( there is no joy in mudville) String Felt Thread, reviewed by Joe Lewis PDF  | Print |  E-mail

string felt thread String Felt Thread: the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, Elissa Auther.

from University of Minnasota Press, 2009



"What does it mean to elevate the status of a material? Who assigns this differential status? and who polices it?” (p.xii)

 These are the questions that Ellisa Auther purports to explore in her book String Felt Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. However, while bringing forward a series of critical responses to makers and exhibitions that have dismissed fibre as ¨craft," "women's work," "low," "primitive," and a dozen other derogatory terms, she remains essentially committed to the constructed hierarchy of traditional art history.

The book sets the stage by mapping out a time line of influences from the Bauhaus through the development of the post WWII Studio Craft movement and the early days of the Tapestry Biennial in Lausanne Switzerland. She then identifies a core group of  practitioners began exhibiting  in the  late 1950s  early 60s who have a background in technical textile construction from a craft or industrial design education, or those who took private lesson in weaving studios while undergraduates and focused on textile research while doing their MFA and provides a list of pivotal exhibitions (though in no particular order) providing a cast of characters and a series of events with locations and dates.

My expectations mounted at this evidence of extensive research. It seemed that at long last I might be holding in my hands the long-awaited historical chronicle of the fibre revolution.  But no. Having set the stage, Auther leaves it on page 42 and never returns, devoting the remainder of the book to a struggle over the implications of “art” and “craft.”

Part of the problem seems to lie in omissions. The often controversial and revolutionary work of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jagoda Buic, Françoise Grossen, Ewa Jaroszynska, Sheila Hicks, Lenore Twaney, Susan Weitzman and Clair Zeisler is mentioned briefly but not explored.  Auther does quote from an interview when Clair Zeisler expresses disgust at her work being lumped in with the macramé fad of the time but does not explore further either the fad or the disgust.

The focus in the book lies on the acceptance of textiles into the official world of ‘fine art.’ She interprets what she feels is the attitudes curators Mildred Constantine and Jack Leonor Larson in the mounting the pivotal exhibition of fibre work called Wall Hangings at the MOMA in 1969, commenting:

...this new work in fibre was to be assessed as art rather then craft, a project that called for both transcending the hierarchy of art and craft that the work problematized and for bestowing on the fibre art an aesthetic assumed to be lacking in craft in general. This strategy too revalidated the category of art by stressing the ability of the artist working in fibre to act creatively. [p.41]

  The source of that misstep is traced to a 1954 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called Ancient Arts of the Andes,  in which the catalogue essay by curator René d’Harnoncourt

…establishes the artistic quality (that is the high cultural importance) of the exhibited textiles, ceramics and gold ornaments by asserting their relationship to modern abstraction, to the ‘esthetic problems of our time’... [or] the process of art itself”.1

She goes on to say that d’Harnoncourt "applied this attitude toward non Western objects with the intention of culturally elevating objects outside the Western canon, the strategy required bestowing on utilitarian or ritualistic objects an aesthetic import, exactly that which such objects were perceived as lacking as ethnographic specimens." [p. 39]

 This apparently became the strategy that Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larson also used when mounting Wall Hangings.  That exhibition was in the grand or main exhibition hall rather then in the decorative arts gallery, and therefore positioned the works as serious high art, rather than mere decorative fabrics.  Auther suggests that “by suppressing these aspects [material and construction methods] and the works’ hybrid position as both craft and art, Constantine and Larsen and other like minded supporters removed any basis for evaluation generated from within either craft or fine art. Neither does such a suppression allow for an analysis that considers the constructed natures of these categories in the first place." [p43]

Auther here to seems to have accurately described the strategy that continues to dominate today’s gallery presentation textile based work. This strategy finds its strongest evidence in the labels, where I have been told repeatedly that if you identify the technique used to make a piece it becomes “craft,” but if you don’t mention how it’s made, it’s “art.”

I am not quite sure why I thought the book was about textile craft based makers negotiating what I have come to view as a sadomasochist relationship with the fine arts world, but I did. As it turns out, it is instead a well researched, almost documentary, presentation of a period of time during which a number of fine artists opted to use or incorporate textiles or textile construction techniques into their fine arts practice.  

Dividing the work into categories like "process, or post-minimalism" and “feminist,” Auther presents the work of Robert Morris (industrial Felt),  Eva Hesse (wrapped cord string and rope), Faith Ringold (quilting), Miriam Schapiro (industrial printed textiles collaged onto painted canvas), Harmony Hammond ("Feminine Stitch") and Judy Chicago (embroidery).

Through out this section (the main body of the book), she briefly leaves it to the authority of Clement Greenburg (champion of the American Abstract Expressionist Movement) and his followers to respond to work, which was put through the shredder if you were female. She then directs the reader to the “Female Gaze.” When she comes to the "Feminist Politicization" of fibre, an interesting thing occurs. As she unpacks the multiple strategies being developed at the time, in which techniques and materials are being explored by female artist, she also unintentionally exposes the significance of the untrained viewer’s eye.  Whether from the main stream heterosexist high art hierarchy, or the burgeoning  arena of feminist curating, theoreticians and “herstorians” untrained in textile history and technique have created a mine field of technical inaccuracies that continue to confuse the issues now as they did then.  

As materials and techniques are systematically analyzed into so many sub-categories dependent on individual agendas or group dynamics, it becomes difficult to know what method is being discussed. “Fibre," "fibre craft," "embroidery," "needle work," "woman's work," " quilting," "knotting," "macramé," and "knitting" are applied, modified, appropriated, borrowed from, celebrated, recovered, recognized, or referenced, in a ballooning new professional vocabulary of fibre practice meant to “elevate the status of a material.”

Interestingly enough none of the artists Auther concentrates on in the main part of the book consider themselves to be a "fibre artist," and many reject any notion of craft practice.  In an interview with curator Eleanor Flomenhaft on the occasion of a 1990 retrospective of her work at the Fine Arts Museum of Long Island, Faith Ringgold asserts, " I'm a painter who works in the quilt medium; and that I sew on my painting doesn't make it less of a painting: and that it is made into a quilt does not make it not a painting. It’s still a painting." [p117]. She goes on to say, “I do not make crafts. The difference for me is that craft is the process of doing something that has not a lot to do with the idea but the process. It’s something you can tell people how to do and they can do it, some better then others. It has no individual distinction to it and nothing to do with ideas. Fine art has to do with ideas." She also says she hopes by the year 2000 this distinction will be clear, and people will be asking "what that was all about."

It is now well past the year 2000 and with this book Elissa Auther reminds us of how much things have not changed. Professional Craft practitioners are still engaged in separating themselves from both hobbyists and the new DIY movements, which are both a disruptive counter high-versus-low art movement, and a blind behind which a lot of untrained people can play with fibre in a (temporarily) political free zone. On the other side some are denying any relationship to craft in their making. The struggle involved in locating an individual practice has little to no joy or pride in it. A new breed of Craft theoreticians and historians have begun to emerge, but still operate under the academic guise of fine arts, because a university degree-level education is still lacking, to develop focused discussion.  

As much as the unexplored potential of this book enrages me, its timing couldn't be better. Its contribution to research is invaluable to assisting with the building of a contemporary fibre practice history separate from (but in support of) the larger contemporary craft history. Craft theorist Glenn Adamson of the Victoria and Albert Museum has supplied a blurb on the back cover of the book, saying, “String, Felt, Thread serves as the prehistory to our cross- disciplinary movement." I suggest it should be seen more as a subtext or side story, since the time period she covers is almost current in the history of textiles. It is a guide book to a specific time period, it raises more questions then it answers, and points to directions yet to be fully mapped. However, it is a vital document in its area of research, with a well-developed intellectual thesis that I wish was beside the point, but unfortunately isn’t.


String Felt Thread: the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art,  by Elissa Auther. 248 pages | 83 colour plates | 7 x 10 | 2009, ISBN: 978-0-8166-5609-7

University of Minnesota Press


 1.  Referenced in this book this introductory essay on the ways in ethnographic material has been analyzed and re-contextualized in the past 150 years is extraordinarily interesting and is conveniently available on google books  

 Traffic in Culture, George E. Marcus, Fred R. Myers

University of California Press , 1995 - Philosophy - 380 pages


Leading fibre practitioners of the Fibre Revolution mentioned in this book:

here is a result of a quick google search  

Magdalena Abakanowicz, born June 20, 1930, in Falenty, Poland http://www.abakanowicz.art.pl/

Jagoda Buic was born in Split, Croatia. In Vienna and Zagreb she studied interior architecture, stage set design and textile art. She has participated in the Lausanne Bienale (1965) and the Venice Bienale (1970) . Her textiles are included in some of the most important public and private collections the world over. In 1976 Buic was awarded the Grand Prize for Applied Arts at the Bienale in Sao Paolo, Brazil. She currently ranks among the foremost textile artists in contemporary art.

Françoise Grossen, Born: 1943, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, on Brown Grotta   website 

Susan Weitzman ,

Sheila Hicks, www.sheilahicks.com/

Lenore Twaney, (May 10, 1907 – September 24, 2007) Lenore G. Tawney Foundation 

Susan Weitzman

Clair Zeisler (April 18, 1903 - September 30, 1991)

 information on most of these artist can be found at Browngrotta   "Your Resource for contemporary international art textiles and sculpture"


< Prev   Next >