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From the earliest days of textile art, believed to be around 10,000 BCE, abstraction has been used to convey meaning. Though the subject matter in an abstract work may not be relayed so obviously, these weavings are embedded in the politics of their time. In ancient Andean communities, for example, colorful geometric patterns in wool were used to communicate messages across linguistic and geographic boundaries. From the 18th century to present day, abstractions woven as blankets, rugs, and clothing have become symbols of cultural resilience and preservation for the Navajo/Diné people. And in modern and contemporary fiber art, an artist’s choice of non-figurative forms is a stance in itself.

This spring, a swath of museum exhibitions across the U.S.—including “Melissa Cody: Webbed Skies” at MoMA PS1 and “Weaving Abstraction in Ancient and Modern Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York; “Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; “Hana Miletić: Soft Services” at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and “Anni Albers: In Thread and On Paper” at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas—are turning a new lens on the significance of abstraction in weaving, through a range of periods. In an art world where textiles have often been excluded, today, geometries are looming large in curators’ minds. For the talents on display that have worked quietly in weaving for years, it’s a welcome change.

Textile artists and experts say a larger trend is to credit for this rise. Over the last five years, their long-overlooked artistic medium has been experiencing an unprecedented amount of institutional interest. Finally, like photography or ceramics, weaving has shed the often pejoratively used labels of “craft” or “applied art” and is getting its due in the canon of fine art.

“We’ve really had to fight a long, hard battle to be considered fine art,” said fourth-generation Navajo weaver Melissa Cody, who is gearing up for her first major solo exhibition at MoMA PS1 on April 4th (previously shown at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand), and one at New York’s Garth Greenan Gallery at the end of the month. In the last few years, she has also been selected for group shows at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. For Indigenous artists, there are additional barriers, including a lack of cultural knowledge and representation within the current class of art museum curators.

When museums are exhibiting traditional patterns, “there’s been a huge push for institutions to have consultations with individual tribes in order to gain more insights on a lot of historical works that they have, but also on the collecting of contemporary works, which are just as valid,” said Cody. She noted that this is a big change from when she graduated from the museum studies program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2007. “There’s also been a huge push for them to understand the work and take into consideration tribal histories. For a long time, a lot of our information was discredited because it was never written; for the majority of Native American tribes, histories are verbal.”

Cody’s abstract weavings address both the past and present existences of her Indigenous community. For example, she draws colors and patterns from the Germantown sampler—commercially made wool from Pennsylvania used to make the blankets the U.S. government gave the Navajo people when forcefully expelling them from ancestral lands. Her works touch on themes from her own life as a child growing up on the reservation, learning to weave from her mother at age five and selling those pieces as early as elementary school to afford the latest tech toy. This experience of digital life, too, makes its way into her layered geometric compositions: the “noble pixel,” she called it, referencing the technological developments that became widespread during her childhood.

At the Met, “Weaving Abstraction” curators Iria Candela and Joanne Pillsbury are also exploring artistic links across history. The cross-departmental show presents Andean tapestries from the museum’s collection that range in date from the first millennium BCE to the 16th century alongside modern work by four women fiber artists: Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and Olga de Amaral. Aside from the shared exploration of geometry prompted by the warp and weft process, these time-spanning works are also connected through study: The modern practitioners drew deep inspiration from these ancient textiles from Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

Albers first saw examples on view in Berlin in the 1920s while she was at the Bauhaus weaving workshop, and in the 1930s, she traveled to Mexico and Cuba with her husband, painter Josef Albers, where they became collectors of pre-Columbian artworks and textile samples. Similarly, Hicks, Tawney, and de Amaral collected fragments during South American travel throughout their careers, building on academic research they each did during the same period in the 1960s.

Though in the ancient Andes, “fiber arts and textiles were the most revered form of signaling status,” explained Candela, “in the 20th century, textiles have been relegated to the world of craft and women’s work,” considered a lesser form of art. Interestingly, Anni Albers was able to move fluidly through the worlds of commercial fabric-making and textile art in her career and command respect for both. In 1949, she had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, featuring her functional fabric designs for drapery and room dividers alongside some of her early weavings. For a medium that had long been displaced from the art world, the exhibition “was a real paradigm shift,” said Fritz Horstman, education director at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. “This is probably one of her main contributions to textiles,” he continued. “She really elevated the medium to the place where—though we’re still seeing it rise—it could be seen on the same level as painting and sculpture.”

Hicks, Tawney, and de Amaral were members of the 1970s fiber arts movement that aimed to continue bringing the medium to center stage in the art world, drawing on references to non-Western cultures where it was highly respected. They also collaborated with commercial manufacturers to make functional fabrics for the home, but their “aim [was] for pure formal experimentation for art’s sake,” says Candela.

The lack of emphasis on geometric abstraction in textiles is particularly notable given similar styles’ institutional and art market popularity in another medium: painting. A 1962 painting by Frank Stella, for example, recently sold at auction for $18.7 million, while a wool rug from an Anni Albers design went for $39,918. In weaving, abstraction is also an artistic exploration of the construction of the works themselves. The textures created by the vertical and horizontal threads that weave her pieces were a fascination for Albers, who was schooled in the Bauhaus tradition of exploring methods for mass production.

Candela believes the current rise in exhibitions of abstract weaving across history may be tied to the increasing number of contemporary artists who are working across multiple disciplines, including experimenting with textiles. It’s a phenomenon that has “helped a lot in democratizing art mediums in general,” she said. However, what has also stirred up interest is curators’ renewed search for underrepresented art stories, and their institutions’ willingness to finally give these artists of these stories an equal platform.

For Cody, weaving is important as a Navajo tradition for self-sufficiency and spirituality. It’s imperative, she said, because “when we look back in 75 or 100 years, what we’re creating now is the tradition of our time.…It’s said that the spider woman gifted the knowledge of weaving and then the spider man brought the loom and the tools,” she explained. Together, they represent things in the natural world: The spider woman, in particular, weaves the sky and rainbow, protecting the Navajo from above. The abstract traditional textiles Cody and her fellow weavers make as blankets, clothes, and rugs are physical protection on Earth.

–Elizabeth Fazzare

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