Next Article – by Elissa Auther

Fiber Art and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft 1960-80

So the first thing I did was find out who Elissa Auther is, her website states that

“Elissa Auther is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and Adjunct Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. Her book, String, Felt, Thread and the Hierarchy of Art and Craft (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), examines the innovative use of fiber in American art and the impact of its elevation on the conceptual boundaries distinguishing “art” from “craft” in the post-war era.”

She starts by comparing two works of rope and wire.


Untitled  1968 Alan Serat

Rope and Cable Structure  (1964) Alice Adams

29” diameter, 26” h.

rusted steel cable and tarred rope

Auther points out that these two pieces could have been made by the same artist but there were received very differently when exhibited.

Adams work situated amongst avante garde artists Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Keith Sonnier

No title

No title Eva Hesse
March 1966
Nets, enamel, papier-mâché, metal, and cord

Lighted Center Piece, 1967–68. Bruce Nauman

Aluminum plate and four 1,000-watt halogen lamps, plate: 2 1/2 × 36 × 36 inches (6.4 × 91.4 × 91.4 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, Gift, 1992, 92.4161. © 2013 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: David Heald

“Fiber art in this period (1960s & 70s) was typically viewed as neither art not craft, but as between the two categories, thwarting the works’s potential to undermine the hierarchy of media responsible for fiber’s low aesthetic status.”

“The reasons surrounding the art world’s resistance to fibre art were complex and varied, involving the cultural connotations of fiber, popular trends in fiber crafts and gender bias deriving from fiber’s association with woman and the domestic realm.”

Lenore Tawney’ early work caused controversy, “open-warp weaves …. caused quite a controversy amongst weavers. No one had done this kind of weaving…. It’s against the rules and those people who go by the rules were against it.”

But in 1963 reviewer from The New York Times “… is more than just a weaver- she is also an artist. Unfortunately , craft work has for many years implied to the general public work done by amateurs….. with little mereit… Miss Tawney’s craft is in marked contrast to this mistaken concept and her woven forms are considered by experts to be works of Fine Art.”

However thirty years later in the same publication “Mrs. Tawney’s work exists in  a limbo that is endemic to much contemporary craft; it has departed from craft and function without quite arriving at art.”

Walling Hangings was the first major fibre art exhibition at MoMA Cuated by Constatine and Larsen – the leading experts. The press release is here.

Unfortunately Louise Bourgeois was less enthusiastic.

“The pieces in the show rarely liberate themselves from decoration and only begin to explore the possibilities of textiles. A painting or a sculpture makes great demands on the onlooker at the same time that it is independant of him. These weaves, delightful as they are, seem more engaging and less demanding. If they must be classified, they would fall somewhere between fine and applied art”

” The opposition she reinforces – that between the merely attractive object and that which requires sustained attention – is central to the hierarchy of art and craft, which associates art with the cognitive realm, craft with the mere surface effect.”

“The identity of fiber artists, because they worked in a medium traditional to craft, required authorization different from that bestowed upon artists working securely within the ‘high art’ world.”

“Do you know when a pot is no longer a pot but a work of art.” “The story also foregrounds the authority that rested in the curator (in the capacity of his or her ‘eye’) to discern quality in objects of cultural significance – that is, to distinguish between good & bad, ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘fine art’ and mere ‘craft’.A theory of boundary maintenance in the arts that pointed to the role of extra-aesthetic factors such as gender, different The pieces in the show rarely liberate themselves from decoration and only begin to explore the possibilities of textiles. of production, or cultural presumptions about craft ….” “to the extent that the authorization of an object as art is only as good as the aurothity of the authorizer.”

Despite the manner in which Wall Hangings was displayed (white walls, carefully lit, pieces in isolation) – the formalised setting fibre art retained its low status.

At the same time traditional crafts of weaving, quilting, embroidery, dyeing, macramé had a resurgence. Folk art and the hippie movement – the reclaiming of these crafts by the feminist movement contributed to reinforcing the craft element and that it was ‘women’s’ work’.

Claire Zeisler “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.”

Mary Atwater seems to have come in for a great deal of criticism from the fibre artist  of the day  such as Anni Albers as  she (Atwater) described weaving as a pass time and was very prescriptive in her correspondence course in weaving, “She told Americans what to weave, how to weave, what to do with their weavings.”

This makes me wonder how many of the fibre artists didn’t in fact look at her ‘recipes’ when learning how to weave. We all have to start somewhere and I think some of the artists were a bit snooty.

Critic Rose Slivka (1972) “characterised the loom as an impotent instrument, a gendering of technology that had the unintended effect of associating off-loom fiber art with the perceived masculine virility of modern art.”

Critic Katherine Kuh (1968) “until recently, I always considered weaving a ladylike pursuit for frustrated housewives, but I am drastically changing my mind. the best weavers are still women, but some of them are also first-rate artists.” Note the word also.

Soft Art included works by Richard Tuttle, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, Eva Hess and Softness as Art by Jackie Ferrara, Harmony Hammond, Richard Serra, Hannah Wilke.

Richard Tuttle Cloth Piece 1969

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1969

Floorpiece VI

Harmony Hammond

” I was influenced by and contributed to early feminist art projects. I painted on blankets, curtains, and bedspreads recycled from women friends, literally putting my life in my art. Rag strips dipped in paint and attached to the painting surface hung down like three-dimensional brushstrokes, their weight altering the painting rectangle. Eventually the rags took over and activated the painting field. Girdle, consisted of a soft crocheted grid altered by the weight of the painted rags. This led to the series Bags, and the slightly larger than life-size Presences. These new pieces could be touched, retouched, repaired, and, like women’s lives, reconfigured. In 1973, I created a series of six floor paintings made out of knit fabric my daughter and I picked from dumpsters. Strips of fabric were braided according to traditional braided rug techniques, but slightly larger and thicker in scale, coiled, stitched to a heavy cloth backing, and partially painted with acrylic paint—the “braided rug” literally and metaphorically becoming “the support” for the painting. The Floorpieces occupied and negotiated a space between painting (off the wall) and sculpture (nearly flat). Placed directly on the floor they called into question assumptions about the “place” of painting.”

Richard Serra. One Ton Prop (House of Cards). 1969 (refabricated 1986)

Richard Serra One Ton Prop (House of Cards) 1968

Critic James Collins (1973) “one of the things artists shouldn’t do today is to make art with anything soft”.

Constantine and Larsen battled to elevate the status of fibre art but Alan Serat and Alice Adams were viewed as art and craft respectively.

Louise Bourgeois changed her attitude to fibre – making soft sculptures from her own linens.

Is fibre art now accepted as ‘high art’? Tracy Emin –  Grayson Perry?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s