Stripped Bare: Amish Quilts at the de Young
By LIZ HAGER
Maker Unknown, Pine Trees motif, crib quilt, ca. 1930, Ohio.
As we have observed on these pages before (A Different Canvas), the line that separates art and craft can be narrow indeed, the distinction fueled by a contemporary fine art world intent on preserving its top-dog status. Nowhere would the distinction seem to be more blurry than at the de Young’s current show Amish Abstractions: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown.
While the curators are at pains to point out that there is no documented evidence that modern painters—Joseph Albers, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, or Victor Vasarely, for example—had any connection to the Amish quilting tradition, the visual similarities are inescapable.
Kenneth Noland, Interlock Color, acrylic (?) on canvas, 1973.
Josef Albers, Homage to a Square, acrylic on canvas, 1965.
Frank Stella, Marrakech, oil on canvas, 1964 (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Maker Unknown, Roman Stripe variation motif, crib quilt, c.1915, Kansas.
Certainly, basic geometric shapes are fundamental to all human-made ornamentation, whether the ornamentation ends up as a decorative or fine art piece. The Amish quiltmakers, however, weren’t interested in making art. All aspects of Amish life are dictated by a list of written or oral rules, known as Ordnung, which outline the basics of the Amish faith and conduct. Ordnung vary from community to community (which explains why one Amish might ride in a car, but another eschews electricity), but the basic tenets encourage humility and simplicity, and with those, avoidance of all but the basic forms of ornamentation in dress and accoutrement. Art for art’s sake is associated in the Amish world with pride, vanity, fashion, luxury, and wealth, all cardinal sins.
As a placard at the introduction to the show poignantly proclaims: “The women who made these quilts…lived in a world that was already stripped bare of self-involvement, pride, and even the need to create self-conscious works of art.”
Thus, what makes an Amish quilt “Amish” is precisely what differentiates this body of work from its high-art relatives on display downstairs at the de Young.
Rebecca Zouk, Bars, quilt, ca. 1910, Pennsylvania.
The Amish quilting tradition as outsiders know it, didn’t get underway until the late 1870s—in fact the overwhelming majority of quilts were made between the 1880s and 1960s. To start, quilters constructed their coverings from one solid color, often black, brown, or blue. The earliest multi-color designs were basic square and rectangles, which slowly evolved into more colorful and bold patterns.
The boldly-colored shapes and their intricate patterning are a visual delight. But look closely at Rebecca Zouk’s Bars quilt from 1915 and you will see the most extraordinarily intricate designs precisely stitched by hand into the background fabric. The sheer joy of discovering this delicate expression of reverence and love (for the recipient as well as the work itself) throughout many of the quilts of the show is alone worth the price of admission.
Maker Unknown, Crazy Quilt motif, ca. 1930, Pennsylvania.
Amish Abstraction is not all dour seriousness. Witness the use of this crazy quilt from 1930—the cacophony of the traditional motif is restrained, Amish-style, within 12 orderly squares. The Amish knew how to have their fun.
Josef Albers—The Interaction of Color