Acceptable Material

We wear them, sleep with them, sit on them, use them for shelter, carry things with them, clean with them, they can also be used as signifiers for sustainability, inequity, appropriation, abjection, gender and labour, so it’s not surprising that textiles should be widely utilised in contemporary art. The use of textiles in art ranges from functional purposes such as Ernesto Neto’s playful suspended installations and Pipilotti Rist’s generous reclining structures, to works that could arguably have been made in another medium – Tracey Emin’s embroideries and Dani Marti’s opulent textile sculptures, to the use of textiles as cultural and emotional signifiers – Wangechi Mutu’s references to African handicrafts to Mike Kelley’s soft toy installations. However, with the exception of canvas as a support for painting, textiles have not always been considered an acceptable fine art material. As the story goes, the association with women’s work and as a domestic activity and the separation of art and craft meant that textiles were shunned in favour of painting and sculpture. Decades were spent attempting to remedy this, but at what point were textiles allowed back into the gallery without debate?

For a while, craft objects sat with painting, sculpture, theatre, literature and architecture under the banner of the liberal arts. The production of craft objects arose out of necessity long before history was recorded and processes were defined. Beginning with objects for hunting and gathering, as the knowledge and use of objects and their production developed, taste and design began to dictate, professional structures were put into place and guilds were formed. Eventually the labour was divided into separate processes performed by different people to form one object and with the arrival of the industrial revolution, machines replaced the hand, lowering the cost and picking up the pace of production. Ironically, the textile industry was a significant contributor to the industrialisation of craft.

The invention of the jacquard loom by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, based on a punch-card system would not only lead to the invention of the computer, but also transform one of the earliest skills to a complex, eventually automated process which left handloom weaving to become a domestic craft.

In 1923, Anni Albers reluctantly entered Gunta Stölzl’s weaving workshop upon her admission into the Bauhaus school. Despite the school’s progressive approach to breaking the barrier between artist and craftsperson, a gendered approach to disciplinary allocation was still in place. Albers had originally intended to train as a painter:

“My beginning was far from what I had hoped for: fate put into my hands limp threads! Threads to build a future? But distrust turned into belief and I was on my way.”1

Albers adopted the Bauhaus model of form following function and reverence to materials, and when the Bauhaus began to industrialise and mass-produce, Albers maintained that hand craft was essential. Though she embraced industrial materials, her hand continued to work at the loom to weave wall hangings, referencing her original goal of becoming a painter. Despite a vast body of work and an innovative approach, Anni Albers’ career was somewhat overshadowed by her husband, painter Josef Albers. Her first retrospective wasn’t held until 1999, five years after her death.


ABOVE: Sheila Hicks, 50 Years 2011, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania; photo by Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

In 1959, a student of Josef Albers, Sheila Hicks abandoned painting after being introduced to Andean weaving. Hicks was granted a Fullbright scholarship and travelled extensively through South America learning traditional weaving techniques in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela. Hicks saw the potential of textiles as cultural signifiers on the front covers of the newspapers, taking clippings from stories of war, horror and tragedy, collecting the uniforms and national dress of displaced peoples and compiling them as references for her small weavings which she considered her notebook, substituting text for textile. Though it took time, Sheila Hicks’ refusal to acknowledge the arbitrary boundaries separating art from craft has allowed her to continue to make work without necessarily trying to convince her audience that it needs to look at her work through a particular lens. Moving across art, craft and design has arguably kept her from the forefront of American art until her later wide recognition, her first retrospective being held 50 years into her career, but while Hicks let the rest of the art world bicker over approved materials and methodologies, she was producing a vast body of work which would later become an indicator of what the mainstream Western art world had overlooked.

The Museum of Modern Art’s 1969 exhibition Wall Hangings, co-curated by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, was one of the first major attempts to expand textile sculpture beyond utility in a public museum. Despite the hanging of the show being derived from installation tropes of painting and sculpture, attempting to give each object visual autonomy, Louise Bourgeois’ review of Wall Hangings in the publication Craft Horizons opposed the very curatorial statement Constantine and Lenor Larsen were trying to make, much to their dismay. She reinforced the allegedly dichotomous relationship between art and craft, claiming that while art places a “demand” on the viewer, these objects were “delightful” and “engaging”, creating a mere surface effect to achieve what artists underwent experimentation and extreme intellectual probing to achieve.2 Despite her harsh criticism of textile art, Bourgeois would go on to use fabric in the form of soft sculpture, appliqué and jacquard weaving, though her bias was a condition of the times and may have been fuelled by her tumultuous relationship with her father, a tapestry dealer by trade.

The major issue, however, with the premise of this exhibition was textile art’s attempt to prove itself under the conditions of the art world at the time. This helps to reinforce the subordination of craft to art, rather than challenging the hierarchy in place.

Feminist art in the 1970s saw the adoption of materials and processes typically associated with domesticity in order to use undervalued mediums to challenge the systems of power in place that were responsible for the lack of acknowledgement given to female artists.

The subversion of the role and functions of textiles was employed by artists such as Judy Chicago, whose famous work The Dinner Party comprises a wide range of crafts including pottery, appliqué and embroidery, bringing attention to overlooked female artists throughout history by a sexist art world. Chicago, like many of her contemporaries, forced craft disciplines unapologetically into a fine art context, revealing the arbitrary nature of art classification that had excluded fiber, and more generally craft in favour of mediums seen as inherently male, such as painting and sculpture. Though the elevation of craft was not part of Chicago’s agenda, as one of the most influential movements of the post-war period, feminist art brought textiles into the gallery to provoke reactions due to its position in relation to art. While this didn’t resolve the issues surrounding disciplinary hierarchies in place at the time, it began to lay the foundations for future generations of artists working with textiles.

The rise of the readymade and installation art challenged perceptions of what art could be, allowing textiles and a multitude of other everyday objects to be inserted into works of art in order to draw from their historical and cultural associations. Craft theorist Glenn Adamson discusses the abject status of craft in relation to American installation artist Mike Kelley in his book Thinking Through Craft:

“For Kelley, craft is a species of kitsch, and the expenditures of effort and skill that are lavished on craft objects reap only pity.”3

Kelley’s work More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, an installation comprised of sewn together handmade stuffed animals gleaned from second-hand shops and garage sales, drew attention to the countless hours poured into an object with sentimental intentions which could seemingly never be regarded with little more than pity or disdain.

This is just one example of the use of textile objects in installation art and, although not handmade by the artist, it indicates the growing acceptance of textiles in contemporary art at the time. Although Kelley’s work, like that of feminist artists, drew from negative connotations, the ability of textiles to convey cultural and emotional significance had inadvertently been proven. The broadening conception of art opened itself up to incorporate craft processes, strengthening the breadth and depth of practice. Although craft is, and should be, autonomous from art, there are areas where the two overlap, rendering the dualistic, tired art vs. craft debate redundant and anachronistic. The most successful approaches appear to have been highlighting the arbitrariness of this debate or ignoring it altogether, shifting the focus from categorising artworks to dealing with their content. With the exception of Sheila Hicks, this has been easier for artists who work with textiles among other media rather than artists who have been ‘ghettoised’ as textile artists.

Looking through a narrow lens puts the work at risk of becoming self-referential and closing off the conversation, which is the kind of conservatism that has potentially lead to the small amount of critical discourse on craft compared to art. Broadening the discussion not only highlights the relevance of textiles to other disciplines, but also has the potential to broaden the scope of textile practice.

John Brooks

1 Webber, Nicholas Fox, Anni Albers. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1999.

2 Auther, Elissa. “Classification and its Consequences: The Case of Fiber Art” American Art 16, no. 3 (Fall

2002): 2-9

3 Adamson, Glenn. Thinking Through Craft. Oxford: Berg 2007.

John Brooks is a Melbourne-based weaver and video/installation artist with research interests ranging from textile history and craft theory to speculative fiction and alternate realities. He trained as a pattern maker at Melbourne School of Fashion and a weaver at RMIT before studying fine art at the Victorian College of the Arts and Monash University.