by K.L.H. Wells. Yale University Press, March 2019. 105 p. ill. ISBN 9780300232592 (hardcover), $65.00.
Reviewed May 2019
Kat Buckley, Assistant Director of the Visual Resources Center, University of Chicago, firstname.lastname@example.org
K.L.H. Wells’ Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry Between Paris and New York traces the proliferation of this form of fiber media across the modern and into the postwar period through transatlantic journeys and a variety of artistic approaches. Wells takes the question of how tapestry came to be a relied-upon art form in the postwar period through three different lenses, examining it from the formal point of view of the artists themselves, the political aims that the broad distribution of tapestry achieved, and the role of decoration in modernism.
Wells traces the journey of tapestry as a form which appealed to Picasso, Miró, Matisse, Lurçat, Helen Frankenthaler, Josef Albers, Anni Albers, and the like, to the desirability of art in multiples reproduced from an original work. Wells argues that France and French patrons, such as Marie Cuttoli, had overt political aims in encouraging artists from the modernist cannon to embrace tapestry and thereby position the country as heir to a rich artistic tradition. She notes how, in working on the carton numéroté, artists such as Lurçat undermined confidence in the traditional work of artistic “translation” that typically fell to the weavers. Wells breaks down decoration as a force of avant-garde art via a thorough examination of influential Clement Greenberg essays. She investigates undercurrents of warmth, domesticity, and nomadism in the embrace of tapestry in Air France’s commissions of fiber work for its Boeing 747 fleet in 1958. Notably, Wells problematizes the exultation of fiber as a feminist art form and points out the ways in which previous feminist scholars have deliberately overlooked tapestries from the postwar period as they involved male artists making forays into what those scholars had dubbed a feminine medium. She ends her book with an examination of tapestry as a form of “marketplace modernism.”
Weaving Modernism is recommended for any library focusing on modern and contemporary art and especially those with a craft emphasis. Wells synthesizes much research, hitherto available exclusively in French, while incorporating a critical eye throughout. The book also features stunning reproductions of little-known tapestries, cartoons, and paintings from a variety of the giant names of modernism. Wells encourages a more holistic look at the entirety of the artists’ oeuvres to see that tapestry was never a forgotten art form nor an exclusively feminine one, thus problematizing the “birth, stagnation, death, and rebirth” narratives that often accompany “craft” media. Furthermore, her coining of the term “marketplace modernism” speaks to the variety of ways in which postwar artists commoditized their creations for a wider audience and hints at the knowledge that remains to be produced around objects created in multiples during this era.