Spectacular Quilts On Display at Newark Museum

Bring sunglasses -- some of the quilts and fabric works on exhibit now through Dec. 31 at the Newark Museum's spectacular new shows are almost blindingly dazzling.

A case in point is an anonymously stitched quilt, "Wild Goose Chase" from the early 1800s that opens the show "Patchwork; From Folk Art to Fine Art" in the main first floor galleries. The quilt looks like it's ready to fly off the gallery wall; it has lost none of its vibrancy since the maker or makers painstakingly stitched its upward soaring, deep blue triangles onto a bright red ground.

"Wild Goose Chase" was the first Newark Museum quilt acquisition, in 1918, and serves as a model for understanding why America's quilts are recognized both as folk art and as forerunners to 20th century abstract art.

Quilts first burst onto the art scene in a seminal 1971 exhibit, "Abstract Design in American Quilts," at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, but the Newark Museum has long been way ahead of the curve. Since that initial 1918 acquisition, Newark has amassed a stunning collection of American, African American, Asian and African quilts and fabric work.

Both "Patchwork, From Folk Art to Fine Art" and its equally breathtaking companion exhibit, "The Global Art of Patchwork: Asia and Africa," draws exclusively from the museum's permanent collection.

The happy challenge of which pieces to include in these exhibits fell to the Museum's longtime curator of Decorative Arts, Ulysses Dietz. Dietz has both chosen representative works from the different styles of quilt making over time and place and written insightful and engaging wall text for these two related exhibits.

One of the key works on view is "Tied Center Medallion," a 20th century work from about 1925 made in Kansas City. Using beautiful muted tones of wool, the maker evokes asymmetrical African textiles that were designed to confuse evil spirits — the spirits travel in straight lines.

In "The Global Art of Patchwork: Asia and Africa" shown in the more intimate exhibit space opposite the steps to the museum's Engelhard Courtyard, I spent a lot of time with a ceremonial African Kuba skirt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These draped skirts, made from raffia by both men and women can be as long as 25 feet of large square patterns. In marked contrast to the largely bright reds and greens of traditional American quilts, their palette is all is muted monotones in maze like patterns that influenced Matisse, Klee, Picasso and other earlier 20th century masters of modern art.

The museum offers excellent, free tours for the price of museum admission Wednesdays through Sundays from 2:25 to 3 p.m. as well as public programs, including quilt-making demonstrations.

The Newark Museum is located at 49 Washington St., Newark with onsite parking and easy access from all public transportation. The Museum Café offers food and free WiFi in Engelhard Court. Suggested admission is $10; $6 seniors and students with ID. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. See www.newarkmuseum.org or call 973-596-6699.