Dear Mrs. Rose
I’ll admit I didn’t rush to see the collection of Joanna S. Rose’s quilts at the Armory last week, even though the six-day show was about to end. Free admission to “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts,” was an impressive 80th birthday gift from Mrs. Rose’s husband to both his wife and the city of New York, but the more I thought about the subway at rush hour, the longer it took to find my keys and decide whether or not to wear sneakers. I glanced at my living room wall before leaving and decided the lone plate hanging there, my version of a collection, looked loner than ever.
My idea several years ago was to buy the first in a series of découpage plates that my husband and I would add to every year at Christmas. Selecting a new plate would be a cherished annual tradition and as the years accumulated, we would gaze at a wall filled with memories of all the fun we’d had together at the charming shop on Perry Street in Greenwich Village. But neither of us are shoppers and I hadn’t taken into account narrow aisles and the ease with which glass can be shattered. There were endless decisions to make, fish or fowl, flora or fauna. Did you mix and match genres, and what happened if your fondness for Scottish Terriers eventually faded? My husband retreated to the sidewalk to read something on his iPhone and I was smothering in a winter coat I didn’t dare remove. I chose a yellow iris for its double bloom and the exuberant way the blossoms shot up out of their bulbs. The plate turned out to be a nightmare to hang and looked unimpressive all by itself. I lost all interest in the project by the time Christmas rolled around again, thus bringing to a close my brief career as a collector.
The backside of the 55,000 square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall seemed unconscionably long as I trudged along. I asked myself whether Joanna Rose, chairwoman for many years of Partisan Review, went to estate sales to acquire her treasures and whether her husband, a well-known philanthropist and real estate developer, shared her passion for red. Did she phone in her orders or haul them all home in a suitcase? Mrs. Rose is said to own over one thousand quilts. How does an ordinary mortal accumulate so many bedcovers, and can any single acquisition acquire meaning when there are so many?
As soon as I got inside the Armory, all petulance faded away. The red and white quilts were suspended in the vast military facility and social club, built 150 years ago to heed Lincoln’s appeal for volunteers in the Civil War. They appeared to drift on the air even though they were perfectly still and crowds were begged not to touch as we circled geometric designs of hearts and flowers or streamed past a homespun iteration of the Lord’s Prayer. The sheer numbers brought history alive. What were these women thinking as they sewed their bedcovers, and what do we moderns, who stitch, bitch, and write best-selling books about it, have to do with our historical counterparts?
Joanna Rose claims to have often snapped up many of her quilts for five or ten dollars apiece at flea markets and says she has the instincts of a “treasure hunter, not a collector.” Though she may not have set out to establish a collection, Mrs. Rose has wound up with one, and it’s a beauty. The quilts she has purchased since the 1950s are a staggering tribute to an American history as rich as the three centuries of handwork the show represents.
The exhibition ended promptly at five o’clock. What could visitors to the show offer Mrs. Rose in return for her gift? A long line of women waited patiently to enter handwritten thanks in a guestbook. I decided to dodge the line and take a contemporary shortcut by thanking her here for the lessons I’ve learned about the colorfastness of Turkey red dye, the distinction between collecting and mere buying, and the hunt for real treasures.