Textiles in contemporary art

by K.L.H. Wells
Reviews / Books • 22.01.2020

Vitamin T is part of a series of books published by Phaidon that surveys contemporary art through the lens of a specific medium. Beginning with Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting (2004) and followed by Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (2005), the series has grown to include follow-up books on painting and drawing, as well as volumes devoted to photography, sculpture and installation, sustainable design, clay and ceramics, and now textiles.1 The book’s subject-matter is referenced explicitly by the cover, which mimics a moth-eaten cloth whose holes reveal a colourful patchwork of textiles below, while a pink thread adorns the spine of the book in a crisscross pattern. This elaborate cover design suggests an attention to medium specificity that the book itself prefers not to deliver.

The chief value of Vitamin T lies in its inclusiveness and diversity. The book profiles 114 artists (including one artist duo) from all over the world who engage with textiles in a wide variety of ways. Each artist is described in a brief essay (up to 450 words) and even briefer curriculum vitae, followed by several illustrations. The book’s ratio of word to image is weighted heavily in favour of pictures. Of the thirty-four writers who contributed to the book, some excelled at the brief essay format by providing succinct accounts of the artists’ development and compelling interpretations of their works’ significance. Louisa Elderton, who co-edited the book, deserves special mention here, along with Jonathan Griffin, Henry Little, Mitch Speed, Sean O’Toole and David Trigg. In addition, Elizabeth Buhe, Paul Carey-Kent, Elbe Coetsee, Kristian Vistrup Madsen, Nina Miall, Michele Robecchi, George Vasey and Elvia Wilk provided exceptional commentary. The artists are arranged alphabetically, which avoids any kind of hierarchy, but also any kind of interpretative categorisation. In browsing through the book, a reader might be able to identify that some artists engage with indigenous textile traditions FIG. 1 while others appropriate mass-produced clothing FIG. 2; that some artists treat textiles as monumental structures FIG. 3 and others as pictorial wall hangings FIG. 4. But the editors themselves have made no such effort to connect the dots. 

On one level, such a refusal to categorise these artists’ use of textiles is admirable, allowing readers to make their own interpretative connections rather than dictating prescribed routes. But the editors’ reluctance to organise their material also undermines the very premise of the book. In their preface, the editors, Elderton and Rebecca Morrill, emphasise that while the book focuses on ‘a particular category of media’, that medium has so many ‘plural meanings’ that it defies categorisation. Although the book surveys textiles in contemporary art, it also ‘embraces pluralism. It incorporates craft techniques into the story of contemporary art rather than suggesting further segregated categories’ (p.9). Although one can understand the desire to avoid segregating textiles from the wider category of contemporary art, the proposition of Vitamin T is to do exactly that, to isolate textiles as worthy of our focused attention. Phaidon’s series of Vitamin books is thus structured around the contradictory project of categorising contemporary art by medium while avoiding making any coherent claims about the stakes of that medium in artistic practice today.

This hesitancy to make clear interpretative arguments about the different meanings that textiles could have in contemporary art derives from the presumption that we are operating in a post-medium condition. As Janelle Porter writes in her introduction to the book, we are now ‘post fibre, medium unspecific’ (p.17). Indeed, the editors acknowledge that not all of the invited artists agreed to be included in the book since doing so would categorise their work as textile art (p.9). Likewise, many of the writers emphasise that the artists they discuss are not really textile artists, because they work in a variety of media, because they consider their work to be variations of painting or installation, or because their work eludes categorisation all together.

On the other hand, the critical importance of focusing attention on textiles derives from the presumption that the medium has been excluded from the category of high art. The book’s inclusion of such artists as Sam Gilliam and Do Ho Suh FIG. 5 alongside those more associated with craft, such as Olga de Amaral and Faith Ringgold, under a shared category of textiles seems calculated to produce a certain subversive frisson. Porter’s introduction to the book relies on this narrative of an art/craft divide to lend critical substance to artists’ use of fibre, arguing that historically, ‘the promise of a robust art movement was diminished by fibre art’s persistent categorisation as craft’ (p.10). But Porter also insists on an inherent equivalence between the works of fibre artists and their more prominent colleagues in ‘Minimalism, postminimalism, Conceptualism, performance art, land art and feminist art’, claiming that ‘in its attitude, textile art of this period was no different from its contemporaneous movements’ (p.10). Porter thus overlooks the meaningful differences in historical context between fibre artists, minimalist sculptors and feminists that have been so convincingly analysed by Elissa Auther; ultimately Porter’s introduction does not advance beyond her earlier catalogue text for the landmark exhibition Fiber: Sculpture 1960–Present.2

Hoping to have it both ways, Vitamin T implies that we should be interested in textiles within contemporary art because of their historic marginalisation but that this history is no longer relevant for interpreting textile art today. Although individual writers engage in critical readings of their material, the overall project of Vitamin T is clearly celebratory. With its elaborate cover, copious colour illustrations and impressive heft, the book makes a handsome object suitable for display. Leafing through its pages would undoubtedly prove inspiring for a range of practitioners and its succinct presentation of a diverse range of artists makes the volume a useful reference for those teaching or curating with textiles.

 

About this book

Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art

Edited by Louisa Elderton and Rebecca Morrill, with an introduction by Jenelle Porter

Phaidon, London and New York, 2019

ISBN 978–0–714876–61–0

About the author

K.L.H. Wells is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where her research focuses on the politics of decorative art and design. She is the author of Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry between Paris and New York (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2019).

Footnotes

  • 1
    Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives in Photography (2006); Vitamin 3-D: New Perspectives in Sculpture and Installation (2009); Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting (2011); Vitamin D2: New Perspectives in Drawing (2011); Vitamin Green (2012); Vitamin P3: New Perspectives in Painting (2016); and Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art (2017).
  • 2
    E. Auther: String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, Minneapolis 2009; and J. Porter, ed.: exh. cat. Fiber: Sculpture 1960–Present, Boston (Institute of Contemporary Art), Colombus (Wexner Center for the Arts) and Des Moines (Wexner Center for the Arts) 2014–15.