Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 2021
K. L. H. Wells Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry between Paris and New York New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019. 280 pp.; 59 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Cloth $59.00 (9780300232592)

With Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry between Paris and New York, author K. L. H. Wells, associate professor of American art and architecture at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, proposes a reassessment of modernism’s relationship to decoration through an examination of modernist tapestries produced after World War II. Wells asserts that the indeterminate positioning of tapestry as a French luxury craft with “masculine prestige” gave it a “privileged position within postwar modernism,” a position attributable to its being “both elite and marginal” (6–7). Over four chapters, Wells considers the prevalence of postwar tapestries and the way in which tapestry expanded the audience for modern art. She clearly situates her understanding of tapestry, but the broad usage of the term in the postwar era (and even to the present day) remains somewhat confounding. Although Wells might have examined in greater detail the imprecise application of a specific technical term and the way in which it aligns with her argument about marketing modernism, overall Weaving Modernism makes a significant contribution to American modern art scholarship and builds on a growing body of writing meant to expand and nuance narratives of modernity and postmodernity.

In the first chapter, “Medium,” Wells questions modernism’s supposed devotion to painting and argues that artists, collectors, critics, and curators accepted tapestry as a medium and recognized its significant parallels to painting. Even Clement Greenberg, a critic often noted in scholarship for his repudiation of the decorative, used textile language in his descriptions of Abstract Expressionist and Color Field paintings. To further elucidate the connection between painting and tapestry, Wells mines the relationships between individual artists, such as Kenneth Noland and Robert Motherwell, and modern tapestry producers, such as Gloria F. Ross and Modern Master Tapestries (helmed by Charles E. Slatkin). Ultimately, for some artists, including Motherwell and Frank Stella, financial considerations significantly impacted the decisions they made about producing tapestries. Regardless of these particulars, Wells argues that comparing tapestries and paintings of the period demonstrates the ways in which “intermedial influence” challenges medium specificity (57).

To explain the particular appeal of tapestry for artists and consumers during the postwar era, in the following chapter, “Revival,” Wells provides a detailed account of publications and exhibitions that reinscribed the historical prestige of French workshops while anonymizing weavers. The medieval period, a site of repeated reference in art historical narratives structured around nostalgia (including the Arts and Crafts movement), once again provides a precedent in the postwar revival discourse, as Wells asserts that “revival creates not a fiction of continuity but rather a narrative of rise, fall, and renaissance that emphasizes historical rupture” (61). Within this unpacking of the revival narrative, Wells argues that Paris (and France more broadly) retained a prominent role in the art world during the postwar period, and the artistic exchanges between New York and Paris reinforced diplomatic ties between France and the United States. At the close of this chapter, Wells observes that “both revival and reproduction are forms of repetition that challenge conventional notions of modernist originality” (105). This claim leads the reader into the next chapter and a discussion of tapestry as a medium of “multiplicity” (110).

Chapters 3 (“Reproduction”) and 4 (“Decoration”) set forth the myriad ways in which artists, weavers, and collectors employed and deployed tapestry. Through an examination of tapestry (re)production, Wells elucidates underlying tensions about multiples, the notion of the artist as author, and the agency of tapestry weavers. The third chapter serves to further the volume’s claim that tapestry provided a way for artists to generate more work for the art market and thus expand their audience. At the same time, as a medium that relied on more than one maker, tapestry challenged contemporary thinking about artistic authorship. With art prints, artists had a convenient and lucrative method for reproducing and proliferating their work; however, many still chose to pursue tapestry, a medium that fit within an established and familiar decorative framework. Wells focuses on this framework in chapter 4 and argues that artists, corporations, critics, and dealers embraced tapestry, which they understood as a privileged medium that registered as both autonomous and decorative. Tapestries advanced the notion that modern art, regardless of media, made for good decoration.

In the conclusion, Wells critiques the way in which postmodernists have shaped an art historical narrative that characterizes modernist attitudes toward decoration as depreciatory. She specifies that feminists, fiber artists, and participants in the Pattern and Decoration movement intentionally ignored modern tapestries in their rhetoric against modernism, as such works did not fit with their radical message. Indeed, these postmodernists, paradoxically following in the steps of modernists, enacted a decorative revival, which required a strategic rupture with the immediate past and thus effaced modernism’s ties to decoration. Wells, through her examination of tapestry, seeks to highlight and analyze a significant, though sidelined, component of postwar modernism, as well as its complexities and contradictions, which require fuller treatment in the history of postwar art.

At certain points in the volume, the broad definition of “tapestry” obscures relevant distinctions between the works being discussed and the artists credited with making them. In the introduction, Wells asserts that the definition of tapestry was “imprecise in the postwar period, as artists and critics began using the term to describe pile rugs, patchwork quilts, fiber-art sculptures, and even paintings” (5). She goes on to elaborate that “what defined tapestry was less its specific technique than its status as a handcrafted pictorial work that could complement the paintings of the artist who designed it” (6). This definition poses a problem when considering the work of artists who were not painters. In the volume’s fourth chapter, Wells positions the embroidered panels that Sheila Hicks made for the cocktail lounges in Air France planes as analogous to tapestries designed by artists such as Yves Millecamps (186–88). Hicks, unlike Millecamps, made the panels herself, which does not align with Wells’s understanding of tapestry as a “compound art” that involves the hands of many makers, much like various print media. Moreover, Hicks was not making work to complement paintings, but instead chose a textiles-based practice.

Similar issues arise in Wells’s discussion of Anni Albers. In chapter 3, Wells asserts that Albers shifted her weaving practice from craft and design work, or functional decoration, to art (“pictorial weavings”) after World War II, thus demonstrating Albers’s recognition of tapestry as an autonomous “high art” in the postwar era (169–70). Pressing this argument further, Wells discusses Albers’s 1959 exhibition Pictorial Weavings and notes that all of the works, including those previously understood as functional, were presented as tableaux, installed upright, in the installation. The exhibition title, which refers specifically to Albers’s works intended to operate as paintings, arguably demonstrates the artist’s conflation of functional and autonomous work, although there is no documentation provided to substantiate that Albers herself came up with the exhibition title. An earlier postwar exhibition, Anni Albers Textiles, held in 1949 at the Museum of Modern Art, complicates Wells’s reading of the 1959 exhibition. Anni Albers Textiles featured the full spectrum of Albers’s work, including pictorial weavings, furnishing fabrics, and free-hanging room dividers, without privileging one type of object over the other. The exhibition even highlighted the functional aspects of the drapery fabrics through an installation in which they were draped together to show the distinct qualities of the different woven structures. In this exhibition, Albers’s recent pictorial weavings and an earlier Bauhaus hanging, both types designed to be hung on the wall, like pictures, were titled with the word “tapestry.” These details potentially confirm Wells’s argument that Albers recognized tapestry as a label for an autonomous textile work analogous to a painting; however, whether Albers or a curator provided the titles attached to the works in either exhibition remains unclear. Furthermore, would Albers, as an artist keenly familiar with textile structures, language, and material hierarchies (as detailed in the recent exhibition and catalog Anni Albers [Yale University Press, 2018], cocurated and edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck), have misapplied and exploited the label tapestry, knowing that this privileged mode of production within modernism devalued weavers’ artistic labor?

As the examples by Hicks and Albers demonstrate, Wells’s argument would benefit from further exploration of the (dis)advantages that attended the ambiguous usage of the term tapestry during this period. Artists, producers, and retailers may have been motivated to describe a great variety of textiles as tapestry (even if they were not woven in that technique or with divided labor) in order to capitalize on the prestige of the long-standing French workshops during this moment of tapestry “revival.” A close attention to the broad application of “tapestry” and the way it elides and includes further disrupts entrenched hierarchies in the history of postwar modernism.

An ambitiously argued and thoroughly researched volume, Weaving Modernism makes for a compelling companion to the exhibition catalog Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray (ed. Cindy Kang, Barnes Foundation, 2020), Cynthia Fowler’s Hooked Rugs: Encounters in American Modern Art, Craft and Design (Ashgate, 2013), and Elissa Auther’s String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Together, these volumes provide an interlocking narrative about twentieth-century art and modernism that emphasizes the ultimate instability of material hierarchies and the pivotal role of textiles in the history of modern art.

Erica Warren
Associate Curator, Textiles, Art Institute of Chicago