The art of fiber / the fiber of art (by Olga Norris)

Sheila Hicks
Shiela Hicks with her work Pillar of Enquiry/Supple Column (from this review)

With some regret I will not be able to visit the exhibition Fiber: Sculpture 1960 – Present, on at the ICA, Boston now until January 4, then at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus from January – April 5 2015, followed by the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa May 8 – August 2nd. However, I have the next best thing: the excellent catalogue with its informative and thought-provoking essays.

I became generally interested in soft sculpture such as the work of Meret Oppenheim and Claes Oldenburg before developing a particular fascination with fibre art in the late 70s through the Royal College of Art Gaudy Ladies exhibitions which included weaver Marta Rogoyska, and Natalie Gibson (whose print designs can be seen here). Then I also became attracted to the work of Tadek Beutlich who worked with weaving off the loom.
Tadek BeutlichThis opened a window for me, and I started looking more and more for examples of sculptural textiles – which led me to a treasury of delights: Magdalena Abakanowicz, Olga de Amaral, Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and Anne Wilson among so many others. Interesting that I arrived at Eva Hesse and Rosemarie Trockel directly through my interest in sculpture rather than through fibre art.

The catalogue provides clear photographs of the work in situ as well as close-ups, and the essays are also illuminating. The gulf between the burgeoning fibre art movement and what might be called mainstream art critics’ view of art is pointed out in the first essay of the catalogue: The Materialists by Jenelle Porter.
Despite the gains of the feminist art movement, which included a groundbreaking loosening of confining categories and mediums that has continued to have an impact on artists to this day, fiber’s association with women’s work undermined the abstract, material experimentation of fiber artists – man of whom were women, though not necessarily self-identified feminists. … By using traditionally domestic crafts … On the positive side they acquired a ready made alternative art history, and gained a language of form that summoned up vast realms of women’s experience. On the negative side they found themselves confronted by the questionable notion that craft was inherently female, and by the negative aspects of that gendering.

Magdalena Abakanowicz: Yellow Abakan (from this review of the exhibition)

In Glenn Adamson’s essay Soft Power he draws the distinction in bold terms by comparing the gravity-enhanced fibre works with distinct periods in history of the unpopularity of the flaccid penis in sculpture. The distinct lack of critical acclaim for the droopy draped natural forms of soft sculpture compares with the critical successes of upright thrusting forms of hard sculpture. This superficial sounding view is in fact an informative well thought-out argument which has certainly presented a different perspective to the feminist debate.
T’ai Smith’s essay Tapestries in Space: An Alternative History of Site-Specificity discusses how many of the glorious fibre sculptures were commissioned for specific buildings and now many have been destroyed or about to be destroyed because they were not looked after or were no longer needed. Barbara Shawcroft’s Legs joyously decorating the spaces of the Embarcadero Station on the Bay Area Rapid Transport network has been neglected, and is now to be returned to the artist – which at least is better than destruction. (Article about Legs here)
Barbara Shawcroft: White Form

Robert Rohm’s Rope Piece has been dismantled and lost, but the exhibition curator Jenelle Porter and a team from the ICA reconstructed the work and it is now part of the show.

Art made of fibre does suffer over time. Maintenance and conservation are headaches for collectors and institutions. Some fibre art once bought is wrapped up and put straight into the cupboard. This has happened with Lenore Tawney and MOMA. the latter pleading lack of appropriate space. At least, that might have been so in past decades, but now with the ubiquity of installations, the maintenance nightmares of sharks in formaldehyde, the vast sizes of iconic museum architecture, perhaps this timely revival of these wondrous constructions will have some positive effect -?

photo-614x460Elise Giauque: Pure Spatial Element (from this review of the exhibition)

But in reading this excellent catalogue/book as well as having been given the opportunity to think again about those historic pieces, and to mull once more aspects of feminism in art, I also ask myself, is it really over-simplifying the case by so much to say that generally, work made in materials which need less maintenance and conservation are in the long run more highly regarded (i.e. worth more) by the art world (critics, curators, collectors)?


6 Responses to “The art of fiber / the fiber of art (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 Liz Hankins March 16, 2015 at 4:55 am

    I am a family friend of Tadek Beutlich and stumbled across your page here while searching him online- thank you its interesting reading! I am organising a post humous show and sale of his remaining works at the request of his widow. Anyone interested can email me at if you would like to be kept informed of the forthcoming show details- to be held in the UK. I will post information on my website too when it is finalised

  2. 2 clairan January 2, 2015 at 10:51 am

    This is clearly the exhibit to see this year. (Sigh) I will not be going to Boston.

  3. 3 Eirene Mitsos December 29, 2014 at 10:33 am

    There is so much to explore in this post Olga, and I think I will look up one link per day so as to savour all these interesting artists that you mention. I am a great admirer of Eva Hesse’s work and have loved every piece of Meret Oppenheim’s work that I have seen. The rest, are not known to me, so I am looking forward to exploring.

    The quote from Jenelle Porter makes me think that I need to get this catalogue and I’m sorry you will miss seeing this exhibition as I know that you would have loved it.

    • 4 olganorris December 30, 2014 at 2:22 am

      Eirene, I hope that you enjoy your further exploration of the artists mentioned in the post. They are so many fantastic artists, and you are right: I’m sure I would really have enjoyed seeing the exhibition. However, sometimes a catalogue as good as this one provides excellent photographs of the pieces – enough to trigger memories of the work or similar which I have seen in the past, and more than that also contains the much appreciated extra thought-provoking essays. I so miss the discourse these days that I am more than content with this quality of catalogue alone.

  4. 5 Amy Meissner December 21, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Thank you for this wonderful overview and introduction to this exhibit. I live and work as a textile artist in Anchorage, Alaska and greatly appreciate any insight into goings-on in the world “Outside.” Since reading this piece, I have loaded my online shopping cart with exhibit catalogs and theoretical books on craft by Glenn Adamson…hopefully once this enlightenment arrives (via dogsled, of course) the long winter won’t seem quite as bleak. Much gratitude for the post.

    • 6 olganorris December 22, 2014 at 2:10 am

      Amy, I hope that you enjoy your reading once the dogs get there, and look forward to your thoughts on your blog.

Comments are currently closed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 221 other subscribers


%d bloggers like this: