fbpx
Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

An Unusual Comparison: Amish Quilts and Modern Art

Center Diamond, Lancaster County PA, c.1930. Quilt from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown

Abstraction

An Unusual Comparison: Amish Quilts and Modern Art

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 recognised between the two. This has left us to wonder 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, was an Amish quilt. The exhibition received a remarkable response and it wasn’t long before quilts of different patterns and origins developed popularity with the 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 apartment walls just like a painting. It was with this new-found interest in quilts that comparisons started to be made, and it was concluded that Amish quilts looked like Modern Art.

Barnett Newman, ‘Adam’ 1951, 1952

Barnett Newman, Adam, 1952, Tate Modern, London

In the 1970s, one of the first substantial collections of Amish Quilts was established by collectors Jonathan Holstein and Gail Van der Hoof. Actively engaged in the New York art scene, Holstein and Van der Hoof had developed friendships with abstract 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 were associating with.

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

Josef Albers, Geometric Composition, 1977

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 had drawn inspiration directly from Amish quilts. However, there is no clear example of this and the visual similarities remain, in many ways, a mystery.

PMA_quilt

Center Square Quilt, c.1900, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Museum of Art

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 colour. What seems to connect the two most overtly is the abstract nature of both artworks.

Whilst modern painters in the 1950’s and 60’s, such as a Josef Albers and Mark Rothko, were abandoning figurative art and exploring the lack of obvious narrative which emerged from shapes and colour. The Amish, on the other hand, have been 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 colour, 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.

Tumbling Blocks-Ohio c.1930

Tumbling Blocks, c.1930, Ohio

Image result for victor vasarely pulsar

Victor Vasarely, Pulsar, 1970. Provate collection

In summary, although this unlikely comparison may be one which is difficult to support with art historical evidence, in many ways the similarities between the quilts and the paintings speak for themselves. Their alikeness 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? 

Learn more:

  

Art Historian and writer with a love for everything creative. I am especially interested in the connection between art and emotion, as well as being very interested in religious art. UK based.

Comments

More in Abstraction

  • Abstraction

    All You Need to Know About Color Field Painting

    By

    Ready for a rollercoaster ride through the world of color field painting? Strap yourself in, it’s going to be a long and wild ride! This article will explore all you need to know about this art movement, its development throughout history, and its most prominent artists....

  • Abstraction

    Iconic Colors in Art History

    By

    Every person probably dreams of leaving a legacy to the world. For artists this is a central goal and they try to do it through their masterpieces of course. Some people even went further though… They gave their name to a hue! Iconic artists used colors...

  • Joan Eardley, The Macauley Children Joan Eardley, The Macauley Children

    20th century

    Joan Eardley: Scottish Passion for People and Places

    By

    Her career lasted barely 20 years, but Joan Eardley left behind a huge cache of monumental seascapes and poignant portraits which are loved across Scotland. But why isn’t this passionate and prolific artist more well known across the world? In the centenary year of Joan Eardley‘s...

  • 20th century

    Teapots and Dresses in the Service of the Russian Revolution

    By

    Over 100 years have passed since the October Revolution but this remarkable event still fascinates not only historians dealing with politics and society but also art historians. Let us take you for a little trip back to early Soviet Russia, but instead of looking at the...

  • Meander Meander

    20th century

    One Artist and One Motif: Julije Knifer and His Meander

    By

    When we think of a meander we usually think of a winding riverbed of Meander River in Asia Minor or an ancient decoration of broken lines that is repeated in an uninterrupted sequence. But, for one man meander wasn’t a geographical term nor decoration, ornament, or...

To Top