Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 2022
Anna Walker and Laura Mott, eds. Olga de Amaral: To Weave a Rock Exh. cat. Stuttgart and Houston: Arnoldsche Art Publishers in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2020. 143 pp.; 91 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9783897905962)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, July 25–September 19, 2021; Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI, October 30, 2021–March 20, 2022
Olga de Amaral, Brumas, 2013, acrylic, gesso, and cotton on wood, installation view, Olga de Amaral: To Weave a Rock, Cranbrook Art Museum, October 30, 2021–March 20, 2022 (artwork © Olga de Amaral; photograph by P. D. Rearick, image provided by Cranbrook Art Museum)

The Cranbrook Art Museum is a fitting home for this retrospective exhibition of the decades-long explorations of material, color, and form by the Colombian artist Olga de Amaral (b. 1932 in Bogotá). The exhibition was organized by Anna Walker, assistant curator of decorative arts, craft, and design at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the show originated, and Laura Mott, senior curator of contemporary art and design at Cranbrook Art Museum. It was here, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1954, that Olga de Amaral first tried her hand at weaving. As she describes in a recent interview featured in the exhibition, the moment of crossing warp and weft was one of revelation, inaugurating a journey of sustained investigation through the medium of fiber.

The exhibition progresses chronologically through Amaral’s work, from her earliest wall hangings of the late 1960s to the fiber-based installations of the last decade. This scope provides ample opportunity to track two major developments in her oeuvre. The first is a desire to move away from the support of the wall—central to the tapestry form—to explore the potential of volumes suspended within the space of the gallery itself. A particularly arresting example of this is Columna en pasteles (Column in Pastels; 1972). It takes the form of a loosely woven net of wool and horsehair cords—some wrapped tightly in olive-green fiber and others in lavender—that cascades in a gently torqued, thickening pillar to gather on the floor. This irregular mesh is periodically interspersed with wide ribbons of coarse cloth woven in bands of sky blue, chestnut, charcoal, and that same lavender and olive green. 

Away from the wall, the draped woven volume is first experienced as a kind of gentle giant, dwarfing spectators with its nearly nine-foot height. Simultaneously, the generous dimensions of the open mesh evoke the zoomed-in view provided by a handheld magnifying thread counter. The effect inverts the relationship previously described—the viewer is now larger than life, carefully appraising the surface with the aid of an optical device. This shift in perspective transforms the column into a meditation on weaving itself: the viewer is invited to bear witness to the continued subversion of the comforting rhythms of plain-weave cloth as the mesh dilates and contracts and as colors jump between wrapped elements and woven ones.

Alongside Amaral’s exploration of three-dimensional form, a second development can be observed in an increasing experimentation with materials—both through the use of substances not directly associated with traditional notions of weaving, such as gold leaf and thin sheets of plastic, and through the application of familiar materials in ways that upend weaving convention. The adoption of these reflective substances in particular signals the artist’s interest in pushing the perceptual possibilities afforded by conventional woven objects. Amaral explores the interplay of matte and luminous surfaces in Lienzo ceremonial 6 (Ceremonial Canvas 6; 1989). Here, an elongated rectangle composed of thin, gilded horizontal bands forms a substrate for a delicate network of linen threads dyed in rich reds, purples, and blues. Accumulated layers of hanging fibers progressively obscure the brilliant surface underneath until they register as a solid pelt, its color steadily growing in intensity through the massing of individual threads.

Although Amaral herself attributes the prominent presence of gold in her work since the early 1980s to her encounter with the technique of Japanese kintsugi (24), it is a substance that is indelibly entangled with Colombia’s past and present. While a wall label for a 1986 work called Tierra y oro 2 (Earth and Gold 2) gestures to this “long and complicated history” by identifying the European desire for this material as a central motive for conquest, it positions Amaral’s work primarily in relationship to precontact metallurgy practiced by the Muisca and other Indigenous groups from the region. In the end, however, the effect of Amaral’s use of gold is less evocative of the objects produced by Indigenous artists than of the awesome gilded interiors of churches built at the behest of the Spanish, whose extractive colonialism paved the way for the more recent arrival of multinational gold-mining companies that wreak havoc on Colombian ecosystems and the communities that rely on them today. 

If colonial rule unraveled many structures that were integral to Indigenous peoples’ lifeways, it could not undo the rich legacies of their weaving practices. Yet whereas the curators use gold as a means to connect Amaral’s work to the art of the precontact past, the artist’s relationship to the Indigenous weaving practices of the present remains ambiguous in the exhibition itself. Although her artistic engagement with textiles began in Michigan, Amaral returned to Colombia in 1955, prior to creating the objects that appear in the show. There, she set up an atelier to produce textiles for interior design as well as a fashion line based on the manta guajira, a type of flowing tunic traditionally woven by the Wayuu of the Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia and Venezuela (14). This raises questions not only about the formal qualities of Amaral’s work as it relates to Indigenous weaving practices that also changed through experimentation with new materials over the course of the twentieth century, but about the artist’s relationship, as a privileged, white-presenting Colombian, to Indigeneity more broadly.

The exhibition’s laconic approach to the thorny topics of appropriation and ethnic identity in Colombia are symptomatic of a larger approach to framing the artist and her work. While the catalog briefly references the mid-century violence that inspired Amaral to leave her country of birth to pursue education in the United States (13) and the effects of this political instability on the accessibility of conventional artist’s materials (26), the exhibition largely eschews engagement with the history of Colombia itself (nor are its wall labels reproduced in Spanish, a missed opportunity to engage with the Spanish-speaking community of Metro Detroit). This omission is especially glaring given the ways in which Amaral’s work is so often tied—through color scheme, material, and, in the case of site-specific works, placement—to Colombian land. An uneasy and urgent counterpoint to this apolitical narrative of embeddedness is a history of that same land: like the European invasion centuries before it, mid-twentieth-century unrest fueled cyclical patterns of violence that displaced (and continue to displace) millions of people in Colombia, including a disproportionate number from Indigenous communities located in the very rural landscapes that have so inspired Amaral.

Foregrounding a concern for certain formal qualities rather than recent historical context allows the curators of this exhibition to devote attention to situating the artist’s work in relation to more familiar reference points culled from the expanding canon of modern and contemporary art. Part of this story plays out in parallel with the evolving status of “craft”—especially gendered practices like weaving—within this canon more generally. Drawing a connection to the work of American sculptor Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) is one example: her inclusion in the catalog serves to underscore the ways in which Amaral’s work also blurs the strict dividing lines between craft and fine art (26). Similarly, Amaral’s use of fiber and the scale of the resulting works’ interventions into both the gallery space and the larger landscape inspire connections to the work of Fred Sandback (1943–2003), Christo (1935–2020), and Jeanne-Claude (1935–2009) (34–35).  

In the exhibition itself, this drive to contextualize Amaral is most obvious in the wall text for Agujero negro (Black Hole; 2016). It explains how the work upends formal similarities to nonobjective modernist paintings such as Malevich’s Black Circle of 1924: pulling back a scrim of hanging fiber exposes a deeper layer of threads, on which additional painted details transform the titular shape into a sun. This technique of applying pigment directly to fiber is characteristic of what is arguably Amaral’s most engaging recent work. In Brumas (Mists; 2013), Amaral deploys a variant of the scrim-like construction she would later explore in Agujero negro by hanging multiple layers of vibrantly colored thread from the ceiling to create diaphanous triangular prisms. Single shapes painted in progressively different locations on each of these layers suggest a form within a form—geometric volumes that materialize and dematerialize depending upon the angle of view. These universalizing investigations of human perception—in which Amaral’s moves away from both the wall and traditional weaving material harmoniously converge—provide a clear link to the goals of Op art and, as the catalog notes, to the work of the Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto (1923–2005), whose own explorations of permeable form found similar expression in dense grids of hanging cables (35).

The exhibition and its brief but insightful catalog will no doubt be successful in bringing Amaral’s appealing investigations to a broader audience. At the same time, as this list of fellow artists suggests, they establish a productive framework for further contextualizing her work within a landscape of artists whose output has been more fully explored. Yet although it is evoked time and again both formally and through the words of Amaral and the curators themselves, the landscape of Colombia itself remains stubbornly just out of view.

Brendan McMahon
Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan