Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus at the Art Institute of Chicago

Now on view at the Art Institute through February 17 is a significant exhibition outlining the pivotal role the Bauhaus played in the textile arts. The exhibition is succinctly contextualized to show viewers this markedly essential movement and its role in the medium of textiles.

Claire Zeisler. Free Standing Yellow, 1968. Gift of David Lawrence Fagen, Richard Rees Fagen, and Edward A. Fagen in memory of Mildred and Abel Fagen.

We spoke with Assistant Curator Erica Warren about the exhibition. “With 2019 marking the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, which artists, curators, and scholars are marking internationally, it is a good moment to think about the school, the artists impacted by it, and offer a story that might examine and/or expand extant narratives.” And the informative exhibition definitely tells a tale that is at once riveting as it is quiet and poetic. 

The Bauhaus began in 1919 and played a major role in the art historical canon for a range of media including design, painting, sculpture, and textiles. The Art Institute of Chicago has an impressive collection of work from the period and the museum’s Department of Textiles boasts an especially large representation of work from the Bauhaus. Warren explained, “The choices in the exhibition had to be strategic as there is no way I could include all Bauhaus-related/adjacent work. Rather, the way in which the objects speak to educational, institutional, and professional relationships among artists really guided the editing of the object checklist.” Warren continues, “The exhibition emphasizes conversations between artists and objects.” This conversation rolls seamlessly through the exhibition and is curated in a manner that properly guides a visitor through this important art period. 

Lenore Tawney. The Bride Has Entered, 1982. Gift of Lenore Tawney; restricted gift of the Textile Society, Joan G. Rosenberg, Mr. and Mrs. Richard J.L. Senior, Mrs. William G. Swartchild Jr., and Mrs. Theodore D. Tieken. © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

Comprising both large-scale works and smaller ones, the whole of the exhibition sways between the dramatic and the somber, the quiet and the gregarious. Starting with the Bauhaus weaving workshop to works dated from the 1980s and even works modified into the 21st century, the story is exquisitely stated through skillful curation and installation and it is highly intriguing. 

The story of the movement streams through the exhibition with texts in the artists’ own words, contextualizing the Bauhaus’ deep belief in experimentation with materials and techniques as well as the importance of collaboration and conceptual thinking. The aesthetics and ideas of the movement are laid out at an enjoyable and manageable pace for visitors as the galleries illustrate each artist’s drive to create, to experiment, to collaborate and to pay homage to fellow artists. 

Claire Zeisler’s Free Standing Yellow from 1968 is situated early in the show and introduces what will be many moments of crescendo. The yellows of the numerous fibers and the mossy-brown core utilized by the artist are earthly as the piece quotes a waterfall-like movement that transfixes a viewer. Vertical form is quite characteristic of the fiber artist and the fibers pour downward into a root-like formation that makes up a work that meditates on movement as it is rooted in stillness. Constructed with wool, jute, and macrame, the work has a heaviness as it stands with a visual lightness of being. 

The exhibition’s inclusion of quotations by the artists only adds to the contextualizing of the movement and the artists’ appreciation of the Bauhaus’ deep link with collaboration and a constant drive to evolve their ideas. Zeisler stated, “I always set out with an idea — even thick-witted I learned that. I learned that again from the marvelous Bauhaus here [in Chicago].” 

Ideas are at the root of the works within the Bauhaus and center the show. Positioned before the viewer, these are intense and profound ideas expressed in the works hanging on the gallery walls as well as the ones emerging from the floor or in those suspended from above. 

Lenore Tawney’s The Bride Has Entered from 1982 is a seminal instant in the exhibition and a definite highlight. The airy beauty within the cotton and linen materials carefully painted with a shy pink and glimmering gold leaf suggests a grand entrance of form and structure, as well as a conceptual nod to the veiled figure of a bride. In this work, mystery and a lovely quietude give visitors both a moment to breathe and to be astonished. The space to breathe is very much a part of this work and her other work as Tawney herself states, “All my work should be hung out from the wall, as space or breathing is part of it.”

Another work glistens in one of the galleries, drawing in guests to the exhibition. Yvonne Pacanovsky Bobrowicz’s Cosmic Series Como from 1989 was modified in 2017. Much like Tawney’s work, this one is suspended from above and cascades downward like wafts of golden hair. It has a smoky quality as it quietly cascades to the floor. The gold leaf incorporated with the linen lends to the magical and whispering quality akin to smoke or fog. 

Anni Albers. Study for Six Prayers: No. IV, 1965/66. Harriott A. Fox Fund. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Anni Albers piece, Study for Six Prayers: No. IX, illustrates the artist’s aesthetic and drive to straddle the tradition of the craft movement and fine art. Dark fibers emerge from the creamy beige and earthy background as a kind of trance, speaking to the work’s meditative quality. It is tight, textural, and sculptural even as it is a work that hangs on the gallery wall. There is a quality in this piece that reaches out to the viewer, inviting one’s own meditation and contemplation. 

Albers’ Black-White-Red very much shows a different side to the artist’s construction — a less fluid and more geometric and architectural movement. Here, too, is a play with a kind of optical illusion where its flat facade escapes from the wall and into the viewer’s space much like a work of architecture. 

Concluding with the vast crescendo of Zeisler’s Private Affair I, The Department of Textiles’ Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus at the Art Institute of Chicago is an essential exhibition highlighting critical moments in the textile arts within the movement and beyond. Within the galleries, visitors will get a reprieve from the cacophony of the world and a chance to engage with the Bauhaus and to be edified in truly wondrous ways.

Default image
Carrie McGath

Carrie McGath is a poet and art critic is who is currently at work on her second collection of poetry, The Luck of Anhedonia. She teaches writing and lives in the Logan Square neighborhood with her sassy tuxedo cat, Sophie. You can follow Carrie on Instagram and check out her website.