Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present traces the use of fiber materials such as wool, thread, and rope to make sculpture. Beginning in the 1960s, pioneering artists moved away from traditional craft techniques, and conventional, mostly wall-based formats, to “take the room.” This pivotal exhibition includes 33 artists, some of whose works had been locked away in attics and storage spaces for decades. Here Jenelle Porter, Mannion Family Senior Curator at the ICA, talks with us about the innovation, influence, and legacy of these important—and often underrecognized—artists. 

First of all, how do you define fiber?

For this exhibition I define fiber using a term Sheila Hicks introduced to me: “linear pliable element.” Wool, sisal, rope, monofilament—they’re all linear pliable elements, here used as elements to make sculpture.

How did the idea for this show come about?

Several years back, I had the opportunity to work with Sheila Hicks on her traveling retrospective in Philadelphia. I was hooked, so to speak, on fiber. Before 2008, Hicks was not on my art radar. Afterwards, I thought to myself that if there’s somebody making sculpture this interesting who I didn’t know about, there must be others. 

Chronologically, the exhibition begins with works by Lenore Tawney and Eva Hesse. Why start there?

The exhibition begins in the 1960s, when fiber moved away from its relation to the wall. Lenore Tawney’s Dark River from 1961 was among the first of her works not displayed as a wall hanging. At the time this work was shown, the shift away from the wall was noted by critics as a material and dimensional breakthrough. It’s not that nobody had been working with fiber in innovative ways; it’s that Tawney did something different. Her works were very large, ceiling-hung works to be viewed in the round. They were looking to other sculptural forms. 

Unlike the precision of Tawney’s approach, Eva Hesse’s work demonstrates what postminimalists were doing with soft materials such as string—piling it, attaching it to a support, and letting it droop and tangle. As well, Hesse’s Ennead (1966)signals how artists were addressing the grid, but also dissolving its tyranny with controlled chaos. 

You speak a lot about the grid with regard to this exhibition. Can you explain that concept? 

The grid is central to 20th-century art. It is considered and deployed as a rationalizing, organizing device. The grid, you could say, imposes order upon disorder. And of course a loom is a device to interlace threads, and the perpendicular pattern that results can be considered a kind of structural grid. At first, artists working in fiber disrupted the loom grid, then, when they exhausted those possibilities, they moved off the loom entirely, to the pedestal and the floor.

Françoise Grossen told me that artists working in fiber were compelled to break the traditional rules of the material; for her, this meant breaking the rectangle of the wall hanging, the plane of the wall—not unlike other, more mainstream artists who challenged the grid. 

How is the exhibition organized? 

The exhibition will begin with two of Tawney’s elegant “woven forms.” Here, visitors are introduced to the first radical ruptures artists made with the material. As you move from room to room, you will be introduced to the significance of color, how artists used and abused the grid, the ways gravity imposes form upon soft material, how the feminist art movement took up fiber, and the ways emerging artists work with fiber now. Artists like Josh Faught, Haegue Yang, and Ernesto Neto can make their work today with a fine disregard for categories because of the work done by their predecessors. Finally, the most crucial thing to consider when viewing all the work is that this is primarily a sculpture exhibition, albeit a medium-specific one.

How does gravity play a role in these sculptures? 

It used to be that sculpture had to stand up of its own accord; sculpture was made from rigid materials and was displayed on pedestals. At a certain point this shifted as artists began experimenting with every kind of material, especially malleable ones like latex, felt, and wire. One of the most important things about these materials is their softness: they sag, they submit to gravity. In the 1960s, gravity became a factor in how artists were making their work. I’m thinking specifically of Jagoda Buic, Françoise Grossen, Sheila Hicks, and others whose works were hung, piled on the floor, and all in all, kind of soft and saggy. 

In the exhibition catalogue, you question whether fiber art was a movement. Was it?

This is a difficult question. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the energy around fiber as a material for sculpture really started to take off, it was often called the fiber art movement. But movements associated with a material tend to be sidelined by those associated with ideas; for example, concurrent with the fiber art movement is the heyday of postminimalism, minimalism, and feminist art. The fiber art movement fizzled, in part, because many of the artists associated with it didn’t want to be defined by a specific material—especially one so often limited to associations with craft. 

Are the contemporary artists using fiber now less marginalized than those in the 1960s and 1970s?

Absolutely. I’d argue these artists aren’t at all marginalized. Also, because artists such as Piotr Uklanski work with different materials, they are often not categorized by one medium. It’s a totally different art world than the one 40 years back, and yet the conversations are the same: Is it art? Is it craft? These are categories that have meaning, but also mean very little. The conversation is changing, but my pet theory is that the harder the material—ceramic and glass, for example—the faster the categories shift. Soft materials are still slow to be re-categorized. 

Lastly, what is the significance of Jean Stamsta’s Orange Twist (c. 1970)? 

In Orange Twist, Jean Stamsta wove a flat panel. It looks like a rug, or a blanket, but woven in is a sequence of apertures in which she inserted wooden dowels. With just a twist of the panel, the work moves from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional object. This seemingly simple move—a physical gesture—resonates with a larger conversation about sculpture. The way that fiber artists began to inhabit space in the 1960s and 1970s forced critics to talk about the work with art words, not craft words. With such moves, these artists fully took the room. 

This Q+A is excerpted from a longer discussion with Jenelle Porter. To hear more, ask about our in-gallery tours at the Holly and David Bruce Visitor Center.