Who is to say what can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary? Certainly vision helps, and when three visionary entities join forces it is bound to cause a commotion. When the source of the marvel is a common everyday object, it makes for an even greater spectacle.
Such was the phenomenon of “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts,” from the collection of Joanna S. Rose, on view last week at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.
Ms. Rose, an East Hampton resident, is known for her philanthropy as well as an ability to cause a stir. In this case, she created a sensation.
“I always think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” she said on March 29, after more than 12,000 people from all over the world had seen the exhibit, which was up only from March 25 through 30. “I was the only person not surprised at the overwhelming response.”
Part of the exhibit’s punch came from the sheer volume of “turkey red” quilts — 650 according to the brochure, but 651 in actuality. (The red color was derived from madder root and was colorfast, which made it popular, she said.) Also striking were the “infinite variety,” referenced in the exhibit’s title, and the installation itself.
The winning design, by a firm called Thinc Design, a sort of reflection on the theme of a quilting circle, featured rounded helixes and circular patterns, allowing viewers to get close to the quilts, while also seeing them as a collection.
It was Ms. Rose’s 80th birthday wish to see all of these quilts together for the first time and to provide that opportunity to the people of New York City. Her husband, Daniel Rose, who is part of a New York City real estate dynasty, had the means to provide that wish. His donation to the Armory allowed the show to be open to the public for free.
The American Folk Art Museum, which is slated to receive 50 of the quilts as another gift from the family, had the scholarly interest and resources to put the show together. It will also result in a book on the collection, written and researched by the show’s guest curator, Elizabeth V. Warren.
Ms. Rose and the museum’s curators wanted the show to be perceived as a whole, but they also wanted to provide visitors with intimate encounters with its separate pieces.
Ms. Rose emphasized that she is not a scholar, or a collector, even though in conversation she does reveal a lot of background information she has gleaned over the years. “My interest is in patterns and social history.” She called her trove of objects an accumulation and said she sees herself as a treasure hunter who found most of the quilts in and around East Hampton at antiques shops and flea markets.
“I didn’t keep records,” she said. “What I liked were the variation in patterns and how the women could use their imagination” in creating them. The quilters drew on nature, the kitchen, even battle plans in history books.
While Ms. Rose bought many of the quilts on the East End, she said many had New England or Mid-Atlantic themes. “I usually can’t tell where it’s from.” She had initially estimated her quilts would total only a couple of hundred, not the 650 red and white, as well as the rest in other colors that bring her total collection to more than 1,000 quilts.
Ms. Rose was given her first quilt when her first child was born. It was a double wedding ring pattern. Her interest was piqued, though, once she began buying furniture for her East Hampton house. She found that the stores would wrap larger pieces in old quilts to protect them during delivery, and she became fascinated by the patterns.
She doubted that she would have started collecting had she not had a house on the South Fork. “It’s a wonderful treasure hunting place.” And she is still “out there finding things.” At the time she started buying the quilts, they could be had for as little as $5 or $10. When they were at that price, “you could say yes or no very quickly. Now, I have to think before I buy.”
Over the years, she has placed her quilts on beds or used them as table coverings for parties. She said her favorite quilt was also a gift, one made by her sister-in-law and niece from squares collected from all of her friends and relatives and given to the couple on their 50th wedding anniversary. “It’s my husband’s favorite object of all.”
She was thrilled with the response to the show. “It was a happy thing. Everyone was smiling.” And although for years interest in antique objects has been said to be on the wane, she said it seemed to her that there were as many young people as older people walking through the Armory. One of her grandchildren even excitedly pointed out a quilt that had been on a bed he slept in when he visited her.
“It’s fun and it’s a good time to do a show like this. The world is in such turmoil. It makes people feel good.”
The show was also used as part of a private benefit on March 29 to raise money for the American Red Cross to help aid Japanese earthquake and tsunami victims.