Agnes Martin, Quilts, & Folk Craft

June 22, 2024
7 min read
Featured Image

A year or so ago, I came upon a book of Amish quilt designs at our local library sale. The geometric forms and stitching patterns drew me in, and reminded me of much of the artists I was reading about at the time, like Agnes Martin and Sol Lewitt. I bought it out of curiosity, but candidly it sat on my bookshelf for a while before I picked it up again earlier this spring.

Center Square by unknown Amish quiltmaker
Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania circa 1890
Pieced wools 78 x 78 inches

As I flipped the pages, I wondered if these quilts, most typically made in the early 1800s by Lancaster Pennsylvania Amish women, could have had any influence on later abstract artists. The simple geometric forms, use of patterns, and holistic use of space and color have an almost spiritual quality to them, and a craftsmanship bent towards the values of simplicity and deliberate elimination of decoration. 

Josef Albers, Full from Homage to the Square: Ten Works by Josef Albers, 1962
Agnes Martin, The Islands, 1961, oil and graphite on canvas, 183.9 x 183.9 cm

What values might these artists and crafts people share? What insights does their work hold? What is their form making and materiality ultimately rooted in? And how are the forms born out of the ideals of those who created them?

While all of these questions steeped for me, the contrast between these different forms and approaches to making highlighted the distinctions between what is considered “folk art” and “art”—in other words, it draws attention to our ideas around individual professional artists and otherwise “anonymous” craftsman. 

Consider the work of Agnes Martin, whose work has been on view alongside other 60s conceptual art or abstract expressionists, but also in dialogue Navajo blankets. The juxtaposition of art for viewing and objects for everyday use sit in dialogue on the same walls. While they perhaps share some metaphysical ideals, the Navajo blankets have also been removed from a cultural context of community and daily use. And yet the inherent similarities between their aesthetic approaches unites them in some way.

A Classic Second Phase Chief’s Blanket, c. 1840, Churro fleece, indigo, raveled Manchester bayeta, cochineal, 56" × 72" (142.2 cm × 182.9 cm)
Agnes Martin, Blessings, 2000, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60" x 60" (152.4 cm x 152.4 cm) © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Martin’s paintings almost always follow a square format, much like quilts. Working predominantly on canvas, her meticulously penciled grids and use of acrylic, gesso, and sometimes even gold leaf would at once today be categorized under “minimalist” art (for more on this term, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka is a great read); yet she often identified more with other New York abstract expressionists.

Martin created paintings, in the words of Arne Glimcher, that are meditations on innocence, beauty, happiness, and love. While she drew from a mix of buddhist and American Transcendental ideals, she often denied any mystical qualities to her work; and also to any direct tie to landscapes or natural influence. Even in relation to other artists like Lenore Tawney, she denied any relation of her paintings to weaving. In On A Clear Day for example, she describes her work as being “completely abstract—free from any expression of the environment is like music and can be responded to in the same way.” Or consider the ways she refers to her grids:

“When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.”

So we see in Martin’s work a clear vision as an artist—a singular point of view and expression of her most inner thoughts poured out. To be fair, I don’t believe that Agnes Martin sought fame. In fact, she walked away from it to find solitude. But thinking back to my earlier questions, how might her work be compared to such visually similar works by the almost wholly different values and community the Amish?

Diamond in the Square by an unknown Amish quiltmaker, Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania circa 1920–1930, pieced wools 76 x 76 inches
Untitled 1958, Oil on canvas, 165.1 x 165.1 cm

Amish: The Art of the Quilt, my treasured library book sale find, is a selection of Amish quilts, particularly those made by Amish quilt makers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania between 1870 and 1950. In the introduction, Robert Hughes immediately recognizes the parallels to abstract expressionism and minimalist art of the 60s and 70s:

“It was also a curiously prophetic form, even though the prophecy went without honor for so long. For where have we seen images something like these before? In much later, “professional” (as opposed to “folk”) art: in the explicit geometries of the sixties and seventies, 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 Bryce Marden; in the whole emphasis on seriality, repetition, and exalted emotional silence that was the mark of a certain phase of American modernism.”

Lancaster County Amish Bars with Corner Squares, c. 1900, 75 x 82 inches
Agnes Martin, Untitled #13, 1975, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 182.9 x 182.9 cm
Sol LeWitt, Untitled from Six Geometric Figures, Superimposed in Pairs, 1977

When the quilts are seen out of the original contexts of their making and use, the distinctions of “folk” and “high” art become almost peripheral. But what is the context of their use, and why were they created in such a way? From Hughes’ perspective, as opposed to women of the “American art world,” many women in other cultures have often been “accepted as primary creators of folk art.” The Amish paid no mind to careers as professional artists in the way we think of it. Further, we have to let go of the idea that Amish rural life is simple, or that the makers are “humble” or “anonymous.” Perhaps to us they are, but quilts were created within a tightly knit community for specific events, highlighting the unique skills and approaches of the women who made them and the people they made them for.

We might also think the quilts are “modern,” but in the words of Hughes: 

“The truth is that Amish quilts embody the reductionism, the search for fundamentals, that modernism wanted to find in more “primitive” cultures, but they are no more modern than a Fang mask is cubist. In fact, they come from a culture to with modernism is anathema. […] The dislike of “worldliness”—for which read “showiness”—means that the elaborate detailing of other American quilts is repressed in Amish work. One can readily see why: it would look as though the maker had spent too much time on the quilty, at the expense of her other social and domestic duties; it could suggest idleness or, worse, a certain frivolity, both repugnant to the Ordnung.”

In short, the Ordnung directs “the Amish towards the cardinal virtues of their social ethic: humility and non-resistance, simplicity and practicality.” What I love about the Lancaster Amish quilts is the way in which they’re created in community. Within a shared set of values and understandings, each piece is created with human relationship in mind. There is a working towards a common good, but also a shared common visual language that expresses fundamental understandings about their place in the world. Not only this, but each piece is made for common use. The true context of a quilt is spread out on a loved one’s bed, washed carefully, folded with grace, and passed down as heirlooms. All this being said, I am not Amish, and I’m likely missing so much context and nuance. My knowledge of their work is not embodied and known, but I would love to keep learning more.

In the Beauty of Everyday Things, Yanagi Sōetsu develops a theory around beautiful everyday use objects made by “unknown” craftsman. In his 1933 essay, “What is Folk Craft?”, Yanagi looks to the Japanese etymology of the word for “folk craft” or “folk art”. The words come from mingei, translating from min, ‘the masses’, and gei, ‘craft’, to “crafts of the people”. He uses this term in stark contrast to what he refers to as the “aristocratic fine arts.” And perhaps this is just another sort of framework for seeing the work of everyday people against the backdrop of “the art world.” The area is gray, and always shifting.

Yanagi wrote this essay in the early 1930s as he examined simple household items such as clothing, furniture, utensils, or stationery. These objects are made for daily use, and are common and ordinary. While Yinagi is also referring to daily use items made in higher quantities for the masses (such as pottery), in many ways it’s hard to read Yinagi’s essay and not think of the Lancaster Amish women sewing quilts. These were not to be displayed for viewing pleasures, but simply to exist as objects as a part of everyday life. Yinagi also highlights the idea that these objects become worn and more intimate with everyday use.

For people making things in all varieties of fields such as woodworking, painting, sewing, pottery, design, and other crafts and creative arts: I wonder what we might learn by better understanding “folk” communities and the creation of pieces not as individuals, but as groups; the creation of beloved everyday objects and heirlooms, not necessarily “artworks.” And I hope this would challenge our idea of ownership, of individuality and community, and of local context.

All Content © 2020 Alex Catanese. All rights reserved.