It's hard not to be impressed by Goshka Macuga's tapestries on view at The New Museum (on view through June 26, 2016). The scale, detail, and sophisticated production are impressive. -- literally and figuratively. Macuga did not weave these hangings herself; they were produced by the Belgian weaving firm Flanders Tapestries.
My husband and I argued over the artist's lack of personal craftsmanship, however there is a long history of artists designing (but not making) tapestries: Raphael (16th century), Edward Burne-Jones (1890s), Fernand Leger (1920s), Joan Miró (1930s), Henri Matisse (mid-century), Alexander Calder (1960s) plus many others. Today, Magnolia Editions in Oakland, Ca produces Jacquard tapestries for artists such as Chuck Close and Alex Katz.
Tapestries have been woven for thousands years all over the world. In Europe during the Middle Ages, weaving became a highly respected artistic medium. Tapestries flourished due to the Church's patronage. And for the wealthy, a tapestry was one of the most prestigious items one could own. However, during the Renaissance, oil painting started to displace tapestry as an elite form of artistic creation. The notion of the individual artist was gaining standing over the labor of craftsmanship, creating a hierarchical division between tapestry weaving and painting. (And religious persecution disrupted leading centers of high-quality production dominated by the workshops in Brussels, dispersing a pool of highly talented weavers.)
The decline of tapestry persisted until the end of the 19th century when it enjoyed a renewed attention due to the Arts and Crafts Movement helping to revive interest in traditional craft processes, utilitarian artistic production, and the link of artists with industry. With industrial, automated processes on the rise, tapestry became a means to challenge the hierarchical position of painting and elevate materials that were seen as humble or everyday. In 1915, Jean (Hans) Arp exhibited a series of tapestries, noting in the exhibition catalogue that:
“These works … keep a hostile distance from egotism. They are hatred of the immodesty of human baseness, hatred of images, of paintings." 1.Arp was strongly anti-elitist and chose the medium of tapestry very deliberately. “Arp had an idealized view of the anonymous pre-Renaissance artist, for whom the division between applied and fine art was irrelevant.” 2. Yet despite his call for egalitarianism, the weavers weren't named; only Arp was.
Hans Arp, Untitled (Diagonal Composition-Crucifixion), 1915. Private collection.
But weavers weren't consistently invisible actors in the production of art tapestries. 3. The author Jean Lipman explains in Calder's Universe that while Calder designed the cartoons for his tapestries and had wool dyed to his specification, the weavings themselves were true cooperative ventures.
"... both Calder's signature and the weaver's trademark are woven into the fabric ...The tapestry medium...is an example of the successful collaboration with skilled craftsmen that has characterized Calder's later years ...The weaver follows Calder's forms exactly but improvises to vary the weaves and textures in a free interpretation of the overall design. The tapestries are fresh works of art in their own right, blending the inventiveness of the artist with that of the weavers." 4.
So back to Goshka. Useing appropriation to warp and weave histories together, she arranges disparate elements to form a new narrative. To argue whether an artist should make every work themselves seems outdated and outmoded in this post-Duchampian era. Of course artists don't have to make their own work anymore! You think Tara Donovan, Jeff Koons, or Tom Sachs make their own artworks? Of course not. That being said, it wasn't easy to track down the name of the weaving studio that made Goshka's magnificent pieces, and that isn't right. The tapestry manufactories of the past are renowned now (Arras, Aubusson, Beauvais, Bruges, Felletin, Gobelins, Oudenaarde). Today's manufacturers also deserve credit, for these massive tapestries are a collaborative feat!
1. Eric Robertson, Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor, Yale University Press; 1st ed edition (2006), page 33
2. Bibiana Obler, Intimate Collaborations: Kandinsky and Münter, Arp and Taeuber, Yale University Press (2014), page 126.
3. A number of the Soho Tapestry Weavers were named (18th century).
4. Jean Lipman, Calder’s Universe, exhibition catalogue, New York: Viking Press in cooperation with the Whitney Museum of American Art (1976), page 157.