"Diamond in the Square," quilt by Barbara Fisher.
"Diamond in the Square," quilt by Barbara Fisher.

Looking Back

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.

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.

I was hooked from the first gallery, where Zrebiec sensitively paired two very similar quilts of the hieratic diamond-in-the-square design; both were from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the most famous of the more than a score of Amish colonies scattered throughout the East Coast and the Midwest. One, by Barbara Fisher, is from the Browns; the other, which is anonymous, is from the DAM's permanent collection. The design is utterly simple, and both quilts employ big pieces of cloth in rich colors, including purple, red and green. Taken together, the two are heart-stopping.

The first gallery is devoted to quilts made in Pennsylvania, but the Browns have put more attention into Midwestern Amish quilts, especially those made in Ohio. (The Amish are not monolithic, and different colonies have different customs.) The Midwestern quilts are much more complicated than most of the Pennsylvania ones, and they're smaller. Don't miss "Broken Dishes," "Roman Stripes" and "Railroad Crossing," all of which are most likely cradle quilts that were made in Holmes County, Ohio.

Despite my expectations, I loved Amish Quilts. I know that has to do with curator Zrebiec's art-show approach as well as the Browns' obvious connoisseurship. Now the bad news: The show has only a few weeks left here, so time is of the essence.

Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition is running for nearly the entire summer at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and it's an example of a blockbuster that's smothered by design. Everything in it is encased and surrounded by visual imagery and text panels done by the PRD Group, which seems to have made a specialty of goofing up otherwise intelligent shows like this one. These PRD design features, done in the name of interpreting history, make it hard to focus on the things we're presumably supposed to: that is, the objects that illuminate the great survey expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

As we all learned in elementary school, Lewis and Clark, their Shoshone guide Sacagawea and a small contingent of men set off in the spring of 1804 to find a river passage from the Midwest to the Northwest Coast. This was undertaken at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, hot on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson wanted to get an idea of what he had just bought. Of course, no such river passage was to be found, because the Rockies and the Sierras are in the way. But the trip was valuable in other ways, especially in increased scientific knowledge about the unusual animals and plants in the western states.

Any problems with the show do not fall at the feet of the curator, Carolyn Gilman, a special-projects historian at the Missouri Historical Society, which is the institutional sponsor of this traveling exhibit. No, Gilman did everything right, and she deserves a lot of credit for spending some seven years hunting down the maps, tomahawks, peace pipes, presentation pieces, trade beads, paintings, sculptures, scientific equipment, incunabula, botanical sketches, journals, books, uniforms, weapons and everything else she could find that would explicate the topic. The American Indian art she chose, especially those pieces from the Northwest Coast tribes and the Nez Perce, are spectacular, adding a welcome but unexpected angle to the show. After all, the defeat of the Indians is the flip side of the Euro-American domination of the West.

Only a portion of the objects in the show relate directly to the expedition itself, because when it was finished, in 1805 -- hence the "Bicentennial" reference in the show's title -- most everything except the personal property of Lewis and Clark was auctioned off as military surplus. This cast the material to the four winds, and it really is amazing how much of it Gilman was able to ferret out.

In spite of its dreadful exhibition design, Lewis & Clark has some unforgettable things, and I recommend it, my reservations notwithstanding, to history buffs and fans of American Indian art. Oh, and -- I almost forgot -- to those who enjoy the atmosphere of theme restaurants.


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