Needlework has been around for a very long time, but the idea that sewing and embroidery can be considered art is fairly new. Throughout history, textile art was seen as a lesser form of art compared to painting or sculpture. It was an appropriate hobby for women, but not something that belonged to a gallery. However oppressive, it also provided a space for creative exploration. It was this dual nature of sewing and embroidery that inspired feminist artists in the U.S. and U.K. to start expressing their political ideas through textile art in the 1970s and 1980s. Nowadays, the fabric works of great artists like Louise Bourgeois can be found in museums and galleries across the globe.
1. Textile Art of Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Few female artists have ever risen to the same level of international celebrity as Louise Bourgeois. Although there are several reasons for the lack of female artists in art history and even contemporary museums and galleries, the influence of Bourgeois on the wider art world is undeniable. With a career spanning seven decades and two continents, the French-born artist was one of the most prolific creative forces of her time. Her most famous works belong to what Rosalind Krauss dubbed the expanded field of sculpture, but she was also an accomplished painter, printmaker, and most importantly for us here, textile artist. Bourgeois is often associated with Surrealism, and she exhibited on several occasions with the Abstract Expressionists, but she was never officially a member of any movement and her artistic style was very much unique.
In her large-scale sculptures and installation art, Bourgeois experimented with various materials which were not considered artistic up until the second half of the twentieth century. Rubber, silicone, wool, and thread appear throughout Bourgeois’ oeuvre, which was heavily influenced by her early childhood experiences.
The artist was born in 1911 in Paris, France. Her parents owned a workshop for restoring antique tapestries, so Bourgeois had first-hand experience in textile work even though she at first went to study mathematics at the Sorbonne. By 1938, she had finished her education in art and opened her own gallery in Paris. The same year, she met her lifelong partner, art historian Robert Goldwater, and moved with him to New York, where her art career would continue to thrive.
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However, Louise Bourgeois’ memories of the time spent in her parents’ workshop, and their complex family relationships never stopped inspiring her works. Ideas that had been developed thanks to the discovery of psychoanalysis show in most of her works – notions of the subconscious, childhood sexuality, desire, tenderness, pain, motherhood, and death are prominent throughout her opus. The image of the spider, most famously depicted in the large-scale public sculpture Maman from 1999, was explained by Louise Bourgeois herself to be a depiction of her mother: clever, subtle, deliberate, and patient. This interplay between weaving and motherhood is also an important aspect of her textile works.
Having been in close contact with textile from early on, Louise Bourgeois felt an emotional connection to fabrics of different kinds, and sewing was a restorative, healing activity. She collected various scraps of textile throughout her life, eventually turning them into deeply intimate and at times autobiographical works of art. Textiles appear in her drawings, hand-sewn illustrated fabric books, and figurative sculptures. Whereas her two-dimensional textile art pieces were mainly abstract, geometric, and contemplative, her soft sculptures were very much organic and often even explicit in their relation to the body, sexuality, and reproduction.
By spending decades trying to deconstruct her own childhood, intimate life, and subconscious mind, Louise Bourgeois had a profound effect on a much grander scale – paving the way for generations of artists who would go on to explore not only different kinds of materials but also different kinds of subject matter in art. Although she was not a member of any group or movement, Louise Bourgeois was a pivotal figure in feminist art, textile art, and contemporary sculpture.
2. Anni Albers (1899-1994)
Born Annelise Fleischmann, Anni Albers was a German American textile artist and printmaker, one of the first ones to disrupt the usual binary between art and craft. As a young woman interested in painting, Albers was discouraged from pursuing art by Oskar Kokoshka, but in spite of this, she enrolled at the Bauhaus school in Weimar in 1922. At the time, the school wasn’t very liberal when it came to the art education of women, and Albers was prevented from joining the workshop she wanted with her husband Joseph Albers.
Initially uninterested in what she believed to be the overly feminine and simple workshop of weaving, Albers soon understood the full potential of this tactile art form. Textile art would become her main form of expression for four decades, and her works would end up paving the way for other textile artists to gain recognition and further explore the medium. Albers’ 1949 retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first show in that institution to be solely dedicated to a textile artist. Even her later printmaking practice was deeply influenced by the insights she gained from weaving, her abstract lithographs bearing an uncanny resemblance to the geometric patterns of tapestries.
Both Albers’ tapestry works and prints were inspired by Bauhaus and her proximity to artists like Paul Klee and Walter Gropius. With a delicate sense for texture and the haptic qualities of materials, Anni Albers incorporated natural and synthetic threads, metal, and plastic into her work, creating both large and small scale tapestries with geometrical patterns, high contrast, and often balanced symmetry. Her designs were carefully studied and sketched out in preparation for the work, and this attention to detail and sense of balance can be traced from her early textile works to her mature explorations of lithography and screenprinting.
3. Judith Scott (1943-2005)
The story of Judith and Joyce Scott is one of the most gripping stories in the art world. Born with Down Syndrome, the now internationally acclaimed sculptor Judith Scott was separated from her fraternal twin Joyce at the age of seven. Due to an undiagnosed loss of hearing in early childhood, the artist was labeled as uneducable and sent away from her family to a private care institution. As there was no deeper understanding of disability and mental health at the time, Judith Scott spent over three decades separated from her sister, deprived of any educational or aesthetic stimulation. In 1985, however, her sister Joyce became her legal guardian and decided to bring her to her home in California. Two years later, Judith was enrolled in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, where she eventually discovered her talent for fiber art.
Thread, wool, cloth, and found objects became a newly discovered language for Judith Scott, and she soon began creating elaborate large-scale fabric sculptures. The Art Center immediately recognized her talent and provided her the space and freedom to use all available materials for her colorful cocoon-like totems and large abstractions. As if finally having the means to express her thoughts and feelings, Judith Scott worked on her sculptures five days a week until the end of her life, producing a total of around 200 pieces. Her works can now be found in many museums and galleries around the world, associated with movements like outsider art or Art brut. The legacy of Judith Scott, however, has more profound implications for the art world in general, reasking some essential questions of who gets access to art and art-making.
4. Chiharu Shiota (1972)
Chiharu Shiota is a contemporary Japanese artist working in the fields of performance and installation art. She is most widely recognizable for her use of red and black thread in immersive installations. Signifying connections and human relationships, long lines of red thread are spun into webs and interwoven with various objects like doors, keys, dresses, books, or boats, creating abstract yet evocative spaces in gallery rooms and museums.
Born in Osaka, the Japanese artist studied in Kyoto, Canberra, and later Berlin, where she got a chance to work with and learn from the German installation artist Rebecca Horn, as well as performance art pioneer Marina Abramović. Shiota gained both public recognition and critical acclaim for her works already in the 2000s, but she rose to international fame after exhibiting for the Japanese pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015.
Filled with symbolism and subtle poetic meanings, Chiharu Shiota’s textile art pieces explore the topics of memory, emotion, intimacy, femininity, past, and heritage. Shiota’s largest solo show ever, The Soul Trembles, organized by the Mori Art Museum, is currently touring the world. The exhibition features some of her most accomplished works, like Uncertain Journey, In Silence, Reflection of Space and Time, and Connecting Small Memories. While her signature networks of threads play a role in each installation, every work deals with different qualities of the human experience, from the female body to the passage of time.
5. Sheila Hicks (1934)
Sheila Hicks is an American artist based between Paris, France, and New York City. She is best known for her large, brightly colored sculptural textiles, experimental tapestries, and innovative approach to weaving and fabric art. Much like Chiharu Shiota and Louise Bourgeois, Hicks’ artistic career was shaped by traveling to other parts of the world. Born in the U.S. in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash, she spent most of her childhood on the road, with her father in search of work. She became interested in weaving as a form of cultural expression during her years at Yale University, and eventually received a Fulbright scholarship to study ancient weaving techniques in Chile. She spent many years in both Chile and Mexico, learning from traditional textile craftsmen, and holding workshops of her own. To Hicks, weaving and textile art represent a universal language that transcends geographies and borders.
Gleaning traditional knowledge from different parts of the world, Sheila Hicks developed her own unique style, comprising bold colors, raw materials, and innovative approaches. Her early textile art pieces like Blue Letter (1959) were predominantly two-dimensional tapestries with flat surfaces of color and varying weaving techniques, while her later works became increasingly sculptural. Her colossal installation Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands exhibited in the 2017 Venice Biennale showed off both her experience as a traveler/textile anthropologist and an academic painter interested in color theory. Pillar of Inquiry (2013-2014) also pushed the boundaries between textile art, sculpture, and immersive installation, by juxtaposing soft, loose threads with the architectural elements of the museum building. Inspired by indigenous practices, her works are now present in collections of major museums from the U.S. to Europe and Asia.
6. Textile Art of El Anatsui (1944)
El Anatsui is a Ghanaian sculptor and printmaker based in Nigeria, most commonly associated with the artists of the Nsukka Group. Although not working directly with the same types of materials as other textile artists, El Anatsui incorporates sewing into his practice. The works that brought this African artist to the international public’s attention are his large-scale textile art projects such as tapestries/wall hangings made from aluminum bottle caps and similar metal particles bound together by copper wire.
In his practice, El Anatsui combines an interest in traditional African knowledge and crafts like weaving and woodcarving with Western traditions of abstract sculpture and printmaking. His bottle-top installations have been exhibited across the Western world in institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Venice Biennale, changing some of the misconceptions about African art and artists. Found and recycled materials have been present in his works since the 1990s, in an attempt to underline the cultural, economic, and environmental inequalities of contemporary society and its consumerist trajectory. They are also related to the history of Africa, European colonial expansion, and its consequences, from the slave trade to the appearance of rum in Africa. Despite the sturdy nature of the materials, the practice of sewing each element together creates flexible, colorful, and dynamic tapestries that can be exhibited in different circumstances and iterations. Works like Bleeding Takari II and Ink Splash (2007) have the same visual appearance of rippling fabric as if they were made of thread or wool.