23 November 2015


I recently had the opportunity to travel in the Washington, D.C. area. If Rome can be described as a place with a church on every street corner, then Washington, D.C. can be described as a place with a museum on every street corner. So many to explore! If holiday travel takes you near our nation's capital, may I suggest spending a couple hours at the National Museum of Women in the Arts?

I'll start with the premise you are using the trains, as why would anyone want to drive in Washington, D.C.? Disembark at Metro Center (red, blue, orange, or silver lines). Follow the signs to the 13th Street exit (it is at one end of the Red Line platform). Turn right as you exit onto 13th Street and walk two short blocks to the museum. You'll see the short end of the museum -- it is built on one of those funky wedge-shaped lots so ubiquitous in Washington, D.C. -- and need to walk around to the New York Avenue side to enter.

The museum building is a beautiful example of classical architecture. (You can tour it virtually here, as part of Google's Art Project.) The entrance area is fairly cosy, and you'll need to enter the gift shop to purchase your ticket ($10). Once past the main desk the interior opens into a great hall with chandeliers and the sorts of staircases you find in old movies populated by beautiful women making grand entrances in couture gowns. Yes, I like Beaux Arts architecture.

If you've read my résumé, then you'll notice near the bottom my master's thesis was "Women in Art: Documentation and Discussion of Their Inclusion in Art Historical Texts from 1900 to 1991." Walking through the permanent collection galleries here is like visiting old friends or meeting for the first time people you've only read about. But I'll surmise that maybe you don't know these names. May I suggest you head to the special exhibitions space and take in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today?

Pathmakers (on exhibit through 28 February 2016) focuses on the role of women in design. As such, it has a lot of decorative arts -- really awesome, fabulous decorative arts from mid-20th century to today. There is plenty of fiber art, although most of it is weaving rather than spinning, knitting, or crocheting. Alas, the museum does not permit photography of special exhibitions, so I'll have to give you a taste using their materials and plenty of links. I should state right up front that their press kit did not focus on the items that most interested me.

Ruth Asawa holding a “form-within-form” sculpture,
1952; © 2015 Imogen Cunningham Trust;
Photo by Imogen Cunningham

For knitters, Ruth Asawa's work is intriguing. The item in the exhibit is Untitled (S. 407) from about 1952, and is similar or identical to the one in the picture. The sculpture hangs from the ceiling, dangling. The copper wire mesh looks like drawing in three dimensions, drawing in the air. Because of the twisted stitches, I am not sure if this is twisted-stitch knitting, or sprang, or nålbinding, or something else. The sculpture is human-sized with forms inside of forms. Are the smaller forms caged in? Or are they safely protected from a dangerous world? The layered forms create lighter and darker areas similar to lines and cross-hatching in an India ink drawing or traditional engraving or etching.

Don't know what to do with old knit or crochet blankets? You may recall Marietta Museum of Art made them into a building-sized yarn installation. Michelle Grabner has come up with a different solution. (When you follow the link, look for the images that are untitled from 2014, mostly white, with enamel on panel.) She stretches the afghans across panel, then applies black spray paint. She removes the afghan, leaving a sort of negative print. Then she over paints most of the black areas using high gloss white enamel paint. The resulting images are geometric without being hard edged. They are somewhat ghostly, almost as if the blanket decayed into dust and left behind the marks on the canvas. The enamel adds subtle texture -- gloss versus matte as well as slightly raised (like a thin pebble) versus flat.

For knitters the real highlight is three works by Mary Walker Phillips. Wall hanging (the link takes you to an interactive image) from 1965 is a small black lace arrangement. It looks a little like a deconstructed shawl. I found Rocks and Rills from 1966 to be especially intriguing. (See a small image here, when it was in a previous exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.) The work includes double-knit pockets enclosing pebbles. There are also small bobbles or knot stitches, some lace, and a surprising number of horizontal chain stitches. I am not sure how the horizontal lines were made -- did she bind off and then pick up stitches? (Edit update: Creative Knitting: A New Art Form by Mary Walker Phillips explains how the horizontal lines are made. In the 2013 new & expanded edition, she calls it "Horizontal Stitch" and explains it on pages 74-75. She credits Trude Guermonprez with the innovation. Work a left-crossing 1 over 1 cable. Then put the last stitch on the right needle back on the left and repeat.) Unlike the first two hangings, which are smaller pieces about the size of easel paintings, For Paul Klee from 1963 is a large hanging on the scale of tapestry or history painting. It uses a lot of condo or triple (quadruple? quintuple?) wrapped stitches that I think are then twisted several times before being knit. The final design resembles weaving with its rectilinear grid, but also architectural elements such as an ironwork door.

Olga de Amaral, Hanging #57,
ca. 1957; Hand-spun wool,
87 x 43 in.;
Museum of Arts and Design;
Gift of the Dreyfus Foundation,
through the American Craft Council,
1989; Photo by Eva Heyd
If you are a spinner or weaver, there are several items worthy of your attention. Olga de Amaral's Hanging #57, ca. 1957, is made from handspun wool. The tapestry(?) weaving has multiple overlapping and intertwining layers. There is quite a bit of weaving by Dorothy Liebes, including swatches and samples illustrating her design process. I was particularly struck by some large-scale weaving involving shiny fibers such as Orlon and Fairtex or even aluminium. Polly Apfelbaum has a large-scale installation inspired by Marguerite Porter Davison's classic book of weaving patterns. And Hella Jongerius's work on the North Delegates' Lounge at the United Nations is also thoroughly represented, with a reproduction of part of the curtain and lots of woven samples and color swatches.

Before I end here, let me include a side note about The Textile Museum on the George Washington University campus. Right now they are running two exhibitions. The photography exhibit takes up two floors. The photographs of China from about 1870 will give you a broad sense of place — landscape, culture, and people from a variety of socio-economic classes. However, it only has a few (albeit spectacular) textiles on exhibit. The basement-level exhibit of paintings and textiles from mid-Asia were okay. I do not believe I saw any knit or crochet on display. The focus on photography and painting was disappointing to me. I plan to visit the museum another time, and perhaps will see objects that are more exciting to me. For this holiday season, if you want to see splendid textiles go to the National Museum of Women in the Arts first and then to The Textile Museum if time permits.

1 comment:

Molly Elkind said...

Thanks for this review of the Pathmakers show, Jolie. I hope to be in DC before next Feb. and will definitely check it out. NMWA is one of my favorites.