North American Art

An Unusual Comparison: Amish Quilts and Modern Art

Heather Johnson 9 August 2022 min Read

Many people would never expect to see an Amish quilt and a painting by an American abstract artist displayed together. However, since the 1970s, visual similarities have been recognized between the two. This has left us wondering how art forms of such conflicting origins could possibly be connected.

In 1971, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened the exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts. Within this exhibition, alongside abstract textiles from all over America, were Amish quilts. The exhibition received a remarkable response and it wasn’t long before quilts of different patterns and origins became popular with the general public.

People began to view them not just as household items but as works of art to be displayed. The affordability of the quilts was also appealing, as was their ability to be displayed on walls, just like a painting. It was with this newfound interest in quilts that comparisons started being made and it was concluded that Amish quilts looked like modern art.

Barnett Newman, Adam, 1952, Tate Modern, London
Barnett Newman, Adam, 1952, Tate Modern, London, UK.

In the 1970s, collectors Jonathan Holstein and Gail Van der Hoof established one of the first substantial collections of Amish quilts. Actively engaged in the New York art scene, Holstein and Van der Hoof had developed friendships with artists Barnett Newman and Roy Liechtenstein. The collectors’ interest in Amish quilts was clearly also a result of the textiles’ similarities to the work of artists they associated with.

Although Amish quilts may appear to have been “discovered” by the art world and collectors in the 1970s, quilt-making actually began in Amish communities in the 1880s. It is thought that the Amish took inspiration from their Pennsylvania German, English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and Quaker neighbors, who had already been quilt-making for some time. Ultimately, the origin of Amish quilts couldn’t be farther from the art scene in New York.

Josef Albers, Geometric Composition, 1977. Cerbera Gallery.

This, in many ways, makes the similarity between the textiles and modernist painting all the more interesting. It would be satisfying to find evidence that artists such as Newman or Rothko drew inspiration directly from Amish quilts. However, there is no clear example of this and the visual similarities remain, in many ways, a mystery.

Amish Quilt: Center Square Quilt, c. 1900, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
Center Square Quilt, c. 1900, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

So, just how similar are the quilts to the modern art we are familiar with? Looking at Josef Albers’ square paintings and Amish Center Square Quilts, we can see that there is a clear visual likeness. This is prominent in both form and use of color. What seems to connect the two most overtly is the abstract nature of both artworks.

Modern painters in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Albers and Rothko, were abandoning figurative art and exploring the lack of obvious narrative which emerged from shapes and color. The Amish, on the other hand, were thought to create abstract textiles for religious reasons. Because of the traditionalist nature of their Christianity, depicting the human figure is discouraged as it is seen as an attempt to imitate God’s creation. As a result, the experimentation with color, form, and shape in Amish quilts can be seen as a reflection of these beliefs and a way of being creative within the perimeters of their faith.

Similarities have also been noted between Amish quilts and the work of Sol Hewitt, in particular his stripe paintings which have been likened to the Amish bar quilts. The same case has been made between Amish tumbling block quilts and Victor Vasarely’s Op Art, shown below.

Amish Quilt: Tumbling Blocks-Ohio c.1930
Tumbling Blocks, c.1930, Ohio.
amish quilts: Victor Vasarely, Pulsar, 1970. Provate collection
Victor Vasarely, Pulsar, 1970, private collection. Mutual Art.

In summary, although this unlikely comparison may be one that is difficult to support with art historical evidence, in many ways the similarities between Amish quilts and paintings speak for themselves. Their likeness is also able to illuminate the unexpectedly modern creativity of an otherwise very private and traditional community.

As such, we are left to ponder the question: were Amish quilts America’s first abstract art?

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