Art & Textiles: Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art to the Present

ed. by Markus Brüderlin. Hatje Cantz, February 2014. 392 p. ill. ISBN 9783775736275 (cl.), $70.00.

Reviewed May 2014
Claire Dannenbaum, Reference & Instruction Librarian, Lane Community College, Eugene, OR. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

From the moment we are born and swaddled in a blanket, until we are readied for burial, our bodies are in contact with cloth. Throughout life, textiles serve many functions and express aesthetic, symbolic, economic, utilitarian, and spiritual meanings. From grass mats, to prayer shawls and war carpets, all textiles share a relationship to the essential experiences of humanity. These complex relationships are explored in this ambitious and beautifully-illustrated exhibition catalog. 

Presented jointly by the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Art & Textiles charts unusual territory: namely, the rich intersections of traditional textiles made by anonymous artisans and their references in Modern and contemporary art. The catalog begins with several critical essays exploring textiles as material and textiles as idea. Woven throughout is the notion of “hand-crafted” as a sign of prestige and status in the pre-industrial era, then debased by industrial production, and now, in the digital age, celebrated as authentic. 

Twelve conceptual themes organize the catalog -- room by room. For example, the first chapter describes the first room of the exhibit examining Art Nouveau, Turkish kilim, Kolomon Moser, floral patterns, and the jacquard loom. The strength of these thematic chapters is an interdisciplinary approach that creates uncanny linkages between ethnographic artifacts and Modern art practice. Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Marie Henneberg (1901-1902) is described in relation to Eva Hesse’s Right After (1969) and Aztec knotted string quipu. Each of these works represent distinctive forms of agency: the elegant matron’s portrait in white lace, the Minimalist space created by nearly transparent tangled string, and the Andean recording device -- yet all are linked by references to highly-coded material held, symbolically, in space.

Traditional textiles such as Japanese kimonos, Cameroonian headwear, and felted shepherd’s cloaks collide with the Modern art practices of Pierre Bonnard’s painted floral surfaces, Agnes Martin’s grid paintings, the felt enclosures of Joseph Beuys, and Rosemarie Trockel’s knitted “paintings.” The conceptual juxtapositions are radical and inspiring. With twelve essays and eleven thematic chapters, this catalog is monumental in scope. Whether due to multiple translators or just vastly different writing styles, a few essays lack clarity. Also, given that the majority of ethnographic examples are from Asian, African, and Pre-Columbian cultural traditions, the critical inquiry would have benefitted from contributions from non-Western/European historians and ethnographers. That said, Art & Textiles is a thoughtful and beautifully-illustrated rendering of anonymous craft as a form of abstraction, and makes a serious contribution to a discussion of the influence of textiles on Modern artists. The catalog closes with glossary of basic textile terms. Recommended for research collections on history of craft, textiles, Modernism, and material culture.

©2014 ARLIS/NA

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