BOOKS / In the Frame: Amish: the art of the quilt

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IT'S hard work, for most of us, to separate quilts from their jumble-sale-and-Women's-Institute image and see them as works of art - but this book aims to do just that. In her introduction to Amish: The Art of the Quilt (Phaidon pounds 16.95), Julie Silber talks about the 'painterly' qualities of the designs of this collection of quilts stitched by the Amish women of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, between 1870 and 1950, and of their 'timelessness' and 'universality'.

Quilts are terrifically correct ('folk' and 'soft', not 'professional' and 'hard', and with all the right gender and minority labels), but I dreaded being told, as I knew I was going to be, that quilts were a) a deep expression of cultural identity, or b) quintessentially American, or c) provided profound insight into manners and mores. Yes, quilts are works created by women; they are beautiful, all right; and they do tell us a lot about the lives of the Amish. It's just that precisely what all those stitches tell me about the lives of the Amish women, I don't like one bit. (Men, apparently, only made quilts under special conditions, like imprisonment, convalescence or other 'forms of confinement'. Quite.)

But the editors were ready for doubters and nay-sayers like me. To argue the seriousness of the form, that grandee of art criticism, Robert Hughes, contributes the text (although, at about 6,000 widely-spaced words, 'text' is putting it rather strong). Hughes is never less than thought-provoking, but it's a surprise to find him so disarming. The reason is that, with scarcely a clue beyond speaking of traversing the collection 'with open eyes' (as opposed to my own tight-shut ones), we can make out, between the lines, that Hughes himself needed some persuading.

Once off the blocks, though, there's no stopping him. In a phrase that most people would kill to have written, he defines a quilt as the place 'where the desire for beauty and the moral scorn for extravagance used to intersect'. And, he goes on, 'being made by women from colored cloth, rather than by men out of 'nobler' stuff - like colored muds and chemicals smeared on canvas - it has long been regarded as a somewhat minor art form'. But just open those eyes, and you will perceive 'one of the finest aesthetic forms in America'. No half-measures here.

The bulk of the essay is a vivid disquisition on folk art in general and the Amish in all their odd particulars. Hughes becomes more and more winning. 'Puritanical in its origins yet permeated by myths of its own Paradisiacal excess,' he tells us, 'American culture has always oscillated between bone and breast, the minimal and the maximal. These quilts could almost be seen as an unconscious effort to harminise the two: a warm, soft, swaddling minimalism.' Wonderful. But along with the dread certainty that we're going to hear about 'windows on culture', another suspicion has been lurking. Would he? Is he really going to tell me that those bars and targets, those concentric squares, those grids and blocks of saturated colour, those explicitly geometric forms are - ? Sure enough, he does: the 'prophecy . . . without honour' of quilts, Hughes reckons, prefigures much of American modernism: Noland, Stella, Sol Lewitt, Brice Marden. The 'dazzle of op art' reflects the Sunshine and Shadow quilt patterns, and 'the austerity of the centred Diamond in the Square' evokes 'the patron saint of American minimalism, Ad Reinhardt'. Well, by this time I'd follow him anywhere.

(Photograph omitted)