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AMISH: The Art of the Quilt
By Robert Hughes
207 pages, $100

QUILTS ARE commonly referred to as folk art -- they are utilitarian, made by plain folks from and for the fabric of their lives.

However, the 82 Amish quilts exquisitely reproduced in this large-format volume are anything but folksy. Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of Esprit (the fashion empire), began collecting quilts to decorate corporate headquarters in San Francisco. His focus soon turned to Amish quilts, particularly those made in Lancaster County, Pa., between 1870 and 1950. They dominate the collection.

"To him, Lancaster quilts are masterpieces of design. The pure geometric forms and unexpected, sumptuous color combinations come together in works of extraordinary power and vitality," says collection curator Julie Silber. She and Tompkins have selected the masterpieces of the Esprit collection and assembled them for both an exhibition and this book. Each quilt, presented in color, is given its own page, with a brief commentary about its historical and social context on the facing page.

In the book's essay by art critic Robert Hughes, Amish law or Ordnung is described as "an oral tradition of religious rules governing social customs, moral life and work . . . " Although outerwear (coats and capes) must be somber, shirts and dresses can be very bright as long as they have no printed pattern. The colors used in the quilts mirror these dictates. Bold, electric blues contrast with deep forest green and subdued terra cotta; reds jump from the geometry, then return to the harmony of the whole through the restrained solidity of a wide, austerely colored border.

There is something very modern, very sophisticated about these traditional Amish designs. The distinctions between "folk" and "high" art blur in the controlled tension of figure-ground relationships, softened by the medium (fabric, usually wool and/or rayon) and the flowing, organic forms of the quilting itself.

Even with a fairly rigorous adherence to acceptable patterns, each quilt sings with individuality in its maker's use of color and form.

The quilts are a visual feast and feel strangely familiar. Says Hughes: "It was also a curiously prophetic form, even though the prophecy went without honor for so long . . . in much later 'professional' (as opposed to 'folk' ) art: in the explicit geometries of the '60s and '70s, the stripes and targets of Noland, the concentric squares of early Stella, in Sol Lewitt's grids and the blocks of muted, saturated color deployed by Brice Marden; in the whole emphasis on seriality, repetition and exalted emotional silence that was the mark of a certain phase of American modernism."

In other words, the quilts of Amish women prefigured op art and minimalism.

Hughes sums up the quilt's contribution as a major art form in the 20th century this way: " . . . In their complexity, visual intensity and quality of craftsmanship, such works simply dispel the idea that folk art is innocent social bird song. They are as much a part of the story of high aesthetic effort in America as any painting or sculpture. They deserve our attention and abundantly repay it."

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