IN FEBRUARY OF 1969, by a first-floor window that looked out on 53rd Street, the Museum of Modern Art in New York installed a work by a then-34-year-old artist named Sheila Hicks called “The Evolving Tapestry: He/She” (1967-68). Made of more than 3,000 “ponytails” of linen thread, as the artist called them, stitched together and piled atop one another, it looked at first glance like something one might encounter in a commercial fabric store. Neither traditional sculpture nor painting, it conjured both, a monumental object made from the humblest materials.
The show that featured Hicks’s work, “Wall Hangings,” was a rare American institutional endorsement of artists who make ambitious work out of fiber and broadened the idea of what art could be. Most of the artists included were women. But the exhibition received only one major review, in the niche publication Craft Horizons, by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois. At the time, Bourgeois, who also had work on display at MoMA in 1969, was making bulbous bronze, plaster and marble sculptures that referenced the human body. Though she’d grown up working in her parents’ tapestry restoration studio outside of Paris, she wrote that, unlike a painting or sculpture, which “makes great demand on the onlooker at the same time that it is independent of him,” these works “seem more engaging and less demanding. If they must be classified, they would fall somewhere between fine and applied art.” They “rarely liberate themselves from decoration,” she concluded, deploying what might be art’s most insulting critical term.
From the early 1960s to the late ’70s, in a chapter of art history known as the fiber art movement, artists — predominantly women — across Europe and the United States began experimenting with thread and fabric, often pushing them into three dimensions and away from the wall. There was the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz, who became famous for hovering, engulfing sculptures of sisal and hemp rope that were so distinctive, they earned their own label: Abakans. There was Lenore Tawney, the Ohio-born artist who created intricate threaded towers that recall the arches of Gothic cathedrals. And there was the Nebraska-born Hicks, who spent decades studying fiber with artisans from Mexico to Morocco. She turned thread into tiny portable abstractions, as well as towering mountains and waterfalls that tumbled from the ceiling.
The energy around the fiber art movement, and the small flurry of institutional shows dedicated to it, petered out by the late ’70s, although many artists remained committed to the medium. As the counterculture embraced D.I.Y. crafts projects (like crocheted clothing or macramé plant holders), fiber art’s materials became ubiquitous. Yet it remained a cousin to so-called real art, trapped in the liminal space between high art — painting, sculpture and, increasingly, conceptual art — and its ignoble cousin, craft. As Elissa Auther explains in the book “String, Felt, Thread” (2009), the distinction can be traced back to the Renaissance, when painting and sculpture became associated with liberal arts like music and poetry rather than with supposedly mechanical arts like weaving and blacksmithing.
Old views die hard in art history. As recently as 1986, the critic John Bentley Mays of Toronto’s Globe and Mail took to American Craft magazine to explain once and for all why he did not consider it his job to review textile and fiber work. “Hands cannot contemplate,” he wrote, “and the creation of works for disinterested, hands-off contemplation has traditionally been a central concern of all Modern art production.”
Now, as the art world reckons with just how narrow its conception of artistic genius has been, the hierarchy placing art above craft — and intuition above skill — looks ever more gendered and archaic. And in an age when we spend much of our time touching the flat surfaces of screens, this tactile art form feels newly seductive to makers and viewers alike as both a contrast with and a culmination of modern sensory experience. Ambitious and experimental younger artists are embracing fiber and textiles for themselves. While first-generation fiber artists traveled the globe studying with local artisans, today’s practitioners are more likely to rely on their own histories and cultural traditions. Tau Lewis, 29, who lives in Brooklyn, makes long-limbed figures and 10-foot-tall Yoruba-inspired masks out of recycled fabric, fur and leather. She sources her materials from thrift stores and friends and considers herself part of a lineage of Black diasporic creators using what they can find to give form to their dreams. Similarly, the Portland, Ore.-based sculptor Marie Watt, 55, makes towers out of blankets that provide a commentary on life in the Pacific Northwest, including that of Indigenous people. One of her materials is treaty cloth provided by the federal government to the Seneca Nation, of which Watt is a member, as part of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua signed by George Washington. Kira Dominguez Hultgren, 43, of Illinois, creates textiles that double as self-portraits, interweaving materials like her Punjabi grandmother’s clothing, rope from a climbing gym and her own hair.
Alongside these new practitioners, there is an ongoing reassessment of fiber art’s place in history. This month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens “Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction,” which traces the relationship between textiles and abstraction over the past century. (“Textile” is a broad term that refers to art made with cloth or woven fibers; many experts use the terms “fiber art” and “textile art” interchangeably.) Tate Modern in London recently mounted an exhibition dedicated to Abakanowicz. And the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., is preparing to open “Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women” next spring. Last year, the curator Legacy Russell organized “The New Bend” at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York, which presented the work of young textile artists in homage to the Gee’s Bend quilters, who for three generations have produced dizzyingly colorful geometric quilts in a remote Alabama hamlet. When New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art installed an exhibition of the quilters’ work in 2002 (amid grumbling from several board members who thought other artists were more deserving of attention), a New York Times review described the objects as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”
THE FIBER ART movement formed against the backdrop of the women’s liberation, civil rights and antiwar movements. It was a moment of profound questioning in the art world, too, as minimalist artists from Donald Judd to Walter De Maria embraced commercial fabrication and mundane materials like plywood and dirt to challenge long-held assumptions about art objects. Yet while minimalism eventually claimed its place in art history, fiber art did not. The medium was “simply too rooted in technique to be taken seriously as an ‘attitude,’” the curator Jenelle Porter writes in the catalog for the exhibition “Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present,” which appeared at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston in 2014, one of the first shows to re-examine this history.
Textiles are an ancient art medium. (Hicks discovered pre-Incan textiles in art school at Yale and became fascinated with mummy bundles dating from a period beginning around 600 B.C. that were discovered by archaeologists in Peru in the late 1920s.) Yet even some of the medium’s greatest advocates were initially skeptical of it. At the onset of World War II, artists who had been trained in interdisciplinary techniques of art and design at the legendary Bauhaus school fled Germany and began teaching internationally, helping to introduce a new generation to fiber techniques. But the Bauhaus graduate Anni Albers, perhaps the world’s most celebrated textile artist, said the prospect of working with thread initially seemed “rather sissy.” She only begrudgingly enrolled in the Bauhaus’s weaving workshop in 1923 because the courses she had been more interested in — painting and stained glass — were open only to men. “Circumstances held me to threads,” she said in a 1982 panel discussion, “and they won me over.”
Tau Lewis was drawn to textiles owing to a different kind of circumstance: They were what she had readily available to work with. “My hands are like sponges,” she said one evening in her studio in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “That’s how I navigate my artistic world.” She was looking down at a table covered in fabric samples and absent-mindedly folding and unfolding a piece of black leather. In contrast to some of her predecessors, Lewis has been embraced by the contemporary art world. She showed several of her towering masks at the Venice Biennale last year (the exhibition’s catalog refers to her works as “subversive monuments”), and she’ll have solo shows at the ICA Boston and Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2024. But she is just as philosophically aligned with forebears such as Essie Bendolph Pettway, 67, a third-generation Gee’s Bend quilter who first learned techniques around age 8 from her mother. Recently, they spoke and found they “have [some of] the same questions and concerns,” Lewis said. “We’re really thinking deeply about the ghosts that are in the materials.”
To take fiber art seriously is to understand how fabric is inextricably linked to the body and is in many ways an extension of it: We wear it, we sleep under it, we are wrapped up in it when we are born and we are buried in it when we die. When I reached Hicks, who is now 89, at her studio in Paris, where she has lived since 1964, she was working on an unusually intimate commission: a collector in South America had sent her an array of garments to wrap and transform into what Hicks described as “bundles of memories” that her family could hold on to after her death. It was the opposite, in a way, of the Andean mummy bundles that helped spark her interest in textiles.
Hicks was equanimous about any late-in-life reconsideration of her art. “Today, the curators walking in the door are different,” she says. They aren’t textile or craft experts — they are contemporary art experts. And that ultimately seems to be the peculiar fate of this medium — in and out of fashion, like an article of clothing. Hicks has said that three generations of curators have now engaged with her work. Each one thinks they were the first to discover it.