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.

Maker Unknown, Nine Patch Variation (Tartan) motif, quilt, ca. 1930, Pennsylvania.

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.

Wider Connections

Faith & Stephen Brown’s site—CollectionAmish Quilts & Modern Art

The Amish Quilt

Josef Albers—The Interaction of Color

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8 Responses to “Stripped Bare: Amish Quilts at the de Young”

  1. I loved the show and had a great time writing about it. I wondered if the quilts had maybe inspired Albers and/or Noland, many decades later. I believe that Robert Hugues said that the quilts were the greatest works of American art in the 19th century. I don’t know if I’d go that far but they certainly have a more powerful impact than 19th century American paintings.

  2. Enjoyed this show, especially the stark geometric quilts like Rebecca Zouk’s Bars—the utter simplicity of those uniquely Amish designs, with their overlay of delicate, intricate and mesmerizing patterns of quilting stitches are profoundly beautiful and rewarding to look at. My one complaint was that the quilts in this show, after 80 or more years stored away as keepsakes and later as collected treasures, showed no signs of use or wear. In a way their pristine condition undermines the idea that the Amish didn’t make these for “art’s sake.” While admiring them for their visual interest and their lovely workmanship, I missed the signs of love, wear and usefulness that to me only adds to the beauty of old textiles and rugs.

  3. The Browns point out that these were “Sunday Best” quilts. Robert Hughes, in his essay on the Amish, also wrote that these kinds of quilts were made as wedding presents or to celebrate the birth of a child. One of the quilts has a stain on it and the Browns said that they were very excited when they saw that. I suspect that the everyday, working quilts don’t come to market.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I noticed a stain on at least one of the crib quilts and it made me happy to see it. I understand why the quilts looked so pristine but I was just saying I would have preferred to see those same quilts with signs of wear and use…

  4. padutchchick Says:

    It’s common to have near pristine quilts among the Pennsylvania Germans as a whole. The quilts were stored in chests and retrieved when company was coming. This isn’t unusual at all, and is not just an Amish phenomen.
    They were still well-loved — but treasured in a way that it is hard to understand. Remember, people had few personal possessions then, particualarly rural people. To have something of this caliber meant caring for it.

  5. wow! They are brilliant and thanks for the post. As a painter whose work gets compared to quilts from time to time and me not liking that very much, I can safely change my mind. These quilts are a lot better than my paintings!

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