I read Elissa Auther’s book (String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art) a little more than a year ago as part of an American Tapestry Alliance study forum I participated in about increasing the visibility of tapestry in contemporary fine art. I reviewed the parts of the book about Judy Chicago and Auther’s conclusion before going to the lecture. I very much expected to hear a talk connecting the ideas in the book about history of fiber art and its place in contemporary fine art to contemporary tapestry art. We were, after all, sitting in a gallery full of large contemporary tapestries. Unfortunately, there was almost no mention of tapestry at all from either Koplos or Auther in their talks.
I purchased the catalog from The Art Institute of Chicago’s show of June Wayne’s tapestries in 2010-2011. At this point June was still alive and she wrote a short essay for the catalog. June is best known for her lithography and New Mexicans might recognize the name Tamarind Lithography Workshop which is now housed at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. For four years from 1970 to 1974, June focused on creating 12 large-scale tapestries, 11 of which were realized. All are currently exhibited at David Richard Gallery.
Here is a quote from the beginning of June Wayne’s catalog essay entitled, “Sufficient Unto Each Day is the Myopia Thereof.”
In 1973 the International Biennial of Tapestry in Lausanne, Switzerland, rejected one of my tapestries. Mildred Constantine, the curator of design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the chairman of the Lausanne jury, told my Paris dealer that Lame de Choc was “too old-fashioned to show alongside fiber art.” Over the years I have ruminated about the differences between fiber art and tapestry and have come to believe that they are conceptual opposites, although they share the rubric of textiles.
In the 1960s fiber art literally “jumped over the convent wall” into mainstream aesthetics, distinguishing itself from tapestry by the adoption of “fiber” as its key word, which it had a genuine (and practical) need to do. Semantically and factually, tapestry had become a misleading label for the new directions that were being taken in weaving by artists who paired themselves with painting, graphics, collage, assemblage, and all the other artistic subsets that gave the ‘60s its reputation for freedom of expression…. But my art had an agenda that did not fit the goals of fiber. I needed and wanted tapestry techniques whose methodology echoed both benday dots and computer grids, just as it offered me a type of image making through the accretion of modules that I had found in the pores of lithograph stones….
I found it more than a little ironic following this quote and given the fact that the talk was in a gallery stuffed with huge tapestries, that the lecturers did not show one slide of a tapestry, did not talk about June’s tapestries, and that the entire talk was centered around the fiber art of which June says her tapestries had nothing to do with.
Here are some quotes and highlights from the talk. There was a lot said about Judy Chicago’s work. I was excited to hear more about her history and work while looking at one of her tapestries (The Creation). I also appreciated hearing Judy speak a little bit about her career as an artist. (There is a lot of information out there about Judy Chicago and I will leave it to you to research her show.) I heard far less about June Wayne’s work.
Janet Koplos at the very end of her 20 minute talk and the only mention of tapestry by either speaker until the question period:
Tapestry, the technique central to the two bodies of work that brought us here today, have somewhat more relation to drawing and painting and thus more easily accommodate specific statements of meaning. It seems that people trained in fiber often looked for ways to work beyond the expectations of that material while people trained in other mediums and techniques looked at fiber and saw the emotional, tactile, and associational values of fiber and use that toward ends that may be also present in their other work such as painting or printing. Interestingly the same thing seems to be happening in clay today…. and it is a reminder that there is never just one approach and even a single medium that can have many facets, it all depends on the ideas and the impulses of the artist.
At the end of the two talks, there was a period for questions. It was clear that the gallery had a large number of fans of Judy Chicago which was not unexpected since the creator of The Dinner Part (and many other famous works of art) was sitting among us, and she does live in New Mexico after all. We were an hour and a half into this experience and I had yet to hear anything substantial about tapestry from anyone except David Eichholtz, the gallery owner and curator who introduced June Wayne’s work at the beginning and the brief statement Koplos made at the end of her talk. So I stood up and asked Koplos and Auther what they thought the connection was between the issues of fiber art’s place in modern art to contemporary art tapestry production. The answer from Janet Koplos was that there isn’t anyone doing contemporary tapestry art any more. This was stunning to me. I sat down with my head spinning… and then all the things the ATA forum I participated in last year rushed back to me and all I could think was that these are the current scholars and curators of fiber art and even they don’t know what we do. Or rather, they know what we do, but they don’t think anyone of consequence does it any more. Here is the exact conversation.
I am just wondering if you have any comments about contemporary tapestry in relation to the development of fiber art and its place in the art world today.
I think in the art world today there is a place for absolutely anything anybody wants to do. I don’t think there is any limit on it. But the real movement in tapestry, the attention to tapestry, came with the Lausanne Bienniale in the 60s and lots of artists were paying attention to it then but not to the degree that these two women were. You know, they were just somebody who did a cartoon and handed it over to somebody and it was executed by another person, so it was a superficial engagement. But there was engagement with the thing. And now… [she trails off and Auther picks up]
The only way I can answer that is I went to the recent College Art Association meeting in New York which is the big interdisciplinary conference that artists and art historians come to. I noticed there was a panel on tapestry and I thought that was really fascinating, but as I looked at the individual papers as the conference came closer, it was really really stuck in 17th and 18th century. And I still feel like scholarship is … there is not the scholarly interest in contemporary tapestry that there should be.
David Eichholtz talked some about the use of digital weaving done by people like Chuck Close and Robert Indiana and questioned the differences between this kind of weaving and the one-of-a-kind hand weaving that created June Wayne’s tapestries. And then Eichholtz mentioned a digital weaving studio in Belgium.
A very well known artist in California these days is a woman named Pae White who does the thing with Brussel’s tapestries and she creates immense installations with Brussel tapestries. [...]
I am glad you brought up Pae White because it just occurred to me that yeah, she is probably the only contemporary artist I know that is doing large scale tapestry where she initiates the process and she is showing in museums that are exclusively devoted to contemporary art. I saw a series of her works in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and also I saw a series at SITE [Santa Fe], that must have been two years ago I think?
They are knock-outs.
They are huge and they are really interesting and I have never had a chance to talk to her about the motivations or why she is going into that realm but before that time she worked generally I think with a great interest in fiber and craft traditions.
Unfortunately, Christa Thurman, Chair of Textiles at The Art Institute of Chicago was not able to make it to the lecture as originally planned due to a personal emergency. I would have loved to hear what she had to say. David Richard Gallery has some interviews planned with her and promises to post a series of podcasts and videos with all this information including the talk I heard online. I look forward to Christa’s response to my question.
David Richard Gallery did an excellent job getting these speakers and I appreciated the well-attended event. The owners of the gallery were engaging, knowledgeable, and seemed exceptionally supportive of tapestry. I want to thank them for hosting this beautiful show and I hope they will consider showing contemporary art tapestry again in the near future.
Please visit David Richard Gallery's website and look at the June Wayne tapestries. Or better yet, if you can, go see the show. The tapestries are very large and several of them were stunning. They were woven by three different French studios in the early '70s. My favorite two are The Fifth Wave and Verdict. The Fifth Wave (Cinquieme Vague) was inspired by one of her lithographs, Wave Five. The background consists of irregular blocks that look like they are full of a design from tree rings. I love the color gradation use in this piece.
Verdict is 73 by 117 inches and was woven by Giselle Glaudin-Brivet at Atelier Giselle Glaudin-Brivet, Aubusson. The imagery in this piece is also based on Wayne's lithographs and contains references to DNA molecules and mountains. She uses two different warp setts in this piece, adding spots of color through much of it with a double sett.
For more information:
(1) Here is a video of Elissa Auther speaking about her book, String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art.