Things spill. They crumble. They all (sing along now). . . fall. . . down. It’s in the nature of what we call weight, the product of mass and gravity.
Bodies, beans, buildings, they all spill. But things made of fibers — threads, filaments, ropes — spill in special ways. They unravel, purl out, cascade, and stream to the floor.
Some of those verbs suggest how tantalizingly close fiber is to liquid. It’s this very fluidity that makes it so biddable to human processes (weaving, knotting, tying, twisting, bunching) that can arrest, divert, or even reverse the process of spilling. Fiber comes together. It resists. It accumulates. It can transform formlessness into the ordered grid of the warp and weft, or just as easily morph back into formlessness. It’s an absolutely brilliant medium with which to make art.
Which humans have been doing forever, of course.
“Fiber: Sculpture 1960-present,” a splendid, viscerally engaging and in many ways groundbreaking exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, looks at what 33 innovative artists have done with the medium since 1960.
That was about the time when modern artists, who had already started to think of weavings as things “not to be walked on, only to be looked at” (in the words of Marianne Strengell), began to play with the idea that fiber could also be sculptural. That is, it could extend from the wall and take up space in three dimensions.
Of course, the 1960s saw the possibilities of art expanding in every direction. Art could be a field of lightning rods, an arrangement of bricks, a stack of industrially manufactured boxes, a fluorescent light bulb in the corner, a massive earthwork, the artist’s own mortified body, or a view of the sky.
Fiber, with its own deep traditions and its rich, cross-cultural history, seemed insufficiently radical in this context. Weaving and fabric were also associated with femininity, with craft, with domesticity — none of which played well in a period dominated by vaunting men with huge egos and absurdly strict notions about what passed as serious and what didn’t.
Come to the ICA to see how risible such prejudice was, what great work emerged from fiber artists in the ’60s, and what interesting advances have been made since.
The show, which was organized by Jenelle Porter, the ICA’s senior curator, is visually gorgeous. Colors sing out, soft textures trigger sense memories. It’s also full of bold, surprising, and large-scale sculptural forms.
The first small room introduces us to Lenore Tawney — a key figure in the transformation that the exhibition traces. Born in Ohio, Tawney studied in Chicago under Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and then in North Carolina under the Finnish weaver Martta Taipale.
In a solo show at New York’s Staten Island Museum in 1961, Tawney exhibited open-warp hangings that used a technique derived from ancient Peruvian gauze. Immediately afterward, she began to create a series of totemic “woven forms,” which were suspended from the ceiling, away from the wall. Two hang here, both in black linen, with discreet supporting rods made from metal or wood.
Contrasting beautifully with the two Tawneys is a work of entrancing delicacy by Bay Area artist Kay Sekimachi. Using nylon filament woven into flat bands, Sekimachi constructs forms that combine spilling and falling with symmetry and structure. Her material looks as fragile and evanescent as cobwebs or clouds. In fact, it’s the same slender but tough material from which many heavy works in the show are suspended.
The next room is a blast of color. In terms of sheer space and optical fizz, the dominant work is Elsi Giauque’s 1979 installation “Element Spatial (Spatial Element).” The work suspends taut, transparent weavings made from thin, colored thread, all at different heights. They are all in identical square formats, arranged in parallel and perpendicular formations. Some come together to form transparent boxes. They have geometrical patterns in simple color combinations, or else are monochrome. If you stand still and really look, you can see the threads in some ripple in the air currents, as if stretched out on the rack, protesting their fate, and quivering with the desire to spill, to tumble, to fall.
A similar tension can be found in a 1965 piece, “Constructed Color,” by Ed Rossbach, another key figure in the story — not just for his innovative work, but for his insightful writings on new developments in fiber art as they were happening. This lovely example, pinned to the wall like a painting, is made from threads of synthetic raffia in various close-toned hues, all fluidly woven together. Not a straight line in sight.
The grid continues to dissolve, and taut fibers continue to relax and spill in the show’s next room, where we’re confronted with a stupendous array of large forms. All ingeniously constructed, they delight in taking materials like mohair, sisal, and linen off the grid, away from the wall, onto the floor and into space.
What inspired such a dramatic transformation?
Competition never hurts. A biennial inaugurated in 1962 in Lausanne, Switzerland — the Biennale international de la tapisserie — became the place for international fiber artists to see each other’s work. Encouraged by what Porter, in the show’s handsome and deeply researched catalog, describes as the biennial’s atmosphere of “general lawlessness,” their work became bolder, more experimental, and more monumental each year.
Olga de Amaral made big, woven works from handspun wool and horsehair with thick, loose ends spilling down. Robert Rohm made huge grids from thick rope, carefully knotted, and then cut certain lines, letting the stray ends dangle down — in essence, deconstructing the grid.
Eve Hesse, a close friend of the grid-loving Sol LeWitt, did similar things in her searching pieces. Hesse was one of only a few artists working in this vein — Robert Morris was another — who was able to escape the “craft” cul-de-sac. She did so in part by working in a wide variety of media.
Francoise Grossen made thick, symmetrical sculptures from industrial cotton piping cord, knotted and looped and laid out on the floor. Her “Inchworm,” from 1971, is a tremendous piece. Magdalena Abakanowicz made huge, poncho-like forms with earthy textures and colors.
But the really great artist here — the one more responsible than any other for the recent revival of interest in ’60s and ’70s fiber art — is Sheila Hicks. Hicks is to fiber art as Matisse was to Fauvism or Louise Bourgeois to Surrealism — which is to say, that, and so much more.
She has two pieces here, one from early in her career, the other from last year. The early piece, “Banisteriopsis II,” which she has given to the ICA in honor of Porter, is made from beautifully bunched skeins of cotton and wool, dyed bright yellow, and piled up like firewood. The work’s dimensions are deliberately open-ended. The skeins are grid-friendly modular units — just very lovely, relaxed ones.
Hicks’s recent piece, “Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column,” is made from a new form of fabric used widely in industry and for outdoor furniture and the like. It is essentially colored pigment suspended in acrylic. The resulting threads, which cluster and spiral and cling in a rainbow of different colors as they descend in cascading lines from the ceiling, are not dyed. Instead, the color inheres in the very medium.
At the press preview, Hicks seemed especially excited by its potential: “Watch out, the big guys, like [Richard] Serra,” she said. “What he can do with Cor-Ten steel, I can do with fiber. That’s why they’re nervous.” (I don’t think she was kidding. I certainly hope she wasn’t.)
The final part of the show, which will travel in 2015 to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio and the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, demonstrates how the breakthroughs of ambitious fiber artists in the ’60s and ’70s were naturalized in the ’90s and beyond, after falling slightly off the radar in the 1980s. It includes great work by Ernesto Neto, Xenobia Bailey, Piotr Uklanski, and Rosemarie Trockel, among others.
Just like the fabrics themselves, modernist precepts had collapsed by now, and were spilling out into other concerns — including the academic, the political, and the social. Not all of this work holds its own aesthetically, at least not compared to so many works earlier in the show. But all of it adds to our sense of the deep potential of fiber as sculpture.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version misspelled the title of the work “Inchworm.”