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Art Review

Quilts in MFA exhibit shows its colors powerfully

Sunburst quilt, 1856, Mrs. Ephraim Scott, American is featured in “Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection” at the MFA.

Do you like beauty? Dumb question. Here, then, is breaking news — clothed, critic-style, in naked assertion: You will not see a more beautiful show than “Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection” anywhere in New England this year.

Room after room of drenching, delirious, boldly expressive color, all in the form of large quilts, and all made by women in 19th- and early-20th-century communities across America (though mostly from Amish and Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania).

What a bliss-out.

My honest advice? Relax into it. Don’t think. Don’t talk. Don’t read the wall labels or listen to the audio gadgets.

You can save all that for your second or third wander through. Instead, just use your eyes. Let them — and your body, your state of mind — respond to the quilts themselves. If you’re in the mood, maybe have some fun (otherwise known as aesthetic discrimination): Do you, like me, find the first half of the show, with its bold, saturated colors, strong contrasts, and generally simpler designs considerably snappier than the second?

Or is there something about those later pieces — with their craftier compositions, their busy stripes, their preponderance of oranges, purples, blacks, and browns — that carries the day? What about the gallery in between? It’s devoted to more conventional designs in reds and greens with lots of white. Is this where quilting peaked, or is it fussy, floral, and froufrou?


More fun still: Which individual quilts deliver the best immediate hits? For me it’s a tossup between an 1890s quilt called “Feathered Diamond” (a hot pink, jagged-edged diamond and four right-angled triangles on an olive green ground) and “Sunburst,” an earlier, eight-sided quilt by Mrs. Ephraim Scott, in red, yellow, green, and pink on a brown ground. But the imperious melancholy of the Amish “Frame Diamond in a Square” is pretty great, and the Mennonite “Joseph’s Coat” is riveting.


More of a challenge: What, upon second glance, could you bring yourself to like more than you initially thought? Maybe that startling “Chain Star” composition in orange and black with blue floral patches sewn on? Or perhaps the so-called “Spider Web,” with its spiraling stripes in a variety of browns and checkered patterns that create a bewitching optical blur.

These are the kinds of questions I assume the collectors Gerald Roy, an artist and designer, and his late partner, Paul Pilgrim, would want us to ask. After all, they collected these quilts with aesthetic criteria — effects of color above all — uppermost in their minds.

To the MFA’s credit, its beautiful presentation honors their collecting philosophy, without stinting on important information. Museums, which often get carried away by their self-appointed educational mission, are too often afraid to make concessions to sheer beauty. As a result, opportunities to stand back and bask, our tongues lolling out, are scarce. But if we can’t do that in an art museum, where can we?

In the course of their collecting, Roy and Pilgrim came to know a great deal about the social history of quilts, but when they first began, they knew very little. They were attracted instead — like so many others — by visual affinities between the quilts they liked and modern abstract art.

Roy, who grew up in Worcester, had been a student at the Worcester Art Museum’s school, where he was inculcated with the color theories of the influential artist and teacher Josef Albers.


You can feel Albers’s influence heavily in the MFA show. Several of the quilts look uncannily like Albers’s paintings, or like his well-known colored-paper collages showing how color behaves.

To underscore affinities that were clearly important to Roy and Pilgrim, each room in the museum’s Ann and Graham Gund Gallery for temporary exhibitions also includes a single painting or print by a modern abstract artist. One is by Albers himself; there are others by Sol LeWitt, Bridget Riley, and Victor Vasarely. It also includes wall labels (many written by Roy) heavily influenced by Albers’s thinking.

So who was Albers?

He came to the United States from the Bauhaus in Germany with his wife, Anni (one of the 20th century’s leading textile artists), in 1933 in order to be the director of Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He later taught at Yale University.

His seminal textbook, “Interaction of Color,” was recently reissued, 50 years after its first publication. Described by one reviewer at the time as “a grand passport to perception,” its basic premise is that color, as Albers put it, is “the most relative medium in art.”

It “continually deceives,” he wrote. It changes so much according to conditions, context, and even psychology (although he tried to keep that out of it) that theories about it, of which there are many, are basically useless.

It has to be said that some of Roy’s wall labels, which point out effects of color contrast and complementarity, are a little off-putting. Given the complexity of color relations in most of the quilts, the pointers are necessarily reductive, and lack the lucidity of Albers’s carefully distilled lessons.


But it is worth keeping Albers in mind, if only because both he and, one feels certain, the makers of these quilts had serious ambitions for color. They wanted it to be more than simply ornamental.

Among modern artists, Albers was scarcely the first to think along these lines. Before him, artists from Van Gogh and Signac through to Kandinsky, Matisse, and Rothko all saw how color, once emancipated, could be a true stimulant to the imagination, as well as a force with the power to work social, spiritual, and therapeutic transformations.

These artists’ ambitions were in turn rooted in ideas about color that dated from earlier in the 19th century and even the late 18th. What is extraordinary is to see how similar convictions spurt — from such an unexpected angle and with such unexpected force — from these extraordinary American quilts.

Roy puts it aptly in one of his wall labels: “I often wonder if what we know now as ‘color interaction’ was not something mysterious and spiritual to these quilt makers.”

No need to wonder, if you ask me. It’s as clear as day.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at