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© 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

No matter how progressive galleries and museums have become in recent years, the debate among the art world about what constitutes art verses craft—fine art versus folk art—remains in dispute. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is the latest institution to remark on the rift with its “Quilts and Color” exhibit, opening April 6.

Showcasing 60 quilts, all taken from the acclaimed Pilgrim/Roy collection, the show demonstrates how many of the works—which range from the 19th to the early 20th century—intuitively echoed, or perhaps even predated, the likes of abstract expressionism, optical art and the color field movement.

“The makers of these quilts, although probably never trained in the fine arts or color theory, understood how to combine color and use pattern to create visually powerful statements,” says Pamela Parmal, David and Roberta Logie curator of textile and fashion arts at MFA Boston.

Grouping the quilts’ energetic patterns (the carpenter's wheel is pictured here) and bold hues into sections, displayed alongside a painting or a work on paper (culled primarily from the museum), the exhibition maps the principles of color theory—vibrations, mixtures, harmonies, gradations, contrasts, variations and optical illusions—to examples in the collection. The prescient artisans were indeed ahead of their time; their work came well before paragons like Interaction of Color, an instructional handbook by artist Josef Albers that debuted in 1963.

“Working with the familiarity of cloth, needle and thread without the intimidation that would have been associated with paint and brush,” says collector Gerald Roy, “quilt makers managed to create an abstract art form that would not be discovered by the fine-art world for a hundred years.” Through July 27; 465 Huntington Ave.; 617-267-9300;


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