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by N.F. Karlins
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The quilt, that cozy bed covering and wildly various art form, is being celebrated for a year by the American Folk Art Museum in a series of exhibitions.

First up during this "Year of the Quilt" is an historical overview of quilts from the museum’s collection. "Quilts; Masterpieces from the American Folk Art Museum" is in two parts. The first one is currently on view till Apr. 14, 2011; the second runs May 10-Oct. 16, 2011.

The initial selection begins with a 1796 whole-cloth Tree of Life quilt with white-work stuffing and cording creating 3D effects by an unknown artist. It ends with a 2001 blue abstract Reflection by Kathyanne White from Arizona. White hand-dyed the cotton for her quilt, arranging small swaths of cloth intuitively over canvas before stitching them down. Is it folk art, design, or can we simply agree on "art?"

Remember being taught about linsey-woolsey quilts in school? It turns out that many quilts once called "linsey-woolsey" quilts, like the museum’s Harlequin Medallion Quilt, are not made of linen and wool but really solely of wool, called "calimanco," which was very likely made in England. Although the cloth is English, the museum’s vibrant quilt was made in New England around 1800-1820.

Guest curator Elizabeth V. Warren, who wrote a book about the museum’s quilt collection, points out not only this bit of news, but also offers distinctions between types of Log Cabin-design pieced quilts.

She tells us how the lush silks and satins in a Courthouse Steps Variation (1880-1900, possibly hailing from New York state) are arranged differently from Windmill Blades Variation (ca. 1900) and a Barn Raising Variation by Sarah Olmstead King (Connecticut, 1875-1885) with dark concentric diamonds of patterned silks. The configuration of the fabric pieces is the same, yet the careful organization of colors creates startlingly different effects.

The museum’s well-known Bird of Paradise appliqué quilt top always reveals new dimensions each time you see it. An extravaganza of cotton, wool, and silk with ink and silk embroidery, I especially like seeing Hannibal the elephant whenever it’s shown. Whoever made this wonderful textile either saw the elephant himself or at least the advertisements for the traveling circus in which he appeared.

The sunflower is associated with the Aesthetic Movement, especially Oscar Wilde. I have no idea what the Pennsylvania maker of the Sunflowers Quilt (1860-80) knew or didn’t know about him, but the artist did know sunflowers and what seem more like buttercups in the border. Stuffing has been added to make these flowers pop out at the viewer. The punchy bright yellow and green against white color scheme pops, too.

Non-functional quilts were made long before the 20th century. Show quilts were made from the early 19th-century onward with a good many being crazy quilts, irregularly shaped pieces of fancy fabrics with lots of embroidery. They showed off the sewing and design skills -- and leisure time -- of their makers. One that took my eye in this show, possibly from Virginia, was actually in the shape of a United States map (1886).

Signature quilts, album quilts, Amish quilts and African-American quilts round out the show at the Museum. But that’s not all.

At the American Museum of Folk Art’s Lincoln Center branch, just in time for the holidays, is "Super Stars," a show devoted to star quilts, which will be up until September 25, 2011. Whenever you’re in the area, you can run in and be surrounded by quilts with titles like Lone Star, Bethlehem Star, Blazing Star and Broken Star, Sunburst and Feathered Star, all chosen by the museum’s senior curator, Stacy C. Hollander.

Clara Bontraeger of Haven, Kansas, made a spectacular example in 1925 to 1935 of the 20th-century design, the broken star, which may have evolved from the Islamic design of two squares, one over the other, creating an eight-pointed star. It’s one of the most complex patterns and, in Bontraeger’s hands, one of the most exciting. (A note: if anyone knows the birth and death dates for this Clara Bontraeger, the museum, which does on-going research on each of its quilts, would like to learn this information.)

An elegant Star of Bethlehem with Star Border, another technically challenging pattern, was made by an unknown artist from blue and white cottons in the mid-19th century. Even more arresting is the deconstructed Star of Bethlehem variation by the late black artist from Alabama, Nora McKeon Ezell. In her 1977 quilt, she moves around a number of stars, splices in a variety of colors, and adds a floral border.

A Star of France Quilt, made from a kit with a design inspired by a Napoleonic military decoration, a Stars over Hawaii Quilt, and several crib quilts, my favorite being the fiery Starburst Crib Quilt are also here. But that’s not all.

Mark your calendars for March 25-30, 2011. That’s when the museum is showing more than 650 red-and-white quilts, each in a different design, at the Park Avenue Armory. They all come from the private collection of Joanna Rose of New York. This will be the largest showing of quilts ever held in New York City.

For six days, the public is invited to see this unusual exhibition without any admission charge.

The museum is employing Thinc Design to display the quilts. Plans are for them to be hung vertically, as well as horizontally. It should be a terrific experience.

The best news is that the Museum is also being given 50 quilts from Rose’ collection, so we may be seeing some of these red-and-white quilts again in the future.

N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.