String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art (U of Minnesota)

String Felt Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art by Elissa Auther

University of Minnesota Press 2010

The 1960s and 1970s are the focus of Elissa Auther’s comprehensive study of the use of textile materials in American art and craft. This is important not only because Auther provides a much needed piece in the puzzle that is the recent history of textile materials used in non-functional ways, but also because so many of the observations raised about work created during these decades prompt questions that continue to deserve debate today. In particular, the recent influx of textiles appearing in fine art galleries and used by artists with intentions and priorities very different from those with a craft, textile art or fibre background has much to learn – and at times lament – from observations of these differences made nearly half a century ago.

Considering the lack of critical material published in the discipline of fiber art, Auther does a commendable job of biting off a manageable section to which she then does great justice. The book begins with Louise Bourgeois’ troubling review of the Wall Hangings exhibition organized by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1969. Cleverly, it also manages to end with Bourgeois as one of several artists in the concluding chapter whose engagement with textile materials today (whether they like it or not) reflects the thoughtful and distinct values that fiber art continues to promote.

Chapter one “Fiber Art and the Struggle for Legitimacy” outlines the problematic critical reception of textile materials within fine art galleries during a time of massive increase in student numbers enrolled in art programmes and a growing curiosity towards alternative materials and processes. Chapter two “Process Art, Postminimalism, and Materialism” compares the critical reception of works made in felt by Robert Morris and various textile and textile-like materials used by Eva Hesse to show the established identity of the artist, rather than their choice of materials, as central to the critical reception of their work. The ambitions and contradictions of feminism taken up by artists working with textiles – Faith Ringgold, Harmony Hammond, Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago – is the focus of chapter three “The Feminist Politicization of the Art/Craft Divide”. Here Auther argues for the importance of feminism’s “insights into the natural consequences of the hierarchy of art and craft [which] made that hierarchy, for the first time in the history of art, the site of political struggle.”

Auther is astute in acknowledging contradictions, often balancing what we know to be an artist or curators’ intentions with the limitations or problems their efforts seem to present. Throughout there is a scrutiny of how textile-like materials attempted, often unsuccessfully, to find a critical space within fine art during the 1960s and 1970s. At times it is clear that the work was misunderstood – even wilfully overlooked by reviewers and curators; elsewhere perhaps it is the work itself that stumbled in the communication of the objectives and ideals artists aspired to convey. In her introduction, Auther explains that the book “neither champions craft as art nor attempts to resolve the art/craft distinction. Rather this study,” she writes, “focuses on the hierarchy of art and craft as an illuminating example of power and authority at work in the art world and characterizes the art/craft distinction as a critical node of activity responsible for sorting out the artistically legitimate from the illegitimate, however unfair.”

While this may be the author’s position, the tricky bit is that it is not an agenda shared by her examples, many of whom largely did seek a position for textiles within the value system of fine art. Auther explains, “My own analysis shares [with Glenn Adamson’s research] the desire for examination of craft’s social, artistic, and cultural position that does not elide its limitedness in favor of the promotion or celebration of crafts as art.” Perhaps where this research speaks most specifically to thinking that we can (thankfully) relegate to the 1960s and 1970s is in the numerous descriptions of craft as an uncritical or anti-intellectual approach to making. The health of concept driven craft today dates these observations more than the optimism of the book’s conclusion, which I fear is not as embraced by the art world as many working with textiles today would hope.

Throughout, content is presented in a commendably accessible manner, packed with supporting facts and evidence, but not to the point that the reasons for their inclusion are obscured. Exhibition curation, reviews and material published in journals and magazines of the time make up the backbone of the history pieced together. As a result, the narrative remains grounded and tangible and offers a reminder of how our current published correspondence, exhibitions and conferences may be analysed in decades to come. Acknowledgement is also deserved for the impressive number of images included and laid out particularly well in this handsomely designed book, an area that all too often seems to bear the brunt of publisher’s budget cuts these days. It goes without saying that the past three decades and, for example, the textile art movement in Britain, all deserve similar scrutiny at some point. Hopefully, this publication will inspire others to devote the considerable energy and commitment evidenced in this research to establish at least a few other pieces of the long neglected puzzle that was, and is, fiber art.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2010: 68)