this quilt to Alabama folk art dealer Robert Cargo. These RSVP members leveraged a collector’s interest in an art form with a long history in their predominantly Black community to benefit their neighbors. Similarly, the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative of Black Women founded in 1966 in nearby Wilcox County, sold quilts by mail order to benefit impoverished Black residents who experienced eviction and harassment by white landowners after registering to vote under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ms. Sue: Alive & Liberated
Odette Goodman Teel and the Friendly Quilters
Made in California, dated 1984-1986
Cotton; hand appliquéd and quilted 
Gift of Odette Goodman Teel
IQM 2008.010.0001

Coinciding with the growth of the Women’s Movement in the United States, in 1972 Congress sent the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution to the states for ratification. Opposition from conservative women’s and labor groups undermined support and not enough states ratified it. What the ERA did not accomplish constitutionally, Odette Teel and friends asserted through the oft-quilted Sunbonnet Sue pattern. More than 40 women from Walnut Creek, California to Leicester, England depicted many poses of Sue as a woman free of the restrictions society had placed on women for centuries.

Cup of Gold
Marion Ekstrom Wright 
Naval Air Station, Barbers Point, Hawaii, dated 1972
Cotton; hand appliquéd and quilted
Gift of quiltmaker, Marion Ekstrom Wright
IQM 2015.055.0001

Cup of Gold is one of nearly 5000 quilts documented by the Nebraska Quilt Project between 1987 and 1989, but its origins are far from the Cornhusker state. Marion Wright made the quilt near Ewa Beach, Oahu, Hawaii where her husband, a naval officer, was stationed at Barber’s Point Naval Air Station. As did many women at this time without quilting experience, she found a teacher. Mealii Kalama, a native of the island, taught Wright to make a traditional Hawaiian-style appliqué quilt with echo quilting. Wright made two quilts in this style.

Child's Quilt
Jean Ray Laury
Redwood City, California, dated 1958
Cotton; hand appliquéd and quilted
Gift of Jean Ray Laury
IQM 2010.014.0025

Child’s Quilt is notably similar to the first quilt Jean Ray Laury (1928-2011) made in 1956 for her Master of Arts degree in design at Stanford University. In both, she used a women’s art form and common materials to elevate everyday childhood objects to subjects of art. In this way, Laury brought art and life together and encouraged quiltmakers to see themselves as artists. Her design, writing, speaking, and teaching forged a way for quilts to reflect women’s contemporary experiences and paralleled the social progress in women’s roles in the 1960s and 1970s, including for those who were wives, mothers, and homemakers, as Laury was.

Album, The Great Quilt 
Marilynn Gelfman Karp and friends
New York, New York, dated 1974
Cotton; hand appliquéd, tied
Gift of Marilynn and Ivan Karp
IQM 2008.005.0001

In 1973, Marilynn Gelfman Karp, an artist and designer, planned a personal way to commemorate the United States 1976 Bicentennial. Drawing from quilts’ higher profile in the art world and their historical place in women’s lives, she organized a “contemporary art friendship quilt.” Karp invited her and her husband Ivan Karp’s friends in the New York art scene to make fabric blocks that included their names and something symbolic of themselves. Many contributors were friends known through Ivan Karp’s OK Harris Gallery, Works of Art, in SoHo, including Richard Artschwager, Ralph Goings, James Wines, and Alison Sky.

Works in the Exhibition

Gallery Photos

Gallery Photos
Gallery Photos

Virtual Gallery Walkthrough

Virtual Gallery Walkthrough
Virtual Gallery Walkthrough
Support for this exhibition has been provided by contributions from visitors like you and by the following sponsors Robert & Ardis James Foundation, Lincoln Modern Quilt Guild, Anonymous, Nebraska Arts Council/Nebraska Cultural Endowment and Friends of the International Quilt Museum. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov for more information.
Event Date
Friday, April 2, 2021 to Saturday, August 7, 2021