Looking Back

Amish textiles enliven the DAM, while Lewis and Clark artifacts fill the DMNS.

The objects on display are only the most visible aspects of exhibitions. There are other key components that, though less prominent, are equally essential. The most important of these is the idea underlying the display. Without an idea -- even a bad or misguided one -- there is no show. Another necessary feature is the installation design, which can make or break an exhibit just as assuredly as a bad idea.

Traditionally, a blockbuster has wall text and maybe an audio tour. However, in some of the newer experimental designs -- which are happening here as well as internationally -- there are so many didactic features and emphatic installation props that visitors might be confused as to whether they're in an exhibition or a theme restaurant. Sadly, using these tried-and-true methods of the commercial realm is all the rage as museums try to kick up their gate receipts. But I guess that's why blockbusters were thought up in the first place.

What has brought these thoughts to mind is that two of the most important shows currently on view in town are begging for this kind of discussion. And since I'm not made of stone, I can't resist rising to the bait. In both cases, the objects that make up the displays are of the highest order imaginable, among the finest of their date and type. Plus, both exhibits are built on solid ideas. But on the last score, they differ drastically: One handled its exhibition design so subtly that the included objects stand on their own merits; the other is full of bombastic theatrical signage and decoration that junk the whole thing up and overwhelm the fabulous material on view.

"Diamond in the Square," quilt by Barbara Fisher.
"Diamond in the Square," quilt by Barbara Fisher.
Nez Perce root bag made of woven prairie grasses.
Nez Perce root bag made of woven prairie grasses.


Amish Quilts: Kaleidoscope of Color
Through June 19, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000

Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition
Through August 21, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, 303-322-7009

I have to admit, I dragged my feet when it came to checking out Amish Quilts: Kaleidoscope of Color, in the Stanton galleries on the first floor of the Denver Art Museum. It seemed like it was going to be, oh, I don't know, too quilty. But after seeing the show, I'm sorry I waited. It's really something else. The Amish quilts may have been made as utilitarian and ceremonial articles, but taken out of their context, they become works of art.

So it's no surprise to find that the DAM's textile curator, Alice Zrebiec, put the show together as though it were an art show rather than an exhibit about how quilts fit into Amish life. Not that there aren't sufficient historical and cultural supporting materials, including a fifteen-minute video about the life of the Amish -- but it's possible to go through the show and to experience it on purely aesthetic grounds, which is what I love about it.

I highly recommend the show not only to fans of textile art, who've already flocked there in droves (the place was jammed when I went through last week), but also to those who are interested in modern and contemporary painting. You see, the Amish created geometric abstractions of tremendous power and beauty that are every bit as good as the efforts of the best minimalists -- and they did it a couple of generations earlier.

The association of the quilts to abstract painting was the perfect angle for Zrebiec to take, considering where the quilts come from. All but four of the pieces in the show are from the collection of Faith and Stephen Brown, who assembled these pieces on the basis of their compositions. Back in the early 1970s, Faith suggested that the couple take in an Amish quilt show at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.; she had to drag Stephen along, because he was totally uninterested. The Renwick show converted Stephen to the medium, and, soon after, the Browns began to form their own impressive collection. Though there are more than a hundred examples, the Browns have not attempted to, say, represent the various Amish colonies or do an historic overview of the development of quilting by them. Everything in the collection was chosen based on its beauty and condition, nothing more.

Speaking of condition, the Browns' quilts, which date mostly from the first part of the twentieth century, are amazingly pristine. There are some small tears and a stain or two, but the colors are universally bright and vibrant. This has to do with both the Browns' discerning eye and the fact that quilts in the Amish world spent most of their long lives in trunks, not spread out on beds. Amish women made the quilts to commemorate marriages and births rather than as ordinary bedding.

The Amish, who in the eighteenth century immigrated to the United States from Germany and Switzerland, came late to quiltmaking, an American art form. They began to do them at the end of the nineteenth century, long after many others. Unlike other quilters, the Amish used plain fabrics in their work, reflecting their belief -- past and present -- in plainness in appearance and habit. As a result, even when they created familiar patterns, such as the wedding ring or log cabin, the results were unique and unforgettable.

Another note about the fabrics that distinguish Amish quilts from most others: Though plain in appearance, they were made with fine dressmaking wool and fancy polished cottons, the same materials used to make the biblically prescribed clothing worn by the Amish.

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