Textile Art

Rebecca Medel:
Rebecca Medel: “1000 Kannons”,1987/89, detail; shown at the 14th Lausanne Biennial

Rarely has there been a more enigmatic concept than TEXTILE ART! Children of the post-war era like ourselves grew up with the Lausanne Biennials, which we perceived as textile art events. They were exciting presentations of textile provenance, acted out on the stage of a tapestry event. Those were the days when we questioned our appreciation of art and stepped up women’s liberation.
Nevertheless, the very term ‘textile art’ proved to be brittle. Conservative spirits put the emphasis on ‘art’, while the women who came to the fore began to turn their textile pursuits into professions.
In the second year of our magazine’s existence, we found ourselves obliged to declare that the term textile does not denote material (TF 2/1983, page 1). Indeed, textiles are neither materials nor techniques, but a method of production using flexible materials and specific techniques; in that they resemble architecture, which also produces results by using (more rigid) materials and specific techniques, but which is, as such, not synonymous with a material or a technique. Due to these character-istics, textiles and architecture cannot be categorised as an end in itself that can be perceived as ‘art’ since the two disciplines will always be functional; inextricably, they will always represent both mind and body.
Those who perceive textiles as materials and use them accordingly will alienate them from their meaningful context and, at best, create a work of art. However, in that case the textile aspect of art would be irrelevant and the term ‘textile art’ misleading.

We can probably assume that textiles developed in parallel with human language. The terms ‘text’ and ‘textiles’ are related in linguistic etymology. Cultural scholars perceive the textile arts as cultural achievements beyond their specific practical applications, only less evidence of them has survived the ages than of, say, ceramics and buildings.
In the more recent past, during the Arts & Crafts movement and in theArt Nouveau period, textiles came into focus as part of a Gesamtkunstwerk – a synthesis of the arts, a union of architecture and interior design – and have shaped our current appreciation of art. During the Russian Revolution there was another trend towards a return of art into everyday use. Following World War I, the Bauhaus manifesto propagated: “Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all turnto the crafts! Art is not a profession.” Bauhaus questioned the functionality of textiles afresh, once more employing the jacquard technique to duplicate pictorial art representations. A climate of openness and keen experimentation developein design, and after the exodus of Bauhaus artists from Nazi Germany (mostly to the USA) this fell on fertile ground abroad.

Claire Zeisler: Fiber sculpture, 1978
Claire Zeisler: Fiber sculpture, 1978

We perceive the beginnings to have been in the USA, for instance when reading texts by Claire Zeisler (1903-1991) 1).
In her view, working with textiles meant a new freedom, in her case a departure from the existing art establishment and a reference to ancient Peruvian weaving.
The first piece conceived with an entirely visible warp, entitled “Space Hanging”, was produced by Lyn Alexan-der in 1953. Lenore Tawney (1907-2007) changed from sculpture to weaving in 1954; she first exhibited in Europe, alongside Claire Zeisler, Sheila Hicks (*1934), who is still alive today, and others, in a show entitled “Woven Forms” held at the Zurich Museum für Angewandte Kunst in 1964. Incidentally, Tawney did not enter the Lausanne Biennial until the 7th edition held in 1975, exhibiting for the last time at the 11th Biennial held in 1983 – a piece involving threads suspended from the ceiling, entitled “Cloud Labyrinth”.
In her book “The New American Tapestry”, published in 1968 2), weaver and author Ruth Kaufmann remarked that a love of adventure prevailed during that period. With the Bauhaus legacy in mind, she wrote: “Bauhaus combined its spirit of experimentation and free play with a thorough study of the characteristics of the medium”. A notable aspect of this book, which inspired me when a young weaver, is the fact that like the Lausanne Biennial organisers, the author subsumed the new departure in weaving – mostly espoused by women – in the term ‘tapestry’, despite the fact that the works on display had nothing to do with that cartoon-based design technique. German-born Kaufmann studied in Berlin, emigrated to England in 1938 and arrived in New York in 1947. The European conception of art historians that anything to do with textiles involved tapestry thus reached the New World as well.
In the US, there were early exhibitions that inspired interest in textiles, such as “Textiles” at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1956, featuring exhibits that tended towards industrial products as well as several pieces by applied artists, one of them Jack Lenor Larsen who moves between both worlds. Before its presentation in Zurich, the ‘Woven Forms’ exhibitions premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1963, with five participants: Lenore Tawney, Alice Adams, Sheila Hicks, Dorian Zachai and Claire Zeisler. The “Wall Hangings” exhibition took place in 1969, again at the Museum of Modern Art, organised by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen. It showcased European and American textile artists.

Considering the period following World War II, many countries experienced a folk art revival, for instance those of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
In Western Europe, countries such as Germany and Austria were weighed down by the Blood and Soil ideology of the Nazi period, while France was encumbered by a state-endorsed conservative notion of culture. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, followed developments in North America, while still others, for instance the UK, embarked on a new departure. The latter country’s textile art revival was more pronounced in embroidery, a field that developed into studio art at the best universities.
Obviously, the European textile arts were greatly influenced by the Lausanne Biennials from 1967 onwards. Biennials or triennials were established in the most diverse countries. The Dutch “Werken in Textiel” biennial was held three times between 1968 and 1973. The London Exhibition of Miniature Textiles, with four editions organised between 1974 and 1982 as an alternative to the Lausanne Biennial, which was expensive for artists, was followed by five editions of the “Nordisk Triennial” in Scandinavia between 1976 and 1983 and, at a very late stage, by the German “Biennale der deutschen Tapisserie”, with five editions held between 1978 and 1990.

Magdalena Abakanowicz:
Magdalena Abakanowicz: “Abacan Red”, 1969, 400 x 400 x 350 cm, shown at the 4th Lausanne Biennial

The countries behind the Iron Curtain had their own window to international textile art: the “International Tapestry Triennial” commenced in Lodz, the Polish centre of the textile industry, in 1972. Still in existence, the 14th edition of the Triennial will be held in 2013. In 1975 an international Biennial of Miniature Textiles was established in the Hungarian city of Szombathely; always held in parallel with a national tapestry exhibition, it achieved impressive numbers at times. Following the political changes in Eastern Europe, the event has continued on a triennial basis since 2003.
The idea of miniature textile exhibitions has gained currency. One such event was established in Strasbourg in 1984 and continued in Angers as of 1993; the 10th edition is scheduled for December of this year. In 1991, Italian architect Mimmo Totaro began organising his annual international “Miniartextil” in Como, with the 22nd edition due on 6th October 2012. By inviting additional artists, the event has become established as the most important exhibition of its kind.

The development of the Lausanne Biennials and their demise had shown that thinking in terms of the tapestry tradition, with a view to the art scene, will lead to a dead end. The experience of Lausanne made the organisers realise that exhibiting became an end in itself for some artists. Rebecca Medel from the USA told me in a conversation that the greatest success she could conceive of for her art was a museum designed around the piece she presented at the 14th Biennial in 1989! To my surprise, I had inspired her to make this statement as I was fascinated by her piece,“1000 Kannon”, only it had struck me as so space-consuming that I was unable to think of an adequate location for it.
At the time, myself and many other visitors were concerned that the conditions of entry for the Biennials disregarded the nature of textile art. All the more as the driving force of the development of textile art are not only the goals, hopes and fears but also the innovations in material and technique of the society in which they take place. What is special about textiles and architecture isthat they explore the (respective new) material living conditions that arise from changes in our situation.
Following a visit to one of the early fairs for technical textiles in Frankfurt/Main in 1989, we wrote with surprise that we had not encountered any textile artists or designers at the event.
At the time, a number of important innovations had been known for several years, prompting Michel Thomas to write about a digital perspective of textile art in his book, “L’Art Textile” 3), as early as 1985.
These developments first drew attention in the UK. In the autumn of 1994, the British Crafts Council staged an exhibition entitled “Textiles and New Technologies 2010”, organised by Sarah Braddock and Marie O’Mahony, with a catalogue that was much noted at the time, and was followed by a book by the same authors, “techno textiles”, in 1998 4). Now the field has become a fad and so has lost some of its momentum.
At the Techtextil fair we saw fascinating new developments in almost all textile disciplines, illustrating that we were approaching a renaissance in textiles, as expressed in our ‘manifesto’ of the European Textile Network (ETN), established in 1991. Held on a biennial basis, Techtextil continues to show new developments in materials and technologies in Frankfurt and the USA, however these are not even noted by the creative textile community, due to a lack of contact to artists in industry and the fact that artists are not greatly committed to seeking out innovations in their field. In this, they resemble 19th century architects who designed neo-Gothic town halls and Empire railways stationsat a time when engineers had long begun to explore concrete, steel and glassconstructions.

Lia Cook:
Lia Cook: “Crazy Quilt: Royal Remnants II”, shown at the 14th Lausanne Biennial

An upswing in jacquard weaving was seen long before the end of the Lausanne Biennial, even among textile artists. Weaving lecturer Alice Marcoux reported on a jacquard project involving renowned American textile artists 5) at the Rhode Island School of Design, New York, the results of which were on display at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in March 1982. Another show not to be omitted is “Textyles 1987” held in Paris, themed “Fashion, a top industry (La mode, une industrie de pointe)” 6) and the first occasion when the French textile and fashion industry presented
its new options to a wider public. Under the auspices of our 1991 “Kunst + Industrie (Art + Industry) projects, some of them involving the same artists, I organised studies on the electronically controlled production machines ofa German weaving mill to bring the new dimension of design options home tothe participants 7).
In the disciplines of embroidery and textile printing, further international projects and conferences held in the 1980s broadened a very few artists’ perspective of the future of textile art 8), but remained unnoticed by the Lausanne Biennials held in parallel.

Interested observers of developments in textile art need patience. After all, it took one century for architects to become familiar with their new materials and techniques. New ground is gained by society as a whole. Everyone’s point of view must change and the spokespersons learn to name new phenomena before artists are in a position to conceive formulations, i.e. forms.
It would help if far-sighted art patrons, scholars, art promoters, exhibition organisers and sponsors were to provide opportunities to chaperone artists’ causes in order to support their precarious search for new forms. Artists are not solely responsible for effecting the change in form that we require.

Exosketeton;  photo  ‚Advanced Textiles for Health and Wellbeing‘ (s. TF 3/2011, S. 45) Science and engineering: Prof. Dava Newman, MIT; Design Guillermo Trotti
Exosketeton; photo ‚Advanced Textiles for Health and Wellbeing‘ (s. TF 3/2011, S. 45) Science and engineering: Prof. Dava Newman, MIT; Design Guillermo Trotti

This contribution was published in Textile Forum No. 3/2012
1) Archives of American Art, Oral History, an interview with Claire Zeisler in June 1981, http://www.aaa.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-claire-zeisler-12076
2) Ruth Kaufmann, “The New American Tapestry”,Reinhold Book Corp., New York 1968
3) Michel Thomas, Christine Mainguy & Sophie Pommier, “L’art Textile”, Skira, Geneva 1985, ISBN 2-605-00068-0. At the time, M. Thomas was the editor of Textile/Art magazine.
4) Sarah Braddock and Marie O’Mahony, “Textiles and New Technology 2010”, Artemis, London 1994 and “techno textiles – Revolutionary Fabrics for Fashion and Design”, Thames & Hudson, London 1998, ISBN 0-500-23740-9
5) Report in TF 1/1984, pp. 29-31; participants included Lia Cook, Françoise Grossen, Gerhard Knodel, Ed Rossbach and Cynthia Schira
6) In the Jan./Feb. 1987 issue of his magazine, “Textile/Art Industries”, Michel Thomas published the catalogue of this exhibition held by the Cité des Sciences et d’Industrie
7) Report in TF 3/1991, pp. 25-40; participants were Lia Cook, Sheila O’Hara, Hanns Herpich, Patricia Kinsella and Cynthia Schira
8) These included the international conference of textile printing, “PrinTX’89”, held in Helsinki in 1989, and an embroidery workshop involving US artists and one British artist at the ZSK embroidery machine factory in Krefeld (see TF 4/1989, pp. 26-34).

Further recommended literature: “Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric, Mildred Constantine / Jack Lenor larsen; Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1973; ISBN 0-442-21634-3

2 Replies to “Textile Art

  1. It was my privilege to exhibit opposite the great Magdalena Abakanowicz: in 1985. She exhibited some of here great Abakan pieces. I took part in the 12th Biennale International De La Tapisserie Lausanne with a paper and stitch installation ‘Sofonisba Anguissola.’ (One of a series of three installations marking ‘forgotten ‘ women artists.) Each panel was 6 feet in diameter. A postcard close up and the catalogue are sadly all that remain. I remember finishing some of the stitching to be attached to the piece whilst on the train travelling to Switzerland. .

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