Textiles don’t immediately come to mind when thinking about art. But as observers of the creative worlds have noticed, the much heralded crossover between design, craft, and art has upended traditional categories—and the reclassification of textile art is one sign of the change. During December’s influential week of fairs in Miami Beach, textiles were conspicuously absent from their usual places in the Design Miami pavilion but were featured by Art Basel/Miami dealers Black Projects and Sabrina Amrani as well as at several booths in the Scope and Untitled fairs.
One of the most recognizable names in textile art is Sheila Hicks. Working since the 1950s, she pushed the medium from flat to three-dimensional, winning her major commissions, but her fame escalated after she was reclassified as an artist rather than an artisan. Her former dealer, Cristina Grajales, says, “Sheila really wanted Chelsea”—New York’s art district—so she helped Hicks find art gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co., which currently represents the artist.
In the 1940s, Mariska Karasz elevated embroidery when she used it in artworks shown at the innovative Bertha Schaefer Gallery. Over the past several decades, the perception of textile art began to change as feminists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro made artworks that used sewing and quilting. More recently, well-publicized work such as Magdalena Abakanowicz’s textile sculptures (at Richard Gray Gallery), Olga de Amaral’s abstract, gold-threaded hangings (at Nohra Haime), and the once-quotidian quilts by the women of Gees Bend, Alabama, (now in several major museums) have presented fiber art as collectible works.
Textiles, which can be woven, knit, embroidered, or knotted using any number of different man-made or artificial fibers, have had a history of highs and lows in everyday objects and treasured artworks. Historians note that they were often the costliest and most prestigious items in Medieval or Renaissance homes, but after the Industrial Revolution, weaving was either mass-produced or denigrated as “women’s work.” The Bauhaus relegated artists like Anni Albers to the weaving workshop, and even today most textile artists are women. For most of the contemporary era, although modern tapestries by artists like Picasso and Matisse were shown in art galleries, textiles were generally ranked low on the prestige ladder, even in decorative arts, which persisted in considering “crafts” a lesser category. That is until recently, when woven panels, tufting, knit and knotted hangings, and other creations looking nothing like traditional textiles began showing up in art booths as often as in the design galleries that first discovered them.
What precipitated the change? Dealers, auction houses, and designers offer several reasons. The first is simply a matter of supply and demand. With the proliferation of art fairs, as AD100 designer Amy Lau points out, “artists can only produce so much in a year; they can’t keep up with the demand.” Galleries, and their clients, are always looking for new things, and as Lau sees it, “textiles are the logical next step. It’s simply taking another medium and making it acceptable commercially.”
That makes good sense for another reason: Even the best and costliest textile art is generally more affordable than fine paintings. As trade-fair impresario Sandy Smith says, “There are no $200 million fiber pieces.” And they can be more relatable, as well; according to weaver Victoria Manganiello, “Cloth is something, probably the only thing, that every human on the planet interacts with every day. It’s familiar.”
Another factor is economics. As Chicago auction house owner Richard Wright notes cynically, “It sells for more money when it’s viewed in the fine arts frame.” And design dealer Robert Aibel agrees. “The pieces we all craft or design have always been art,” he says. “They’re just not treated as such until they become costly enough to interest art dealers.”