How Textiles Became Modern at MoMA

1977 Águila Beige (Brown Eagle) by Spanish artist Aurèlia Muñoz

Dramatic fiber sculptures welcome visitors at the entry to MoMA’s modern textile history exhibition, Taking a Thread for a Walk, on view on the third floor through January 10.

When the show initially opened back in 2019, visitors were greeted by Magdalena Abakanowicz’s imposing Yellow Abakan textile sculpture; today, it’s the wall-size Red Marca by Aurèlia Muñoz in its place. Inside the main gallery, Aurèlia’s Brown Eagle spreads out to fill the entire corner. But these fiber sculptures are really the finale to the exhibition’s story.

Yarn, prints, and fabric in Vuillard’s 1896 painting of his mother at home

Your journey through 20th century textile art is fleshed out using MoMA’s unparalleled collection of modern paintings, furniture, posters, film, and ephemera. Every time we’ve visited the exhibition, we’ve observed museum goers who are fully engaged, taking in every detail of the big story told by quiet works – how textile craft transitioned from small-time “women’s work” to statements within the big-time worlds of fine arts, commercial furniture, and interior design.

The first thing you hear upon entering is the clacking sound of a working loom. The sound draws you right toward an actual loom. Nearby, there are fourth-century Coptic textile fragments that were the first textiles to enter MoMA’s collection and a delicate sculpture by Ed Rossbach that echoes weaving’s ancient origins.

1952 loom used by Anni Albers in Connecticut

The pristine loom was used by Anni Albers, who revolutionized how American artists began thinking about, making, and innovating with textiles. In a way, Anni’s educational philosophy is the “thread” that connects nearly every other section in the show – teach students to execute the basics but push them to experiment in unconventional ways.

Using fiber and weaving to “learn by doing” extends back to the 1850s and the beliefs of German early-childhood educator Friedrich Froebel, who suggested that parents and teachers use “playthings” – balls of yarn and colorful weaving slats to spur kids’ creativity. His ideas caught on, with toy manufacturers offering commercial creativity kits. MoMA has 1898 versions from Boston in the show.

Vienna: corner of 1905 tablecloth by Josef Hoffman and Berthold Löffler

Around the same time, the British Arts & Crafts movement and rampant industrialization inspired continental innovators to create new schools and interdisciplinary movements that elevated textile design in the design and art-school hierarchy.

MoMA displays a beautiful tablecloth by Hoffman and Loeffler that exemplifies the design direction Hoffman and colleagues took with the Wiener Werkstätte.  Fabric designs by Elena Izcue are nearby, showing how pre-Columbian textiles served as inspiration for artists and students exploring an “American” design direction.

An entire wall is devoted to the ground-breaking work by Anni Albers and others from the textile workshop at the Bauhaus, led by innovator Gunta Stölzl, who encouraged interdisciplinary students to experiment by incorporating unusual materials, proportions, and colors.

Bauhaus Weaving Workshop: 1923-1924 work by Benita Koch-Otte

A short black-and-white film that takes you inside the workshop is projected next to a dramatic large-scale woven modernist statement by Benita Koch-Otte.

The back wall tells the story of 20th-century textile production and commercialization – a Soviet children’s book to explain how cotton is grown and turned into mass-market fabric, and commercial brochures, posters, and catalogues created by graphic artists who founded branding agencies to help European manufacturers market stylish rugs, draperies, and furniture to buyers.

1964 wall hanging woven by Delores Dembus Bitterman, an Albers student at Yale

Like Anni Albers, many design innovators fled Europe in the Thirties, worked as educators in the United States, and influenced the next generation of textile modernists through Cranbrook, the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and Black Mountain College.

MoMA shows plenty of expressive wall-sized works, fabric-covered modern furniture, and textile room dividers used to stunning effect by architects and interior designers in commercial spaces and open-plan homes in the Fifties and Sixties. A Seventies poster promoting furniture by Knoll reminds you that Brazilian and other Latin American designers were fully on board, too.

Stretch fabric: Bruno Manari’s 1964 hanging lamp and Pierre Paulin’s 1967 Tongue chair

Finally, the story comes back to where it began – liberation for textile artists in the Sixties and Seventies, like Sheila Hicks and others, to create large-scale sculptural work.

Walk through the exhibition with MoMA on its website and look at our favorites in our Flickr album.

To get an idea of how one contemporary master thinks about creating with textiles, here is a short video with Sheila Hicks, featuring her Pillar of Inquiry installation last year for MoMA’s reopening:

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