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Before even reaching the five main galleries dedicated to Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA), visitors encounter the tangled mass of neon-green and sea-blue crocheted strands of Sheila Pepe’s “site-responsive” sculpture, Put Me Down Gently (2014), cascading down the atrium walls. The work extends to the elevator shaft, where more parachute cords, laces, and yarn become visible through the glass of the car as it ascends the length of the building. Though not covering every surface, the fiber envelopes the space, its inherent materiality challenging the hard, clean architecture of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed structure. Put Me Down Gently serves as a powerful opening salvo for an exhibition presenting the complex, overlooked history of fiber art since 1960, through approximately fifty works by thirty-three artists, including Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sheila Hicks, Eva Hesse, Ernesto Neto, Lenore Tawney, Rosemarie Trockel, and Claire Zeisler.
The work in Fiber emerged from the tradition of textiles, utilizing fibrous materials and the processes of weaving, knotting, and knitting. Fiber, as the ICA’s website attests, may be “the first exhibition in 40 years to examine the development of abstraction and dimensionality in fiber art from the mid-twentieth century through to the present,” but it also speaks to a broader interest in this type of work evidenced by recent curatorial and scholarly projects, including Elissa Auther’s String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009) (click here for review); Thread Lines, a group exhibition curated by Joanna Kleinberg Romanow at the Drawing Center in New York (2014); and Richard Tuttles’s installation I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (2014–15). Even the market has taken notice, with Sotheby’s London location opening its Autumn 2014 season with Stitched Up, an exhibition of contemporary textiles, and fiber-based work by Alighiero Boetti, Gerhard Richter, and Trockel beating auction estimates over the past year.
Fiber makes a significant contribution to this greater discourse, and fortunately does so by being more than just a product of good timing. As Jenelle Porter, the Mannion Family Senior Curator at the ICA and organizer of Fiber, suggests, one of the intended goals of the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue is to present new approaches and develop alternative methodologies with which to examine the history of contemporary fiber art, and perhaps in the process, revise some of that history altogether. She writes in “The Materialists,” her introductory essay to the accompanying catalogue:
Fiber seeks to revise entrenched histories by assembling significant works by artists who have been essential to transforming the material definitions of fiber. . . . By turning to the works themselves to explore process and extrapolate meaning, this exhibition aligns with current critical trends toward disconnecting medium from discussions of art or craft, gendered limitations, and hierarchical summaries. The works in Fiber interrogate their own logic, materiality, and medial indeterminacy, and at the same time question their historically ambivalent reception by artists, viewers, and critics. (11)
These are noble, ambitious goals, especially in regard to a medium that, like ceramics for example, is all too often marginalized within the histories of art. While it may seem ridiculous to still have to address any perceived divisions between fine art and craft or fine art and design, it remains necessary. The artists themselves were, and continue to be, profoundly aware of such issues. As Hicks succinctly remarks, “There are no contradictions or separations in my thinking when creating textiles, tapestries, socks, wall hangings, hammocks, sweaters, wigs, bags, rugs or other thread-things” (155). Fiber avoids simply recapitulating these debates, while exploiting the inherent status of fiber as a liminal or hybrid medium.
The exhibition is divided into five galleries, each of which is meant to examine how artists from the 1960s onward have created “thread-things” and transformed “the material definitions of fiber.” With the exception of a modest introductory room, occupied by ethereal, dramatically lit hanging works by Tawney and Kay Sekimachi, each of these spaces are loosely organized by theme: “Fiber and Color,” “Fiber and the Grid,” “Fiber and Gravity,” and “Fiber and Feminism,” with Pepe’s work in the atrium assigned “Fiber and Architecture.” These galleries, like the themes themselves, are largely organized along formal lines. More contemporary pieces are interspersed throughout, though are primarily concentrated within the “Fiber and the Grid” and “Fiber and Feminism” sections.
Work created in the 1960s and 1970s, however, dominates the exhibition as a whole. Based on the sheer amount of material included in Fiber from these two decades, as well as the content of both Porter’s introductory essay and her fascinating chronology of exhibitions related to the fiber art movement between 1962 and 1972, the exhibition emphasizes the pervasive use of fiber and asserts the unfortunate fact that many fiber artists have been excised from the history of vanguard art during this period. The 1960s have become the formative touchstone within contemporary art-historical narratives; and because of the overlap with the most active years of fiber art, such an emphasis is not surprising. What is more curious is the prominent inclusion of “sculpture” in the subtitle of the exhibition. The interrogation of the medium underlined much of the art and critical debates of the period, which involved the emergence of a dominant sculptural tendency characterized by new modes of display, an emphasis on process, and the use of nontraditional, malleable, and fibrous materials. There are clear formal connections between much of the work included in Fiber and sculpture that became associated with the unsatisfying labels of antiform, process art, and Postminimalism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the section entitled “Fiber and Gravity.”
This grouping of work is conceptually and physically at the center of Fiber, and is by far the strongest of the exhibition. Hesse’s Ennead (1966), with its drooping strings extending outward from its black plastic grid; Abakanowicz’s Yellow Abakan (1967–68), with its soft, free form and rough, raw texture; and Hicks’s Banisteriopsis II (1965–66/ 2010), with its sheer mass of piled wool and linen, recall the oozing and materially unstable works of artists like Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, and the conspicuously absent Robert Morris—who lurks like a specter throughout the catalogue and exhibition. Françoise Grossen’s Inchworm (1971) or Jean Stamsta’s Orange Twist (ca. 1970), included in the nearby “Fiber and Color” gallery, further recall the exploration of horizontality and the process of manipulating specific materials so prevalent in late 1960s sculpture.
If this is an exhibition about fiber as artistic material in the sculptural work of the 1960s and early 1970s, however, then Fiber misses an opportunity to think expansively about what diverse work could be included—not only the woven hanging constructions of Jagoda Buić, but Beuys’s felt, Yayoi Kusama’s sewn protuberances, Marisa Merz’s delicate nylon, Morris’s threadwaste, Robert Rauschenberg’s bed sheets, Fred Sandback’s yarn, Tuttle’s canvas, among many other examples. If, on the other hand—and as the work included in the exhibition suggests—Fiber is an exhibition that seeks to examine the materiality of fiber not simply as material but as a medium, then why even bother with the designation “sculpture,” which here becomes a limiting category? Porter justifies the inclusion by stating that the most radical moves within fiber practice in the 1960s concerned volume and space, noting Stamsta’s assertion that “fiber itself is a three-dimensional object” (13), but at a fundamental level—and the risk of veering too close to the dogma of Greenbergian medium specificity—a large majority of the work included in Fiber, especially those pieces in the “color” and “grids” sections, have little to do with sculpture and do not gain much by being discussed as such.
Fiber is both a material and a medium, and too often throughout Fiber such a distinction is muddled. As Porter notes in her introductory essay, Zeisler stated that she felt a greater affinity with artists like Hesse and Morris who escaped the category of craft, but that for her, “fiber still comes first” (11). Fiber is defined not just by its materials, but also by a set of techniques and processes, bound up with its own specific medial baggage. Porter follows Zeisler’s quote by coopting and destabilizing Donald Judd’s neither painting/nor sculpture proposition outlined in his essay “Specific Objects” (1965). She writes, “Why not consider fiber as painting and sculpture, drawing and sculpture, installation and painting, and most problematically art and craft? This ‘both/and’ condition positions fiber more firmly proximate to the explorations that have propelled art since the 1960s” (11–12; emphasis in original). Much of the work in the exhibition, regardless of its exploration of materiality or the boundaries between image and object, has very different concerns from those expressed in the work of Morris or even Hesse. In the 1960s, fiber artists—weavers, knitters, and those working out of the traditions of textiles—began to focus on the properties of their material, exploring the processes of hooking, twisting, and knotting as well as the possibilities of scale, process, display, and space in radically new ways. This is a history, however, more parallel to, than a part of, that of sculpture.
The catalogue for Fiber should become a key resource on the topic for years to come, not only because of its extensive color illustrations of both the work on view and other related works by included artists as well as its solidly written artist biographies (with bibliographies) by Sarah Parrish, but because its essays suggest possible new methodological avenues for assessing fiber art, not as sculpture, craft, or anything else, but on its own terms. Glenn Adamson, the recently appointed director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City and one of the leading scholars on the discourses of craft, focuses his theoretically driven, thoughtful, and delightfully humorous essay, “Soft Power,” on the inherently material quality of fiber, namely flaccidness. The presence of humor is important here because the exhibition sometimes seems particularly intent on framing fiber art in serious, monumental terms, often at the cost of the unique, effective blend of whimsy and ridiculousness expressed by some of the included works. Adamson begins his essay with a discussion of the presence, or lack thereof, of limp penises in the history of art, which cleverly enables him to address issues of gender, sex, and critical bias, without getting mired in the well-worn debates often applied to fiber art. As in Porter’s essays, Lucy Lippard’s 1966 exhibition Eccentric Abstraction figures heavily here. Adamson remarks that what the critics missed in regard to Lippard’s curatorial project was the “soft dimension she had isolated in the work—the sympathy, the pathos, the humor” (148). Adamson continues: “The ongoing provocative value of fiber art from this time period—whatever the social and institutional context of its production—is entirely bound up with its flaccidity, which is to say, its unembarrassed embrace of an everyday materialism. Artists of the late 1960s working in fiber delighted in the loose, somewhat unpredictable shifts that occur when their material was massed together rather than seeking to control it” (148).
Besides the well-articulated emphasis throughout the catalogue and the exhibition on the materiality of fiber, Fiber also suggests an alternative history of the medium read through the lens of place and site. Toward the end of her essay, almost in passing, Porter evocatively suggests that geography has been a major contributing factor to the marginalized status of fiber art within the histories of contemporary art. Many of the artists working with fibrous materials or processes were not based in New York City, but dispersed in cities across not just the United States, but also the world. Save for perhaps the section “Fiber and Feminism,” context—whether social, geographical, or political—does not play an overt role in Fiber, but it does provide a possible new and exciting critical apparatus in which to examine the history of fiber art, especially in regard to more global manifestations.
As Porter declares in “The Materialists,” “Therefore, in its organization and presentation, Fiber seeks to question this ambivalence [between the critical reception of fiber arts and its continued prevalence among contemporary art] and refresh the critical apparatus. It is time to consider the work as art, releasing it from stale categories and outmoded theories” (20). The catalogue essays of Fiber provide possible new avenues for talking about fiber art on its own terms, and the work included in the exhibition demands further investigation. Despite some of its critical contradictions and categorical confusions, Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present, both exhibition and catalogue, suggests that there remains a tremendous amount of ground to cover and work to accomplish in regard to this rich, tangled topic.
Marin R. Sullivan
Assistant Professor of Art History, Art Department, Keene State College
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