Art and Craft

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Material Seduction

A look at Process Artists of the 1960’s and 1970’s who used fiber based materials in the creation of their work.

I recently revisited a book called String, Felt, Thread, by Elissa Auther who examines the history of the hierarchy of art and craft in America and details the significant changes in the attitude and reception of fiber as a material choice in the creation of fine art. Until the middle of the 20th Century, artists working with materials that were closely associated with utilitarian purposes were considered “craftsmen” rather than “artists” and essentially fell into a subcategory within the art world. It was really only painters and sculptors who were considered fine artists because their work was thought to transcend the materials themselves. According to Auther, there were three main groups that emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s who were in support of fiber as a legitimate material choice in the creation of fine art: members of the American Fiber Arts, Process Artists, and Feminists (1).

There were several notable exhibitions that helped launch Fiber Artists into the fine art scene, namely Wall Hangings, which was curated by the Museum of Modern Art’s Mildred Constantine and the textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen. However, the boundaries between art and craft continued when Artforum critic James Collins, in his review of the New York Cultural Center’s exhibition Soft as Art labeled works in fiber into either a “process” category or a “craft/fetish” category.

Among those considered Process artists were established sculptors Eva Hesse and Robert Morris. Ironically, while pro-fiber artists and curators were striving to redefine fiber based works as “fine art” instead of “craft” by emphasizing concept and negating the material itself, Process Artists were creating work using materials for their inherent visceral and tactile qualities.

It was believed by those aspiring to transcend from craft to fine art that skill, technique and specific materials must be devalued and concept be elevated. With this strategy, they were aiming to be known as “innovators of art rather than low laborers of craft” (1).

Process Art has been defined as “an artistic movement as well as a creative sentiment and worldview where the end product of art and craft, the objet d’art, is not the principal focus. The 'process' in process art refers to the process of the formation of art: the gathering, sorting, collating, associating, and patterning. Process Art is concerned with the actual doing; seeing the art as pure human expression. Process Art often entails an inherent motivation, rationale, and intentionality. Therefore, art is viewed as a creative journey or process, rather than as a deliverable or end product” (6).

Eva Hesse’s works in fiber were able to gain the respect of the avant-garde art world. She was never labeled as a fiber artist or a craftsperson, but was seen as a sculptor who was employing the use of “alternative material” - string, thread, and fabric. While these materials have been used by craftsmen for centuries, Hesse used them in a non-traditional, non-utilitarian way.

In The Tangled Web She Wove, Kristen Osborne notes that Hesse’s work engaged in themes of obsession, absurdity, blankness, and its meticulous creative process. “Hesse sought to deconstruct the seemingly inextricable relationship between artist and his or her art by imbuing her art pieces with a life of their own” (5).

For example, Contingent (Figure 2) is made of eight banner-like elements that hang from the ceiling. Each of these elements consists of a large rectangular stretch of latex-covered cheesecloth embedded at each end in a translucent field of fibreglass. The banners hang parallel to each other and at right angles to the wall. Hesse began work on Contingent in November 1968 before she became ill with a brain tumor that ended her life at age 34. In an interview with Cindy Nemser, Hesse describes the work: “It was latex rubber over a cloth called ripple cloth which resembles another version of cheesecloth. It has a more interesting weave (I guess I have some kind of interest in material) and reinforced fiberglass — clear” (4).

Artists such as Hesse, Claus Oldenburg, Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman and Keith Sonnier were gaining attention for the subliminal suggestion of organic sensuality and human anatomy found in their work. This was a contrast to the solemn minimalist work of artists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Although Hesse pays homage to many of the ideas behind minimalism (seriality and spacial transformation), the use of soft, flexible, fiber based materials offered an emotional and sensual appeal that was absent in minimalist work (5).

While the majority of fiber artists were women and were struggling to overcome the female stereotypes associated with homespun handcrafts, Hesse’s work openly engaged issues of femininity, the body, logic, and the unconscious. She used bulbous shapes, hair-like tendrils, sheer materials that look like skin, and explored the exchange between hardness and softness.

Robert Morris was using felt in his sculptural wall pieces and installation especially for its materiality. He was interested in the unpredictability of industrial felt and allowed it to be expressive in its own right. He explored the ways it behaved when stacked, draped, folded, hung, cut into pieces, or dropped into a tangled heap. In an essay for Artforum titled "Anti Form," Morris stated: "Random piling, loose stacking, hanging, give passing form to the material. Chance is accepted and indeterminacy is implied since replacing will result in another configuration" (Figure 1) (7).

In an interview with Simon Grant, Morris said, “The early felt works had multiple positions—sometimes thrown on the floor or hung on the wall. But once the works were photographed nobody wanted to hear about alternative positions. And of course works on the wall are easier to deal with than things on the floor so the wall option became the preferred position. I suppose this illustrates Duchamp’s remark about how art quickly loses its aesthetic smell and becomes frozen and arid. Anyway some of the works involving many separate pieces could of course never be installed twice in the same way. These maintained their indeterminate status more than the works made of larger sections” (9).

In contrast to the way Morris’s work in felt was intellectualized by critics (in part due to his own writings and theorizing on the state of sculpture during his time), Eva Hesse’s work in string, rope and cord was openly and positively assessed as non-logical, eccentric, and even inspired by craft. However, these associations did not lead to a dismissal of her work as non-art.

In a 2010 interview with the University of Minnesota Press, Auther said it was the feminist art movement that had the biggest impact on the way fiber is used in art today. “Feminist artists involved in the critique of the hierarchy of art and craft helped to legitimize the personal as an appropriate subject for art, resulting in an unprecedented expansion of artistic form and practice. Although they did not render the hierarchy of art and craft defunct, the women’s art movement was ultimately more successful in expanding the category of art to include fiber because its agenda, not to mention its audience, far exceeded the provincial borders of the art world in the 1970s” (8).

Where Process artists simply turned to fiber as an arbitrary material, feminists latched on to its historical roots and set out to reclaim traditional techniques and mediums from its “lesser than” critical regard (3). However, Hesse died before the feminist movement really took off. She was somewhat of an anomaly in that she was very successful as an artist in a time when women artists were only starting to become acknowledged – and she was seen as an artist even though she was using fiber based materials.

 - Leslie Pearson

Untitled, 1976, from the seminal Felts series by Robert Morris

Contingent, 1969. Cheesecloth, latex, fiberglass. Eva Hessa


1. Auther, Elissa. String, Felt, Thread - The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. University of Minnesota Press. 2010.
2. Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993–2007 by Robert Morris and Nena Tsouti-Schillinger. Duke University Press Books. Feb 22, 2008.
3. Loomis, Kathleen. Fiber Art – The Poor Stepsister. Art with a Needle. Thursday, October 14, 2010. Accessed on Monday, April 12, 2011.
4. Nemser, Cindy, in Nixon, M. Ed. October Files: Eva Hesse, Cambridge and London, MIT Press, 2002.
5. Osborne, Kristen. The Tangled Web She Wove—Eva Hesse’s Metronomic Irregularity II. Accessed on Monday, April 12, 2011.
6. Process Art. Wikipedia. Accessed on Monday, April 12, 2011.
7. Robert Morris, “Anti Form,” Artforum, April 1968, reprinted in Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1993
8. University of Minnesota Press. Wednesday, February 10, 2010. Accessed Monday, April 12, 2011.
9. Wool, Felt, and Textiles. An Interview with Robert Morris by Simon Grant. Friday, May 1, 2009. Accessed on Monday, April 12, 2011.