Double Nine Stitch quilt: image courtesy of the FAMSF
A sect born out of the bloody religious wars of the 16th century, the people who would become the Amish looked to the New Testament as a literal guide for life. Their rejection of infant baptism, practice of non-violence and a belief in the complete separation of church and state lead to centuries of persecution. Their on-going search for religious freedom leads them to North America – the first migration in the mid-1700’s, the latter in the early 1800’s. Originally they settled in Pennsylvania but now communities are located in dozens of other states and Canada.
Even today, the Amish are a highly conservative and closed society that prohibits a variety of what they see as worldly frills -- from automobiles to zippers. For the Amish, the cardinal virtues are humility, simplicity and practicality. They are a private people who reject most of what we call modern and live their lives in more traditional, pre-industrial ways with a focus on their religious beliefs, a complex of beliefs, which we might consider restrictive. Yet, they do not. For most Amish, aligning oneself within the group provides freedom to live and work within a community which is supportive and fulfilling.
The earliest dated Amish quilt appears to have been made in 1849, and the next dated one comes from the year 1860. Exhibition curator Jill D’Alessandro of FAMSF explains, “Although Amish women first learned quiltmaking from their ‘English’ [non-Amish] neighbors, they quickly developed a unique sensibility of their own, coupling distinctive choices of quilt patterns and fabrics with unusual spatial arrangements.” Robert Hughes notes that "the work of Amish quilt makers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, between about 1870 and 1950 was one of the finest aesthetic forms in America." The quilts in the exhibition originated in communities throughout Pennsylvania and the Midwest and date from the 1880s to the 1940s, the height of Amish quilt production.
On first encountering Amish quilts, the Browns recall, “We were amazed by the bold graphics and striking colors, the very opposite of what we had expected. And we couldn’t get over the way some quilts seemed to anticipate abstract artists such as Josef Albers, Victor Vasarely, Frank Stella, Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, and Ellsworth Kelly, among others.” Looking at modern art has prepared us to appreciate their bold designs yet we should not look upon the quilts as simply works of art. They were made to be both aesthetically pleasing and utilitarian and, yet, still had to adhere to the code of the Ordung, an oral tradition of religious rules governing Amish social customs and moral life. The Amish dislike of “worldliness” meant that they rejected figurative or elaborate floral design elements in favor of large geometric color fields. But their skill is always in view – the tiny precise stitches, intersecting the geometric squares in unwavering and complex quilting curves. The rich palate of saturated colors mirrors the restrictions placed on the order of clothes but is all the stronger for that. There is visual wit and whimsy within the boundaries laid down by their religious beliefs; the work is neither boringly rigid nor lifelessly formal.
The dark colors that dominate their quilts do not project gloom but are stunningly beautiful, with rich glowing colors set off by bands of black fabric. A decade or more of feminism now permits us to acknowledge what was previously devalued as “women’s work” for the Amish adhere to rigid gender roles and the quilts are always made by women. We see the quilts as anonymous but everybody within the community knew who made them. Given as wedding gifts or as a special memento, the maker was hardly unknown and the quilts cherished and brought out for those special occasions (which is why the quilts in the gallery are in such superb condition). The Amish quilts are not what has been stereotypically branded as “womanly” – there is nothing sweet, pastel or flowery about these bold geometric abstractions. Their beauty also reflects what was the norm in pre-industrial societies where there was no separation between creator and community, function and design. They are the antithesis of mass production, all made by women, proud of their skills, who had no intention of becoming professional artists. They are a product of a culture that is thrifty, pragmatic (within the context of their beliefs) and shaped by the literal belief that God, in Miles van der Rohe's phase, is in the details.*
Exhibition Dates: November 14, 2009–June 6, 2010
A new, fully illustrated catalogue, titled Amish Abstractions: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown, accompanies the exhibition. The publication features contributions by three quilt experts: Joe Cunningham, a well-known quilt artist, author, and lecturer; Robert Shaw, a former curator at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont; and Janneken Smucker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware specializing in quilts from the Amish and Mennonite traditions.
* Other references: Robert Hughes. Amish, the art of the quilt / text, Robert Hughes ; plate commentary, Julie Silber. New York. Random House, 1990
Symposium on Saturday, December 5th:
A symposium titled, Amish/American: Quilts in Context, will be held at the de Young on Saturday, December 5, 2009 from 1–4 pm in the Koret Auditorium. Join us for an in-depth look at the art of Amish quilts through the eyes of a diverse panel of speakers. Each presenter will talk about a different aspect of the Amish quiltmaking tradition. Collectors Faith and Stephen Brown will make introductory remarks. Speakers include Joe Cunningham The Quiltmaker's Quandary; Jonathan Holstein, On Collecting and Its Consequences; Janeken Smucker, Gifts of Humility, Objects of Pride; and Robert Shaw, American Quilts: The Democratic Art. Tickets are on sale now and admission is $10.
Tickets are available at www.famsf.org. Seating is first-come, first-serve.
Article along with side show up at: http://www.examiner.com/x-13996-SF-Museum-Examiner~y2009m11d20-De-Young-Amish-Abstraction