The exhibition “Wall Hangings” was in some ways a very anti-modernist affair—even though it was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The year was 1969. By that time MoMA had been showing textiles for more than three decades, as part of its design program. In exhibitions like “Textiles U.S.A.” (1956), which was sponsored by a trade publication, the credited exhibitors were companies rather than individual weavers. As the curator of that project, Greta Daniel, explained, “the craftsman’s chief contribution now appears to be in the design of fabrics for mass production.” She shared a presumption, widespread in those days, that American craft’s destiny lay in close collaboration with industry. Rather than seeing handwork as a goal in itself, it could be understood as a stage in the design process. Weaving was the paradigm case. One could easily design a chair or a teapot on paper, then get it manufactured. But in textiles, handwoven prototyping is vital: a means to experiment with texture, materials, and color, without investing in the time and expense of setting up a machine loom.
The 1960s, and “Wall Hangings,” brought a different point of view. Just as the American textile industry began its inexorable decline in the face of globalization, artists like Lenore Tawney, Sheila Hicks, and Claire Zeisler decided to eschew the machine for other possibilities. They adopted off-loom techniques such as knotting, wrapping, and plaiting, as well as ingenious “hacks” of the loom itself. Their motivation was to find new vocabularies for the discipline, which ironically led them to techniques that were deliberately anachronistic. They borrowed ideas, for example, from ancient Peruvian textiles: the shock of the old.
This new direction in the field had first been announced in the exhibition “Woven Forms” (1963) at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, then located right next door to MoMA. That show, which gave pride of place to Tawney, was organized by the pioneering crafts curator Paul J. Smith (who died this past April at the age of eighty-eight).¹ “Wall Hangings” was MoMA’s slightly belated response. It was curated by Mildred Constantine in collaboration with weaver Jack Lenor Larsen, whose interests ranged far more broadly than his own commercial output did. Larsen remembers that the show was delayed so that it could be presented in MoMA’s premier gallery space: “We demanded the first floor, as it was a new subject. People were wondering, ‘why modern textiles when so much is going on in painting?’ But to get the first floor we had to wait.”
The exhibition was an explicit reversal of the institution’s previous involvement in the discipline. The participants were twenty-eight individuals from eight nations, unlike the “Textiles U.S.A.” roster of American companies; according to the curators, these independent studio weavers operated “not in the fabric industry but in the world of art,” and indeed, were “largely indifferent to certain recent developments which might supplement hand tools with machine techniques.” The degree to which “fiber art” departed from the flat matrix of the loom was dramatized by the display of Hicks’s Evolving Tapestry (1967–68) on a revolving turntable, visible from the sidewalk on 53rd Street.
It was up close, however, that the new textile sculptures offered their most salient aesthetic qualities. As Constantine and Larsen pointed out, unlike contemporaneous painting, the new fiber art was muted in color; emphasis was instead on structure and texture, mass and transparency. The material palette was broad: at one extreme, Magdalena Abakanowicz’s dramatic draperies of rough, knotted sisal; at the other, Kay Sekimachi’s diaphanous constructions of nylon monofilament (“a hyper-industrial material”). To truly appreciate these works, technical knowledge was helpful but not strictly necessary; it was just a matter of reorienting oneself to tactile nuance.
Over the past five decades, “Wall Hangings” has had a fascinating historiographical trajectory. Initially it attracted little attention, with the conspicuous exception of a Louise Bourgeois interview that ran in the March/April 1969 issue of Craft Horizons, directly juxtaposed with an essay by Larsen. Bourgeois, who was not in the show, did a little policing of institutional boundaries: the works in the MoMA show, she noted, “if they must be classified . . . fall somewhere between fine and applied art.” Yet most of her comments were more evocative and elusive, raising doubts as to whether such classification was really worthwhile. When she first heard the exhibition title, the great Surrealist said, she thought of mail sacks hanging from a post office wall, “beautiful in their simplicity and practicality.”2
Larsen and Constantine knew that if they wanted their exhibition to leave a critical legacy, they would have to provide it themselves. In 1972 they published Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric, which enlarged on the MoMA catalogue (literally—the book is huge, and beautifully illustrated), and in 1981 released The Art Fabric: Mainstream (also a doorstop). The latter subtitle was certainly wishful thinking, for by this time the fiber art movement had receded from the limelight, dismissed as an outgrowth of hippie macramé (actually, it had been the other way around). The fact that women had been the primary protagonists of the fiber movement was doubtless a salient factor in its marginalization.
This picture has changed in the past few years. Beginning with Jenelle Porter’s 2014 exhibition “Fiber: Sculpture, 1960–Present” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, attention has increasingly been paid to postwar fiber artists, with monographic exhibitions at museums and major galleries devoted to Hicks, Tawney, Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Françoise Grossen, and Josep Grau-Garriga. In May, for its virtual viewing room at Frieze, the London gallery Richard Saltoun gathered works in explicit homage to “Wall Hangings.” The selection was interesting and offbeat: Olga de Amaral (from Colombia) and Jagoda Buić (from Croatia), who were both in the MoMA show; the British neo-Constructivist Peter Collingwood; little-known Cuban weaver Gustavo Pérez Monzón; and even Ulay, the late German-born performance artist best known for his powerful collaborations with Marina Abramović.
It may be easy to guess why fiber art has come back into focus. The gender dynamics of the movement, long an obstacle, now forms its own argument for reassessment. Its sheer internationalism, unusual at a time when most art movements were anchored in specific cities and nations, also feels relevant. Then, too, there is a broader reappraisal of craft’s role in fine art, signaled by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s current (though temporarily suspended) exhibition “Knowing Making: Craft in Art, 1950–2019.” Contemporary artists have also been making the case for fiber art’s legacy, with such figures as Josh Faught, Diedrick Brackens, and the Chicago artist kg (Karolina Gnatowski) explicitly drawing inspiration from the movement.
While the increased attention is welcome, greater precision would be even more so. For example, the Saltoun selection, while intriguing, was also ahistorical, its components linked by little more than medium specificity. The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Taking a Thread for a Walk,” which opened this past October, reviewed the history of textiles and fiber art, including the institution’s own past contributions through shows like “Wall Hangings.” Viewers were fortunate to see so much material from the collection at once, but the exhibition had such a broad purview, juxtaposing so many different and contrasting textile idioms, that it could easily have been three times the size. As awareness develops further, the key formations of textile history—as with ceramics and other genres formerly ghettoized among the crafts—will become as familiar as those of painting and sculpture. Meanwhile, it is useful to look back at precedents like “Wall Hangings.” The exhibition may have taken place five decades ago, but all of a sudden, it looks a lot like our future.
1 Tawney’s work occupied the ground floor galleries, and the title “Woven Forms” echoed the term she often applied to her work. The show also included Hicks, Zeisler, Alice Adams, and Dorian Zachai.
2 Louise Bourgeois, “The Fabric of Construction,” Craft Horizons, vol. 29, no. 2, March/April 1969, p. 33.