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Holes and tears in a dust jacket that resembles tattered linen reveal pockets of multicolored fabric underneath. This provides a sneak peek into the contents of Phaidon’s latest tome, Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art, which tells the story of the use of fibers, textiles, and thread by over 100 global artists during the past century or so.
Vitamin T is the latest in a series of surveys published by Phaidon — most recently following Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing and Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art — that chart the latest developments in visual art through the lens of a specific medium. A short essay by a critic, curator, or art historian profiles each artist. The text is secondary to the images, taking up just a slim left-hand panel of a single page, as each artist receives a two- to four-page spread showcasing his or her work. The book’s design stays true to its theme: even the broken lines of the margins recall the running stitch used on clothing seams.
The artists range from El Anatsui to Sarah Lucas to Do Ho Suh. They were nominated for inclusion by art-world professionals from around the world — from Nebraska to the UAE. Likewise, the accompanying essays are by curators and critics from across the globe. Though brief, they are illuminating introductions to each artist’s work.
The artist biographies are complemented by an introductory history by Jenelle Porter — formerly a curator at the ICA Boston and ICA Philadelphia — addressing the rise in the use of textiles in modern and contemporary art. Porter touches on the terms labelling the use of textiles in art, with “fiber” being the most common. She explains that a “Fiber Art Movement” occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. For the inaugural Biennale Internationale de la Tapisserie in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1962 — organized by Jean Lurcat and Alice and Pierre Pauli to revive a waning tapestry industry — artists were asked to submit works that used thread in novel ways. Porter goes on to credit the Bauhaus influence on postwar artists in dismantling the divisions between craftsperson and artist. She focuses on the textile legacy of Eastern Europe and Switzerland before the New Bauhaus set up shop in Chicago in 1937 (having been founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919).
Porter’s introduction also discusses the influence of Mesoamerican textiles on artists, as well as the role of thread during the mainly Euro-American feminist art movement as a tool to unravel sexual politics. That said, the book includes almost twice the number of female artists as male artists. While many of us would normally applaud this as conscientious museums and art scholars are attempting to write female artists back into art history, this women-to-men ratio does little to subvert stereotypes pigeonholing textiles as a female pursuit. In light of this, there is still one notable omission in the volume: Judy Chicago, who collaborated with over 150 needle-workers for her Birth Project (1980-85). Particularly because of her acclaim, Chicago seem like an obvious choice to include.
While Porter’s introduction is informative and engaging, additional essays might have offered a more thorough analysis of developments in the use of textiles by modern and contemporary artists, particularly as the distinction between art and craft is increasingly blurred. Additional essays could also have compared how the use of textile differs — or does not — between regions.
Vitamin T is strong in its selection of artists, spanning all corners of the globe, and dividing coverage of figures from EuroAmerica, Africa, Asia, and South America almost evenly. Following recent blockbuster exhibitions like Anni Albers: Weaving Magic at Tate Modern, this book is a timely contribution to dismantling the division between art and craft. Though the essays only skim the surface of each artist’s practice, the images (there are 420 color illustrations) provide a vital source of information for contextualizing and imaging textile-based art in the 20th and 21st centuries.