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Despite being a craft dating back over 30,000 years, fiber work only started to get sculpturally experimental in a serious way in the 1960s and 70s. That turning point, and its subsequent path up to contemporary art, are the subject of Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present, published this month by Prestel to coincide with an exhibition opening October 1 at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA).
“For many, fiber art is synonymous with women’s art,” Jill Medvedow, Ellen Matilda Poss Director at the ICA, writes in her forward to the book. “Knitting, crochet, weaving, braiding, and darning are historically associate with domestic work — clothing the body, providing warmth, adorning space — and speak to the strength as well as the exploitation of female labor.”
The 34 artists with their around 50 works show how over the decades these preconceptions about fiber art have been confronted, embraced, and unraveled. Fiber: Sculpture is cited as the first exhibition in 40 years to seriously address how a utilitarian practice morphed into an experiment in limitless dimensions, because that is one of the things that makes fiber sculpture special — its adaptability to space through its flexible form.
The over 250 pages of work, which could have benefited from some fuller photograph prints as too often fiber sculpture at a distance can look like a big knot, argue for the large-scale possibilities of fiber, where stretched yarn or hanging thread is limited only by gravity in its reach. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s reached quite the level of other art media on its own for critical interest. While artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz and Sheila Hicks were getting major international exhibitions with fiber sculpture that mirrored the radical changes happening in much of art in the 1960s and 70s, the coverage could be much different.
“The fiber art movement lacked the critical apparatus that attended mainstream movements: art in fiber was covered by Craft magazine, not Artforum,” ICA Senior Curator Jenelle Porter writes in her essay.
And the fiber sculpture hasn’t necessarily maintained what profile it had, despite some artists with continued prominence who used it in their work, such as Eva Hesse. For example, architectural commissions that were for a time common in new designs are disappearing. Françoise Grossen’s rope tapestries have been removed from the San Mateo Fashion Island, and more recently the Rudin Management Building in New York City. Fiber: Sculpture includes in its exhibition the recreating of Robert Rohm’s “Rope Piece,” which was years ago dismantled and tossed away. As the ICA incorporates this exploration into a series of exhibitions that center on the contrast and merging of craft with conceptual contemporary art, from a 2012 show on glass worker Josiah McElheny to a future Black Mountain College exhibition, perhaps fiber sculpture will wind its grasp a bit stronger onto its place in 20th century art history.
Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present is available from Prestel. The coinciding exhibition is on view October 1 to January 4 at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (100 Northern Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts).