Fiber art can be considered as both new and an old form of art. The use of fibrous materials and the appearance of the woven, knitted, printed, or in other ways treated materials has long appeared in our history. Traditionally, fibrous materials emerged as functional objects but in the aftermath of the World War II and with further investigation into the nature of an art object, fiber art slowly became a force in its own right. During the 1950’s, as various artists-craftsmen received recognition, the term fiber art was coined to help describe their work. During this period, the contribution of craft artists, not just in fiber but in clay, ceramics, and other media inspired a number of weavers to begin binding fibers into non-functional and non-objective forms as works of art. Yet, the two decades that followed, the 60s and the 70s brought an international revolution in fiber art. With the rise of the women’s movement, and the consequences of feminist art, along with the birth of postmodernism theory, fiber art was reinforced.
Fiber art refers to fine art whose material consists of natural or synthetic fiber, and other components, such as fabric or yarn. Placing focus on the materials and the manual labor on the part of the artist, aesthetic value over utility is prioritized. Typically, fiber creatives use the method of weaving for the creation of their small or large pieces. Next to this technique, creatives are known to practice the act of knotting, twining, plaiting, coiling, pleating, lashing, and interlacing. Also known as fabric art, fiber art was introduced after the war to characterize original art developments in textiles and to help define works being done in fiber since the 1920’s. The two writers Larsen and Constantine were, in fact, the creators of the term which they defined as generic and standing for all fibrous constructions. The two authors also explained the methods and the understanding of the loom as an expressive tool which helped fiber authors manipulate with materials and to produce their objects and pieces. Building upon the meaning and tradition of weaving, modern fiber art needs to be defined through the history of textile art and the arts and crafts movement as well.
During the 1950’s, as authors pushed for the fresh understanding and use of the fiber, various creators in Europe and America experimented with the creation of works which hung on the wall or were produced as free-standing two or three-dimensional works. Fiber authors explored the quality of the fabric or linear elements of linen, sisal, and cotton in order to create nonobjective or figurative objects. Artist Lenore Tawney, a former student at the New Bauhaus affiliated with the original Bauhaus school in Germany, was, in fact, the first to create three-dimensional pieces with the help of fiber which entered into the arena ofsculpture and installation art. Her 1961 exhibition at the Staten Island Museum is defined as the event which launched fiber art in the USA and which helped this form of creativity to part from the idea of being a mere craft.
Yet, it was the feminist art movement and its dominant figure Judy Chicago that reintroduced textile and fiber into high art. As knitting, weaving, or needlework were typically considered as a woman’s job of leisure or of skill, this was a major step forward. Redefining the history of art subjects and themes, feminist artists used the medium to subvert its history as ‘women work’ and transform it into colorful, fun, and sexually liberated works. Judy Chicago and the group of creatives which she gathered for her project Womanhouse all worked with fiber art. Chicago’s piece The Dinner Party is, in fact, defined as the first high art piece which incorporated and celebrated needlework and fabrics as part of women’s history.
Since the 1980’s, various fiber works, influenced by the postmodernist theory have become more and more conceptual. The theory inspired pieces which confronted cultural issues such as gender, issues of politics and socially predetermined roles, identity, and so on. Presently, various fiber authors are still focused on redefining what is craft and what is art. Leaning on the tradition which saw tapestries moving away from the wall into the space of the gallery as a free-standing abstract and often geometric object, many creatives explore how fiber and its smallest pieces could be the base of abstract sculpture.
Within the eclectic character of contemporary art production, many fiber creatives dip into the sphere of wearable art creating extravagant pieces of both clothing and of various forms. Moreover, there are numerous art events and festivals which are organized to promote fiber art. The Fiberart International in 2016 defined its medium as "anything made of flexible, linear material and/or constructed using textile techniques such as stitching, weaving, dyeing and embroidering". The show displayed that fiber art promotes and operates both in the form of its tradition and as a present object representing the digital and technological age.
From hand embroidery, tapestry and quilt production, to large-scale public art pieces or miniature handmade lace doily, fiber art is for sure a movement which continues to help define what is art production today.
Editors’ Tip: Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present
This book is a documentation of the history of fiber art which became popular in the 1960’s. Where once the focus was on knotting, twining, and coiling thread into works that were immediately recognizable, and therefore connected to utilitarian crafts, fiber authors of the later 20th-century began to experiment with abstract forms that were closer to sculpture than craft. Influenced by postmodernist ideas, these works are the product of experimentation with materials and technique while at the same time confronting important cultural issues. This book traces that development from the mid-twentieth century to the present. In the words of Bauhaus weaver Anni Albers, the expressive quality of fiber is essentially a "language of thread." That language is beautifully displayed in full-color spreads and individual illustrations in this book. Scholarly essays address the feminist movement of the 1970s; the expanded use of materials in the '80s and '90s; and the more recent employment of fiber as one more material in the creation of freestanding works.
All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Francoise Grossen – Inchworm. Image via wbur.org; Hassan Sharif - Slippers, 2016 with Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde; Romina de Novellis with Alberta Pane. Image via widewalls.ch