Beyond their obvious similarities — quilts by women in isolated communities — two shows that have come through the deYoung Museum in San Francisco in recent years have strongly tugged at my imagination. Truly, how did the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and the various Amish settlememts in Pennsylvania and the Midwest — who did not know of each other, yet worked in strikingly similar ways — get their ideas?
The quick answer, I think, is — through their lives. Their circumstances, the materials available to them, the visual images occuring in their homes and towns and natural surroundings, their religious beliefs, their weddings and births and deaths — all these and many more factors were distilled in an abstract, non-representational fashion through these women’s hearts and minds and out through their hands into the world. And until Gee’s Bend and the Amish were “discovered,” the world consisted only of the women’s immediate communities, where their quilts were objects of use — sometimes everyday use, sometimes reserved for special occasions — not objects of art.
The Gee’s Bend/Amish isolation also extended to any influence imposed by the greater world of art. Apparently, there was no such influence. To wit –
“The bold formal inventiveness of Gee’s Bend quilts is truly remarkable and is responsible for the immediate impact they have on art viewers. Given this fact, it is natural to seek comparisons or context with other art. We do know that the quiltmakers were not aware of the geometric explorations of twentieth-century modernist abstract painters such as Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, or Ellsworth Kelly. Yet to many eyes (including mine) there is an uncanny dialogue with this separate and distinct line of art history. Pehaps the common thread is that both the quiltmaker and the modernist masters seek the challenges and pleasure of creating visually complex images.” (From “Beyond Gee’s Bend: The Future of Art,” an essay by Dana Friis-Hansen in “Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend Quilts, and Beyond” published by the Austin Museum of Art)
“Many have compared the abstract geometry of Amish quilts to the works of acclaimed modernist painters such as Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Victor Vasarely. Any such comparisons are problematic, however, because they are built on visual coincidence, not on any documented historical connection or known influence in either direction. Amish women got there first, and they got there whole; they began making quilts around 1880 and were thus working with full-fledged abstract design decades before any of these men were painting grids, color fields, optical illusions, or minimalist reductions. And, while the designs of the quilts appear modern to eyes accustomed to looking at abstract art, they are not the work of modernists at all.” (From “Fundamentally Abstract: The Aesthetic Achievement of Amish Quiltmakers,” an essay by Robert Shaw in “Amish Abstractions,” published by the Fine Arts Musems of San Francisco)