Household handicrafts and heirlooms made by American women seen as precursors to modern art is one underlying thesis of “Amish Abstractions: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown,” a provocative exhibit on view at the de Young Museum through June.
Curated by Jill D’Alessandro of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the show features about 50 full-size and crib quilts made between 1880 and 1940 in Pennsylvania and the Midwest during what experts consider the apex of Amish quilt-making production.
Faith and Stephen Brown, Bay Area residents who began collecting quilts in the 1970s after seeing one in a shop window in Chicago and being bowled over by its bold design, say their continued passion for the quilts as art is in part because they’re so reminiscent of paintings by modern masters like Mark Rothko, Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt and Ellsworth Kelly — but the fabric masterpieces came first.
“A happy visual coincidence” is how the Browns and D’Alessandro define the connection, pointing to the brilliance in color theory, sophisticated palettes and complex geometry that characterize both the quilts and paintings.
“There’s an insane symmetry to these quilts,” says D’Alessandro, describing many from Lancaster County, Pa., which are known for their juxtapositions of black and brightly colored wool solids (the fabric also was used for clothes) wide borders and simple, center-diamond or “Roman bars” designs — patterns decided by unwritten rules of the community.
In the Midwest, other patterns became more prominent. The Browns, who have an affinity for the “looser” style of the Midwestern cotton quilts, have loaded their collection (which has 110 total) with what they call playful designs, many which provide amusing optical illusions, such as the tumbling blocks scheme.
Stephen Brown points to another fun example: an Indiana puzzle that when viewed straight on looks like a dragonfly-type pattern, but when viewed from the side becomes a series of blocks and four patch squares.
The artistry also is apparent in the quilt makers’ amazing needlework, the intricate stitching in elaborate designs that joins the quilts’ front, middle and back.
A close look at the quilts makes it difficult to dismiss the makers’ skill and craft as “women’s” work. At the same time, the show also reveals the appealing and provocative paradoxes of Amish life — how people often called “plain” are responsible for one of the most dynamic movements in 20th-century art.
IF YOU GO
Amish Abstractions: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. daily, except until 8:45 Fridays; closed Mondays; closes June 6
Tickets: $6 to $10
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.deyoungmuseum.org