Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts

Review

of an Exhibition

by Paul Orselli

Published on April 02, 2011

  • Description:

    A few months ago, I saw a computer rendering of a swirling spiral of quilts in a design magazine. I vaguely noticed that the image related to an upcoming exhibition in New York City, so I ripped out the page, and made a mental note to try to see the show.

    Am I glad I did!

    The exhibition, entitled “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts” was put on by the American Folk Art Museum in the massive 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall (as in putting soldiers through their drills) of the historic Park Avenue Armory in the middle of Manhattan. The quilts were all drawn from the collection of Joanna S. Rose, and was the largest exhibition of quilts ever held in New York City. (I say was because, despite the tremendous undertaking involved with creating and mounting the show, it was only on view for six days!)

    The brilliant implementation, conceived by a team from Thinc Design, was, quite simply, enthralling. Involving the careful placement and juxtaposition of 650 red-and-white quilts (as can be seen in the photos here, and in the related Flickr group) it felt as if giant decks of cards had been spun into the air and then frozen in time inside a stroboscopic photograph.

    As a visitor, the initial view into the huge volume of the Armory space was both exciting and daunting. However, the careful arrangements of quilts into cylindrical and spiraling patterns drew viewers into careful examination of the “infinite variety” of quilt motifs and materials featured in the exhibition.

    There was a nice physical rhythm to the space that encouraged visitors to pull away from the central exhibition for some mental “breathing room” via benches (as well as mini gift shop and cafe areas) if they needed to. All those quilts were, at times, a little overwhelming!

    Interpretation via labels and text was very minimal, perhaps due to the fact that free apps as well as free iPads (available on loan at the exhibition entrance) carried much of this interpretive material. Perhaps due to the simple fact that the provenance and history of many, if not most, of the quilts on display was unknown. And lastly, perhaps, the designers, organizers, and donors simply wanted exhibition attendees to view the quilts themselves, the real objects, on their own terms.

    Whatever the case for the specific design and interpretation choices, the “Infinite Variety” exhibition became a six-day “happening” for visitors from around the world (many of whom dressed in red-and-white outfits!) Media from the Wall Street Journal to Martha Stewart and her TV crew celebrated both the quilts and Thinc’s design.

    And in the end, visitors to the “Infinite Variety” exhibition left happy and inspired by the human industry and creativity embedded in 650 red-and-white quilts.

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