Birth of the Art Quilt Movement

Have you ever wondered how art quilts came to be revered as art and not just as quilts? You are not alone. We quilters – and artists – should offer a big “thank you” to Quilting Arts Magazine contributor Sandra Sider for her excellent series of articles on the history of art quilts. The October/November 2018 issue debuts the first article in the series entitled, Birth of the Art Quilt Movement: 1959-1979. Read on for an introduction to this timely topic.


In the 1960s and 1970s, a core group of trailblazing artists developed quilts as an art form. Their exhibitions, publications, and studio workshops helped to create a groundswell of enthusiasm for contemporary quilt art.

Jean Ray Laury’s 1959 quilt, “Two Pods” is in the collection of the International Study Center & Museum, Lincoln Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the International Study Center & Museum.

This article explores the very beginnings of the Art Quilt Movement leading up to the first Quilt National in 1979. As you view these studio quilts created decades ago, note how they differ from many of the works exhibited today. Among other differences, earlier art quilts tended to be larger, referencing the bed quilts from which they descended. While the imagery may look contemporary, the quilting usually does not fill the surface as is common today. Most of the fabrics were commercially manufactured, rather than being artist dyed or embellished with surface design.

The Whitney Exhibition
In 1971, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York mounted the first comprehensive exhibition of quilts to be seen in a major museum—the now-famous Abstract Design in American Quilts. Instead of displaying the quilts as historical objects that belonged on beds, the museum treated them as contemporary art to be mounted on the walls. Quilt artist Joan Lintault said that it was a wonderful experience to see such an exhibition at a prestigious museum. The 60 mostly Amish quilts in the show were from the collection of Gail van der Hoof and Jonathan Holstein, whose backgrounds in contemporary art had led them to develop a deep appreciation of quilt design.

Motorcycle with Sidecar (detail) by Leslie Gabrielse

Textiles in the art world
While textiles in general have lagged behind other materials in the jostle for gallery and museum exhibitions, the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s saw prominent examples of textiles and fiber in the art world that legitimized their use in works of art. Examples include Robert Rauschenberg’s inclusion of textiles and actual vintage quilts, cheesecloth and rope transformed by Eva Hesse, sculptural works in felt by Robert Morris, and monumental Pop Art in soft sculpture by Claes Oldenburg. These and other artists bridged cultural boundaries to create new appreciation for “lowly” materials.

Quilts have long been recognized as outstanding examples of folk art and fine craft, but only during the last few decades have studio quilts been categorized as fine art, partly because the very definition of “art” has been in flux since the 1960s. One goal of both radical feminism and racial politics during the 1970s was to change the character of what was considered art, and quilts as art have successfully entered this arena.

“Motorcycle with Sidecar” Leslie Gabrielse’ quilt is in the Collection of Cees Van Stijgeren. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Makers on both sides of the Ohio River were stimulated by quilt-making traditions and local folk art in a countercultural milieu, creating a hotbed of quilt artists seeking to extend their audience beyond the world of craft. Organized in Ohio by Nancy Crow, Françoise Barnes, and Virginia Randles, the first Quilt National in 1979 was a watershed event for art quilts. Other artists in Ohio and Kentucky initiating the Art Quilt Movement included Jane Burch Cochran, Terrie Hancock Mangat, and Arturo Alonzo Sandoval.

Nancy Crow’s 1979 art quilt, “March Study”(detail) is in the Collection of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Sandra Sider

Sandra Sider, a studio quilt artist, has published articles and books concerning fiber and art for four decades. She has a Masters in Art History from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; is a past president of SAQA; and has been the curator for the Texas Quilt Museum since 2012.


Don’t miss reading the full article and seeing more amazing images of art quilts in the Quilting Arts October/November 2018 issue. And, keep that subscription current so you’ll never miss another opportunity to immerse yourself in the beauty of art quilts.

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