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Exhibition brings renowned quilts and exploration of color theory to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Carpenter's Wheel Quilt. Attributed to: Mrs. Miller (American), Mennonite, Pennsylvania, Easton, about 1890. Pieced cotton plain weave top, cotton plain weave back and binding; quilted. Height x width: 204.2 x 204.2 cm (80 3/8 x 80 3/8 in.). Pilgrim / Roy Collection. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- Vibrant colors, dynamic patterns and skilled craftsmanship are part of spring’s Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection, presented by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition of 58 distinctive quilts is the first to explore how, over five decades, artist and designer Gerald Roy (who now lives in New Hampshire) and the late Paul Pilgrim acquired bold, eye-popping quilts that frequently echo the work of mid-20th century Abstract and Op Artists. The exhibition not only looks at the quilts themselves, but also examines how color theory relates to their designs. Pilgrim and Roy began collecting in California, and their lifelong passion for quilts led them to amass one of the finest collections in the world, numbering more than 1,200 examples from across the United States. Many were created by anonymous women from diverse communities stretching from 19th-century Massachusetts and Amish and Mennonite Pennsylvania to Depression-era Missouri. Quilting gave them a voice in a time when there were few opportunities for women to express themselves artistically. On view April 6–July 27, 2014 in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, each section of the exhibition, and the accompanying publication, is introduced by an abstract work of art—one painting and seven prints by artists such as Josef Albers, Victor Vasarely and Sol LeWitt—that offer a modern look at color theory. The accompanying publication also explores the history of quilting as it rose beyond its utilitarian and decorative roots to become a form of art in its own right.

At the entrance to the exhibition, Museum visitors receive a color wheel to assist in appreciating and experiencing the exhibition's color theory themes, such as vibration, gradation and contrast.

“Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy brought to their collecting a discerning eye, a thirst for knowledge and a passion for quilts of exceptional color and form. This exhibition is not only an exploration of quilts, but also a look at the history and development of one of America’s finest collections,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “From that first moment of inspiration, through the pursuit of knowledge and finally the development of a strong personal vision, the Pilgrim/Roy collection is testament to the dedication and commitment of both men. As we celebrate their stunning collection this spring, we look forward to hosting a number of events and activities that bring Quilts and Color to life for visitors.”

Gerald Roy and Paul Pilgrim met as students in 1963 at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, CA (now known as California College of the Arts). Roy, a native of Worcester, MA, was heavily influenced by color theorist Josef Albers and the Bauhaus school in Germany—which emphasized the merging of fine art and craft—while attending The School of The Worcester Art Museum (1959–1962). After receiving their Bachelor of Arts degrees, both went on to receive their Master of Fine Arts degrees at Mills College in Oakland (1965–1967). As they began to acquire items for a gallery, opened in 1971, Pilgrim and Roy were struck by quilts, especially those that demonstrated sophisticated use of color and pattern and were reminiscent of Albers’s ideas from his seminal book, Interaction of Color, published in 1963. The collectors were at the forefront of recognizing quilts as art, and acquired outstanding examples as they traveled the country to visit fairs, flea markets and auctions, as well as meeting directly with dealers and quilters. Today, quilts are no longer simply seen as decorative bedcovers, women’s work or symbols of a colonial past—they are appreciated as works of artistic expression. Pilgrim and Roy were in the vanguard of this recognition.

“As we began looking at what we had collected in comparison to others, we noticed our collection was different in that our interests were neither historical, nor technical,” said Gerald Roy. “We collected what we found to be visually exceptional and challenging, and always kept an eye toward color theory.”

Quilts and Color is organized into eight themes, with each section introduced by a 20th-century abstract work of art that illuminates a color or design theory. Log Cabin, Barn Raising Variation (1879, Mrs. Herrick) was one of the first quilts to catch Pilgrim and Roy’s eye. Made 84 years before Interaction of Color was published by Albers, the quilt uses graduating intensities, or color “Gradations,” that were a mainstay of Joseph Albers’s teaching as he trained his students to recognize, understand and apply the principle of color interaction. With this principle, gradations of different colors are chosen specifically to create a gradual transition from one color to the next. This concept can be seen in the works of quilt makers who instinctively understood and applied this to their work, creating subtle rhythms as the eye moves across their designs. The Mennonite quilter of Sunshine and Shadow (1880s) also used this technique and created the effect that Albers termed “space illusions” by arranging repeated concentric diamonds in bands of red, blue, yellow and green, and within each band, three transitions from dark to light shades. These works are complemented by Victor Vasarely’s Op Art silkscreen Los Angeles (1981), which employs subtle shifts in color value to create depth.

Among the most visually striking quilts in the collection are those exhibiting the color interaction known as “Vibrations,” which was favored by Mennonite women of Pennsylvania and Ohio. When placed side-by-side, complementary colors (or near complementary colors) of equal intensity—like red and green—cause the eye to see a “vibration” where the colors meet. To soften the potent optic effect, some women added a third analogous color (one that is adjacent on the color wheel) to their designs. The maker of Ocean Waves (1880–1890, Pennsylvania, Mennonite) softens the vibrating visual effect of red and green by incorporating orange triangles.

“The Pilgrim/Roy collection would not have been possible before the acceptance of abstract art in the mid-20th century,” said Pamela Parmal, Department Head and David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts. “Its emphasis of color and form over representational art opened the door to a re-evaluation of the quilt maker’s art.”

As opposed to more conventional quilt design, which employs contrast between dark and light, the edges of quilts in the “Mixtures” section of the exhibition are de-emphasized by their relatively similar values—where analogous colors meet, boundaries blur as the eye “mixes” them. The makers of quilts with these subtle color mixtures defied mainstream fashions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when most design books and published patterns encouraged quilters to create high-contrast combinations. Mrs. Ephraim Scott’s Sunburst quilt (1856, Philadelphia) uses low-contrast combinations of pink with brown, and green with yellow. In Yellow Baskets (1920s–1930s, New York), high-intensity yellow integrates with an equally bright white, causing the quilt’s basket design to neither recede nor advance, ultimately de-emphasizing the pattern.

By the 1880s, the Amish—considered one of the most conservative Pennsylvania Anabaptist groups—were among the last to adopt quilts for bedding. Amish beliefs require spiritual and material conformity, as well as maintaining a balance between simplicity and the more complex world outside their own, and their quilts are an expression of this harmony. While their patterns are much simpler than the more complex quilts of the 19th century, they show a unique sophistication in color and form. In a section dedicated to “Harmony,” the exhibition features classic Amish styles such as Floating Bars (about 1940, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) and Framed Diamond in a Square (1920s, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), as well as more common quilt patterns such as Sunshine and Shadow (1890s, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania) and Thousand Pyramids (about 1930, Holmes County, Ohio).

As their collection grew, Pilgrim and Roy turned their interest to the history of quilting and added more conventional designs to their collection. Many of these incorporated the color white to create high contrast. The exhibition’s sections “Contrast” and “Optical Illusions” examine the dramatic color choices and innovative effects created within these established patterns. An example of high contrast is seen in the Baltimore Album quilt (before 1847, made for Georgianna Eltonhead, Baltimore, Maryland). Commissioned by Georgianna’s father, the three makers—whose signatures appear on the quilt—cut shapes of clear colors of red, green and yellow and appliquéd them to white squares. By using different sewing techniques, embroidery, fabric manipulation and ribbon embroidery, the three-dimensional floral motifs stand out. The maker of the Touching Sunbursts quilt (1854, Pennsylvania) takes a more subtle approach, creating a dynamic composition by posing stark navy blue and white shapes against red, green and yellow stars.

Prior to the early 1970s, most quilt scholars and collectors focused on elaborate and intricate masterpieces with rare fabrics, extraordinary workmanship and intricate pieced and appliqué designs. Often, who made the work and for what purpose was of the greatest importance—celebration and celebrity was of the utmost concern. However, new trends in the contemporary art world began to bring wider recognition and appreciation for the repetitive nature of simply pieced designs. Suddenly, the complex geometric designs that create intriguing optical illusions—which had been a part of traditional patchwork—were being taken off beds and displayed on walls. Examples include patterns such as Orange Peel (1880–1890s, Pennsylvania), which uses a limited palette of red and light blue to build tension as the viewer tries to distinguish between positive and negative space. The maker of the Field of Diamonds quilt (about 1860, American) was a master of color and pattern who carefully arranged hexagons to produce an array of forms, including tumbling blocks, diamonds and stars. The strategic placement of orange within the work’s black diamond grid creates a secondary pattern of circular shapes.

Pieced quilt patterns can be varied in infinite ways through use of color and the placement of blocks. Log Cabin quilts are among the most popular and versatile pieced-quilts, and can be seen in the exhibition under the theme “Variations.” The Log Cabin pattern features subtle color variations set in the form of a square. Strips of cloth sewn around a center make up the basic block, which is divided by color along the diagonal axis. The selection of color and contrast as well as placement of blocks can result in incredible range of patterns. Most makers working with this pattern contrast light and dark areas, as in Log Cabin, Sunshine and Shadow Variation (1870s, Rebexy Gray, Lincoln, Illinois). Other quilters take the less conventional approach of using low-contrast colors to diminish the pattern’s graphic effect.

Quilts and Color concludes with a nod to the artistic vision of quilt makers and highlights artists who worked outside of standard patterns and design. Gerald Roy has written, “Motivated by the inner need to communicate when language fell short, quilt making gave voices to generations of women who otherwise never would have been heard.” The makers in the “Singular Visions” section of the exhibition employ unconventional colors, materials or techniques to make their individual statements. For example, the African-American maker of the Double Wedding Ring quilt (1940s, Missouri) sets bold primary and secondary colors against a purple background, whereas mainstream versions of this popular Depression-era pattern were rendered in pastels against white. Through their inspired departures from convention, the quilt makers in this section created exceptional and vibrant works of art.

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