NEW YORK — On the surface, a study in white sounds pretty bland, but the textiles exhibition on view at the American Folk Art Museum underlines the U.S.’s fascination with neoclassicism and the importance of white in the past.
Ten all-white bedcovers are the focus of the exhibition. Known as whiteworks, they feature exquisite needlework including stuffing, cording and embroidered candlewicking. Stuff work — motifs that were outlined with quilting and filled with batting — are showcased in the Cotton Inc.-sponsored exhibit, which runs through Sept. 17. Senior curator Stacy Hollander has also sprinkled in intricate monochromatic needleworks, known as print works, and 18 evocative marble dust drawings. Hence, the exhibition’s title, “White on White (and a little gray).” All three art forms highlight the female response to neoclassicism from the Federal era through the 19th century.
“I love how the whiteworks in such a subtle way permitted women to have this enormous presence and intellectual movement,” said Hollander, referring to the neoclassical revolution of women through their artistic contributions.
Visitors get clued into that from the start, where show notes inform them, “In the 18th-century imagination, the crystalline austerity sought in neoclassical decorative arts could only be captured in the incorruptibility of whites that invoked the purity and timelessness of classical antiquity. The whiteness of white, comprising all colors and reflecting light, was the perfect metaphor for the Age of Enlightenment.” The exhibition also hints at the fashion of the times. A few of the printworks include an image of a woman wearing a column dress — common attire in the early 18th century. Through her research, Hollander said she learned while wearing this common early 18th-century attire “women were urged to stand fashionably still like statues.” She found all sorts of amusing stories about the hazards of wearing such restrictive dresses, including one of a young girl who couldn’t even walk up the stairs in one. Another faced a dilemma when she spilled boiling water. Once the laws of fashion and nature clashed, she knew she had to make a split-second decision, Hollander said: Fashion called for her to stand still, but nature made her leap aside.
To tie into the “White on White” exhibition, Cotton Inc. hosted a panel discussion titled “Beyond White: The Psychology of Color” last month. Hosted by In Style’s Hal Rubenstein, the event examined the significance of color in fashion-trend forecasting, interior design and in our daily lives. Panelists included interior decorator Jamie Drake, Cotton’s director of product trend analysis group, Kathryn Gordy-Novakovic, and doctors Joerg Bose and Jean Petrucelli.
“One thing that was really nice was we felt there was a real appreciation for color,” Gordy-Novakovic said. It’s used in every aspect of our lives. Sometimes we may not think consciously about color but we project something with the colors we choose. There was the overall sense that color has such an intense impact — it goes beyond just apparel. It’s in the home, on packaged goods and is important in so many ways.”