Fifty years after its debut, the exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts is remembered as a pivotal moment in the intersecting histories of art, craft, and design. Installed at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971, the exhibition presented traditional American pieced quilts on walls more commonly used to display modern art such as abstract expressionist paintings. The exhibition, curated by Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof from their own collection, unexpectedly struck a chord with museumgoers and art critics alike, breaking attendance records and subsequently traveling to museums across the United States, Europe, and Japan.
With Abstract Design in American Quilts at 50, an exhibition series that includes an installation of the original quilt group, the International Quilt Museum at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln reexamines the half-century impact of this watershed exhibition. In five essays, leading quilt scholars assess the areas upon which the exhibition, in its various iterations, had its greatest impact, most notably the growth of quiltmaking across the United States and in art circles. The essays also discuss broader cultural phenomena that produced an environment in which quilts and other forms of material culture could be viewed and valued in new ways.