I have quite a soft spot for the minimalist, post-painterly abstract paintings of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m too young to have memories of the work as it happened and made its way into museums and galleries in the period, but it was important to me particularly during my years at art school where it was a regular reference point to many of my teachers.
From this perspective it was interesting to visit the de Pont museum in Tilburg (the Netherlands). Alongside the permanent collection they have a temporary show, not of the aforementioned abstract work from forty to fifty years ago, but of a curious juxtaposition of light installations and graphic work by the American light artist James Turrell and historical Amish quilts that are all eighty or more years old.
It is a strange combination, an extensive collection of beautifully made bed quilts and a documentation of Turrell’s extensive sky observatory work at Roden Crater in Arizona, alongside a number of his museum space installations of projected light creating geometric forms. I love Turrell’s work, and oh how I would like to make a trip to Roden Crater. The intensities of the colour he makes use of, the manipulation of geometric form, but above all the ambiguities of surfaces in his work draws you in and keeps you asking questions about the nature of visual perception.
In quite close proximity to the light installations in the de Pont museum hang the Amish quilts. They are of varying sizes but many share an intense, but unstated use of colour. I think my biggest problem with the quilts is how they have been displayed. As I have already said, I like looking at geometric abstract paintings. De Pont has the same beautifully sharp spaces and walls that many a modern museum has. Onto these walls the quilts have been hung, with generous white spaces around them, like paintings. It is very difficult (for me at least) to escape looking at them as paintings. And yet, they are not paintings, they are quilts, built up of separate sections of fabric, immaculately stitched together. They have the added charge of a history, a personal narrative and a domestic craft. They are designed to be decorative and to lay flat over a bed as a blanket, at least in part as a functional object.
I am used to encountering functional objects in a museum context, where they are to be looked at, contemplated and definitely not touched. I don’t normally have a problem with this, here though it is simply the overwhelming tendency to try and view these objects like they are something that they are not that I find problematic.
This is clearly a deliberate strategy by the museum, the hard geometry on Turrell’s work, alongside the equally hard geometry of the Amish quilts. It’s all very interesting, but is it a reasonable comparison to be asking us to make?
Turrell’s work is designed for the museum space, the quilts very definitely were not. They were designed to add decorative qualities to the Amish home, with its otherwise quite frugal appearance and a surrounding life focussed on family and God. They were also designed to lie flat, in a different plane than the way they are displayed in the museum. In the museum, they are not only removed from their context, but displayed in a way that deposits art historical baggage onto them that seems to be pushing a point that in my view isn’t really there.
I liked both parts of the current installations, each for its own merits, but the shared importance of geometry doesn’t make the two parts, if you’ll excuse the Amish quilt context pun, easy bedfellows.