Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 9, 2010
Elissa Auther String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 280 pp.; 62 color ills.; 21 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780816656097)

Elissa Auther’s String, Felt, Thread provides a revealing case study of the specificity of an artistic material and the mutability of that material’s significance in the art world. She follows Glenn Adamson’s insight that “craft” is an idea, not a particular material or practice (Glenn Adamson, Thinking through Craft, London: Berg, 2007, xxix). Accepting that principle, however, Auther does not abandon material specificity but, rather, explores the historically shifting resonances of one material typically associated with the idea of craft, namely, fiber.

What she discovers is that fiber’s meaning shifts, but it nearly always determines an artwork’s “proper” place in the longstanding, Western hierarchy of art over craft. Auther’s examination of that hierarchy makes a considerable contribution to art history, especially because the art-craft divide has remained remarkably hegemonic, despite feminists’ attempts to dismantle it. Instead of joining their apparently progressive call to right the wrong, Auther chooses to delineate the power relations that (re)produce this hierarchy. In her conscientious, rather than overtly partisan, book, Auther weaves together narratives of art, artists, exhibitions, books, critics, and historians to tell a big and, as of yet, untold story.

Auther organizes String, Felt, Thread around three chapters that approach fiber in art and craft from different perspectives. She restricts this potentially unwieldy field to the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, although she draws on earlier, later, and international material where appropriate. In chapter 1, she examines the work of “fiber artists,” that is, those who use “off-loom techniques” or produce “woven works of an unorthodox or experimental quality” (7). These artists, including Lenore Tawney, Alice Adams, and Claire Zeisler, seek validation for their art, which typically falls outside of the realm of high art. In chapter 2, Auther explores the terrain within that realm. Postminimalists Robert Morris and Eva Hesse may use the same material that the fiber artists do, but their work, as Auther painstakingly details, is understood within completely different parameters. Finally, in chapter 3, Auther addresses feminist artists such as Faith Ringgold, Judy Chicago, and Miriam Shapiro, who try actively to change negative associations of fiber and craft as part of a larger feminist intervention in the art world.

This methodical accounting of artists 1) in craft, 2) in art, and 3) in art using craft serves Auther well. Its clarity forces readers to recognize the persistence of the aesthetic hierarchy in question (how else could the shorthand in the previous sentence make sense?). In addition, it allows readers easily to follow the warp of the narrative, so to speak, even as the weft takes surprising twists. Tawney’s seemingly obvious placement in chapter 1, for example, belies her complex roots: she studied with (weaver) Marli Ehrman and (modernist sculptor) Alexander Archipenko (29), and (modernist painter) Agnes Martin long admired her work (31). Indeed, some artists showed the same artwork in “craft” as well as in “art” venues. A case in point is Adams, whose work in rope and cable appeared in two radically divergent New York exhibitions: Woven Forms (Museum of Contemporary Craft, 1963) and Lucy Lippard’s exploration of Postminimalism, Eccentric Abstraction (Fischbach Gallery, 1966) (3).

However inconclusive the artist’s training or exhibiting record, though, Auther demonstrates critics’ amazing ability consistently to categorize artists and their work. This skill appears almost uncanny when the same critic discusses essentially the same material in two different settings as if the artworks had nothing in common. Gregory Battcock’s pronouncements about Morris’s and Zeisler’s large fiber works that are mounted on the wall and flow gracefully down to the floor are exemplary. Apropos Morris in 1968, when he first exhibited his Felts: “There is little doubt that Robert Morris is the leading sculptor of our day. At the same time, the works and writings by the artist establish him as a major theoretician and aesthetician for our time” (55–57). Compare his comments on Zeisler the following year: “Mops, floppiness, and house-wifey dumpiness might distract the viewer, but only momentarily. . . . Zeisler’s sculptures emphasize texture at the expense of form, and since texture is emphasized in just the right way, it’s O.K.” (23). Today Battcock’s highly qualified approval of Zeisler reads as sexist condescension toward traditionally female labor (with a nod to the higher, supposedly masculine labor of intellect and form-production that he identifies with Morris). Auther takes pains to show, however, that the differences are not as simple as Morris=man, Zeisler=woman, ergo, his art=positively masculine and her art=negatively feminine. Rather, complicated power relations produce interpretations that often marshal prejudice for their strength.

What constitutes these power relations? Auther identifies three critical factors. First, as Battcock’s commentary on Morris suggests, the rhetoric that is produced by and around artists is key. Auther details, for example, how Morris’s essay “Anti Form,” which included reproductions of two of his Felts, appeared in Artforum between the third and fourth parts of his widely respected “Notes on Sculpture” series. In her assessment, “Morris’s ability to use ‘Anti Form’ to set the terms of the discourse within which the Felts would be received . . . ensured that the properties of felt he exploited—its sensuality, tactility, or relation to the everyday—were not subject to the typical readings applied to the use of fiber in art” (55–57). Second, artists’ associations prove again and again to be pivotal. Along with the critical support of Lippard, for instance, “Hesse’s friendships with well-regarded and more established artists such as Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt, and Carl Andre created important ties between her work and the center of power in the art world,” as Auther notes (81, 192n5). (Associations among fiber artists and feminist artists appear equally influential.)

The third factor in power relations overlaps with the first two but is arguably the most provocative. One might expect the Postminimalists to be invested in the maintenance of the art-craft hierarchy, since it favors them; but Auther reveals that both fiber and feminist artists mobilize that hierarchy as well, even as they appear to fight or dismiss it. Zeisler provides an apt example. Auther quotes from an interview in 1979: “Some people referred to my work as Claire Zeisler’s macramé. That’s when I hit the ceiling. I don’t mind the word craft, but I do mind the word macramé because macramé today means a decorative knot, and I use my knotting technique as structure. . . .The knot becomes the base for the piece, like the canvas is the base for a painting” (27; emphasis in original). Auther unravels this rhetoric, writing, “her references to knotting as integral to the ‘structure’ of her pieces emphasizes the formal rigor of her art, as does the explicit parallel she draws between her work and a painted canvas. The latter comparison places her work firmly in the category of high art by invoking its preeminent medium, paint on canvas, and highlights not craft-oriented technique but art-oriented practice” (28). Thus, the fiber artist who ostensibly wants her creations to be respected as art paradoxically reproduces the hierarchy of art over craft.

Feminists repeat this pattern, too. Auther’s analysis of Ringgold is especially illuminating, as she recounts the artist’s own recognition of the art-craft hierarchy, efforts to topple it, and eventual capitulation to—and recapitulation of—it. Asked in 1990 how she defines her art, Ringgold responds: “I’m a painter who works in the quilt medium; and that I sew on my painting doesn’t make it less of a painting; and that it’s made into a quilt does not make it less of a painting. It’s still a painting. . . . Fine art has to do with ideas” (117). As Auther concludes: “Ringgold’s response, which asserts a difference between art and craft through the familiar opposition of intellectual content to skill or ‘process’ for its own sake, illustrates . . . [her] continued commitment to the category of art despite her works’ critique of that very category by virtue of her innovative use of fiber” (117).

In String, Felt, Thread, Auther subjects this ubiquitous reiteration of the art-craft hierarchy to careful scrutiny. Her evenhanded treatment leads her to a conclusion that a more regretful or judgmental one might have missed. Acknowledging the hierarchy’s apparent intractability, Auther remarks, “What feminists engaged in the critique of the hierarchy of art and craft in the 1970s did succeed in doing (in distinction from fiber . . . and postminimalist artists) was to expose the ethical dimensions of a system of classification that resulted in the marginalization or dismissal of work by women around the globe under the label of craft. This is no small accomplishment” (160; emphasis in original). Indeed. In her conclusion, Auther relinquishes her focus on American artists in the 1960s and 1970s to gloss work by contemporary, international artists as diverse as Do-Ho Suh, Anne Wilson, Ghada Amer, and Yinka Shonibare. What their art shares, of course, is fiber. Auther argues that American feminists in the 1970s lay the groundwork for the international acceptance of that material as art today. Her claim—which may have ramifications for other persistent aesthetic hierarchies—merits more meticulous investigation, perhaps in Auther’s next book. This one, however, amply demonstrates that sober analysis contributes to productive feminism in 2010.

Jenny Anger
Professor, Department of Art History, Grinnell College