8:57 am Mar. 30, 2011
Last week Joanna S. Rose told The New York Times that she’d only recently found out she had so many red and white quilts.
“Someone asked,” she recalled, “and I said, ‘Maybe 70.’"
But, it turns out, she owns more than a thousand.
The occasion for Rose’s revelation about the extent of the collection was the planning of a well-attended six-day exhibition (today is the final day) of 651 of her quilts at the Park Avenue Armory, an 80th-birthday gift from her husband Daniel, the chairman of Rose Associates, his family’s real-estate firm.
“The lyrical installation by the New York City-based firm Thinc Design,” says the exhibition’s brochure, “tosses these hundreds of quilts into space like so many playing cards, where they hover weightlessly, seemingly frozen in midair.”
They're hung in the Armory's cavernous Drill Hall, the use of which, according to the "Space Rentals" section of the Armory website, "is only limited by your imagination." The quilts have been hung from a giant metal grid, like the kind overhanging the stage at a stadium rock show, in a series of large helical formations reaching from the floor to the 85-foot ceiling of the astonishing space. They are hung back to back—like playing cards—so that the outside of each enormous cylinder of quilts is completely different from the inside. At the opposite end of the drill hall, facing you when you enter the room, is a final looming wall of quilts.
The effect is as disorienting as what Emerson describes as the human condition at the beginning of “Experience”: “Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.” Except instead of stairs, there are quilts.
In the brochure for the exhibition, which is entitled “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts,” Mrs. Rose writes that her interest in these objects centers on “pattern and social history,” but there is no historical context here deepening the viewer's sense of either. There are no labels. As one of the volunteer docents apologetically told a group of curious women, “They don’t give us any information about the individual quilts.”
It is, then, an installation of radical purity, a fantasy of high Modernism. Drained of history, of any coherence but the installation by Thinc, of any context but more and more quilts, there is only untainted, unadulterated design. That can and does dazzle, but it also can’t possibly illuminate. Its effect is only to overload and bore; you gradually become uncertain just where to walk, what to look at. The sheer quantity becomes the content.
Rose writes of the pleasure she finds in contemplating the creators of her quilts, “thinking of those nineteenth-century women not ‘doomed to drudgery’ but letting their minds and needles wander.” It’s a pleasantly idyllic counter-narrative of the history of women in America, and one in which the quilts’ creators are conveniently, as she writes, “largely anonymous.” This anonymity, this lack of context, invites the viewer to project and romanticize, not to understand or even, really, to see.
What you do get when you try to get over being overwhelmed and just look is a sense of something approaching despair. You realize that the installation hasn’t taken great works of art and displayed them inappropriately; rather, it has taken pretty but entirely ordinary objects and displayed them correctly, deemphasizing their rather bland individualities. For these quilts, as Rose writes in the brochure, “are not the prizewinners at fairs nor ones that have been passed down in families, cherished by several generations. They are, rather, ordinary coverings, their creators largely anonymous, their provenance obscure, not meant for company beds or ‘best use.’"
The installation, then, is a celebration of ordinary life, but it is completely uninterested in what ordinary life was or is like. It insists on focusing on the purely artistic qualities of works without artistic intention, misleadingly presenting them as art objects. And the presentation is of an enormous collection by an extremely wealthy collector: "Best use" or not, nobody who made these quilts ever collected a thousand, or could team up with an architect to find an impressive way to display them in the Drill Hall.
In this respect the installation feels like a marker on the road to the end of our particular empire, our particular moment, which is one that finds amateurism more interesting and authentic than professionalism. Our culture is suspicious of the merit that accrues from training. What could be better art than the kind of quilt, “not meant for company beds,” that any woman would have made as a matter of course? It’s ironic that the American Folk Art Museum—which has helped present the exhibition “in anticipation,” it says, “of a significant gift”—finds itself lately in such dire financial straits, since we live in an age, and a country, of folk art.
And how better to prove the folksy bona fides of what is fundamentally an act of extravagance by allowing the viewer to know that these works are priceless not because they are too valuable for a price, but because they are, in fact, too cheap?
“They came up in flea markets in the 1950s and sold for five and ten dollars or were often used to wrap purchases,” Rose writes in the brochure. “They were undervalued,” she told the Times. “Gradually, quilts that cost me $5 or $10 went up to $15 or $20 and then $50. When they got to $150, you had to think twice.”
In this narrative, there could be no better contemporary correlate to those hardworking quilters than this thriftily amassed collection. Though unthinkably wealthy, Rose is living their dream, her collecting eye wandering just as, according to her, their "minds and needles" did. Yet to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, amassing a collection of fifty red-and-white quilts, stitched into being for their utility, may be regarded as a misfortune; collecting more than a thousand looks like carelessness. Rose says that she is “a treasure hunter,” not a collector, a claim borne out by her presumably ingenuous surprise at just how many quilts she’s managed to accumulate, like a compulsive shopper who suddenly reckons with a credit-card bill and wonders when and how she got all those things.
To be a collector is to be financially interested, and that is just what Rose least wants to be. What we get, of course, in our embrace of the installation’s romanticization of the native—in this case, the happily productive housewife of American myth—is expiation for our shame at our own relative sophistication, our own money. There is nothing more familiar to us today than the installation’s impossible but obscurely consoling desire to have it both ways, to be a monument to money’s power and to elide that power entirely, to laugh it off (“When they got to $150, you had to think twice”).
It's an extravagant display … of thrift. It’s a spectacle … of intimacy. It’s the most artificial possible presentation … of authenticity. These tense dualities characterize our twenty-first-century American lives. It is hard to imagine another exhibition that could teach us more about ourselves.
More by this author:
- Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
- Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks