Pathmakers: craft, gender and (post?) modernism.

Exhibition Review of Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today
Museum of Arts and Design, New York.

By Carolina Arevalo

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Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today shows the work of women artists and designers in midcentury Modernism and their contemporary influences. In a patriarchal western context where men dominated painting, sculpture, and architecture, women found in craft­–particularly in textiles and ceramics, a path to innovate. The exhibition includes more than 100 works of Sheila Hicks, Ruth Asawa, Dorothy Liebes, Eva Zeisel, Lenore Tawney, Edith Heath, among others. These pioneers experiment with different resources from clay and fiber to industrialized and postwar materials, –transcending boundaries of craft, art and design to legitimatize their practice.

Textiles occupy are a large part of the exhibition; maybe they have been invariably employed to evoke home. Embroidery or woven textiles were not seen as art, but as an expression of femininity, and categorized as craft. The exhibition attempt to show how these artists and designers had transformed these categorizations to legitimate their professional practice. In this regard, craft functioned as a strategy in the creation of functional objects that enables women as owners of a subtle conciliating skill as facilitators of commune and comfort.[1]Through the understanding of structure and material experimentation women artist and designers reshape modernism in the ephemeral space of panels, curtains, screens and hangings.

Sheila Hicks’ textile panel for Ford Foundation incarnates this strategy. Her work is warm and elegant: she skillfully embroiders golden circles that create deep overlapping threads. As the exhibition announces, her panels provide “a warm, subtle patterns that would provide a comfortable, welcoming environment without distracting from the activities going on in the two spaces.”[2] In the midcentury context women were not largely welcome in architecture and industrial design as practitioners, but they brought texture, color and nature to their hard-edged modernist spaces. Her role was to humanize and naturalize these inhabitable spaces.

Introducing craft aesthetics in postwar industries is reflected in the work of Dorothy Liebes. She not only achieves richness in variety by simple textile structures, but she also was involved with chemistry and management. DuPont hired her to promote synthetic fabrics, re-mean postwar materials and change the company’s image and associations. Mixing synthetic materials, she constructed her persona in the umbrella of hand weaving. The liaison of handicraft to mass production was an essential social questions as weavers adopted innovative synthetics, especially those innovated by DuPont, while ceramic artists debated the symbolic and visual value of handwork.

UN Delegates Lounge, 2013. Photo by Frank Oudeman, courtesy of Jongeriouslab

In 1952 the UN headquarters were built in New York City, in a mid century modernist, extremely clean and austere modern line. Liebes was commissioned to create a textile panel for the UN delegates dining lounge, an interior space for dialogue, diplomacy and even friendship. The exhibition lends a wonderful opportunity to closely see this design; through the exquisite mix of opaque and bright fibers –remaining from cooper chenille to raw natural fibers, she softened the interior giving the chance to transition between an open space to a divided intimate space.

Women also contributed to Modernism in aesthetics terms. The work of Ruth Asawa in her four hanging sculptures pushed common materials beyond their material associations by weaving wire. As Griselda Pollock explains women’s cultural codes are produced within the context of patriarchy: “because of the economic, social, and ideological effects of sexual differentiation in a western, patriarchal culture, women have spoken and acted from a different place within that society and culture.”[3] Crochet, as other textile traditions, has been marginalized as craft. Asawa plays juxtaposing the gendered nature of materials in contrast to technique, destabilizing the boundaries between art and craft and hierarchy of value and skill based on sex. Moreover, expanding two-dimensional structures of wire and shadows she created ambiguous and translucent three-dimensional spaces. Introducing industrialized materials and modern associations of textiles with femininity and the domestic realm were modified as distinctive and culturally valuable features of an artistic legacy specific to women.[4]In this regard, Cheryl Buckley explains that “women are considered to possess sex-specific skills that determined their design abilities: they are apparently dexterous, decorative, and meticulous. These skills means that women are considered naturally suited to certain areas of design production, namely the so-called decorative arts, including such work as jewelry, embroidery, graphic illustration, weaving, knitting, pottery, and dressmaking.”[5]

Imogen Cunningham, Ruth Asawa at Work with Children, ca. 1957. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The textile work of different women served to re-signify postwar associations with materials. In the postwar period, many companies were looking for new uses for their production, as aluminum and plywood, which had an extensive military use during World War II. Nonetheless, collaborations with industry were considered heights of American artistic achievement.[6] The Aluminum Company of America commissioned Marianne Strengell to designed an aluminum textile with the softness and warmth of hand-woven textiles, bringing this industrial material into the home market. Her expertise was evidenced challenging the difficulty of use of different fibers, textures and techniques by developing beautiful designs and later working with important figures as the architect Eero Saarinen.

As Strengell, Dorothy Liebes and Anni Albers translated custom-designed prototypes into fabrics for large-scale production, which were characterized by innovative use of materials and were commissioned by architects who “incorporated them into airplanes, theaters and hotels, influencing the aesthetics of everyday life.”[7]

Rarely women designers were able to further their careers without strategically partnering with men, and usually their creations were subsumed under the name of partner, architect or commissioner, that many times were husbands and fathers. Even though it is not remarked, the highlights of the international ouvre also worked with their husbands; Anni Albers with Josef Albers and Rut Bryck with Tapio Wirkkala.

Anni Albers taught at Bauhaus and later at Cranbrook, as Marianne Strengell and Maija Grotell. Their students included Takaezu, de Amaral and Parrott. The engagement of works by mentors, apprentices and peers underlines the relations that influenced and sustained these artists, designers and their work. The exhibition addresses the ways in which modern European ideals were translated into American aesthetic language particularly at Black Mountain College and Cranbrook Academy.

It is possible to say that after the Bauhaus Exhibition in 1932 at the Modern Museum of Art, Modernism was installed as the ideal style in America. Modernism was based on dichotomies or polarities like progression/backwardness, positive/negative, emptiness/fullness, abstract/figurative, functionality/ornament, interior/exterior, and also masculine/feminine. The universal modern ideal was rational, healthy, educated, light and male.

The wave of immigration from Europe in the first half of the twentieth century brought the conviction that craft could serve as a pathway to modernist innovation. European émigrés, particularly first generation Bauhaus trained Anni Albers and Maija Grotell, are highlighted within the exhibition for their role as facto leaders, promoting modern ideals and using craft as a fresh new way to approach design.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that even in the Bauhaus –with its universal modern ideal, gender distinctions and division of labor-were made in the actual workshop structure usually relegating women to textiles, but ironically these are the works that nowadays are more recognized, exhibited and recalled.

Jennifer Scalan, curator of the exhibition explains: “We wanted to take a tighter focus, looking particularly at post–World War II modernism, an era particularly associated with men in both art and design. We expanded beyond painting, sculpture, furniture, and architecture – fields dominated by men – to include textiles, ceramics, and metals, areas where women were able to professionalize as teachers, artists, and designers.”[8]


Anni Albers’ textile patterns suggest the searching for non-western inspiration connecting to Marie Chino and Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s work in their more instrumental view of Native American culture. The intellectual ambition and technique of the “ancient” or “native” weaving were not only relevant but also immediately applicable to contemporary modernist practice.

In the same aim but in a different medium, Margaret Tafoya’s Native American vessels revive Pueblo pottery traditions embracing the purity of lines and the solemnity of the burnished black surfaces. Expanding its dimensions in smooth forms, her hybrid of ceramic and sculpture established a straight resonance with modernism. These ethnic-historic contributions are complemented with the clay vessel-sculptures of the contemporary British ceramicist Magdelane Odundo (exhibit in the contemporary floor).

Also, the ceramist Eva Zeisel created functional ceramics with soft organic forms that had an extensive influence through mass production, including tableware, glassware and pottery, which are still sold nationally and internationally today. Zeisel’s aesthetic has a lot to do with human body, human use and comfortable forms to live with. Her Belly bottom divider reflects this principle whereas the gesture of the hand was central even she used industrial and mass-produced processes.

Like Zeisel, Edith Heath became very popular in San Francisco and set with her husband a factory, which enabled them to spread their products in the community. In her approach to material as a dimension of modernism, she used glazes that kept sparkles, and the clay body. Her work endows objects with an organic and softer quality as a counter point of the rigidity of modernism.

Marguerite Wildenhain, who also studied at the Bauhaus, proposed a modern attitude to ceramics maintaining the human body approach. The Tea service celebrates clay as a versatile material in a synesthetic proposal. Wildenhain glazed only the surface that holds the liquid, whereas the exteriors were left unglazed, in an attempt to feel the rough surface when the pieces are tactilely held and smooth when drinking. Through humanized glazed stoneware planes the provocative twist handler suggests the body gesture. In her work, every element was considered for its own purpose, embracing the functionality of its design, but maintaining a craft aesthetic with raw colors that reminds nature, asymmetry and emphasis on traditional techniques.

Toshiko Takaezu’s ceramic vessels distanced from function to a personal expression were the vessels delimitate an inaccessible interior space. The interest is in the gesture and the approach is closer to abstract expressionism, still performed as a Japanese-American craft.

The exhibition also includes correspondences between women designing in Scandinavia and the United States in the work of designers such as Rut Bryk, Vuokko Nurmesniemi and Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe. Notably, the work of Rut Bryk can be condensed as abstract ceramic compositions inspired by the folk art of India and southeastern Europe. The use of reliefs and elemental color combinations embraced the modern geometrics in a different and more intimate scale.

The contemporary influence and legacy that these mid-century pioneers and their works have had on contemporary women artists and designers is evidenced through the fourth floor section of the exhibition. This section includes works of Polly Apfelbaum, Vivian Beer, Front Design, Christine McHorse, Michelle Grabner, Hella Jongerius, Gabriel A. Maher, Magdalene Odundo, and Anne Wilson.


Here, Pathmakers provide a unique opportunity to see the UN Delegate’s Lounge Panel by Hella Jongerius. Her work is been described as soft and her designs include “objects that contain details, layerness of decoration, tactility, functionality in a modern sense,”[9] she explained. The exhibition includes a replica of the curtain of ceramic beads that covers the two-story window at the west end of the space. Also give visual cues of craft in the blue chair and green sofa with its buttons. Even the exhibition is chronologically organized; it would be priceless to see this piece in juxtaposition with Sheila Hicks’ Textile Panel for the same building.

The scale of the works, the proximity permitted to them and the carefully light designing makes the exhibition design one of the strength of it. Probably because of their fragility some objects are displayed in beautiful jewel-cases display. The labels are informative and provide an effective background. Also, the inclusion of photographs of the process or of the objects in context are a brilliant detail.

Pathmakers provides a sensual approach in which women artists and designer transformed traditional and modern materials to produce sense, meaning and content. According to Parker, we can still consider all these techniques and works as art because they are a cultural practice involving iconography, style and social function. Even the exhibition maintains a gender distinction based on sex, it served to represent women in art and design history. Here, representation mean as a term that shows –or distort what is consider true of women categorization. Women are not only regulated but defined, constituted and reproduced by their own structures and social institutions.[10]

[1] Auther, Elissa. String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 100.

[2] Exhibition label.

[3] Parker, Rozsika, and Griselda Pollock. Old Mistresses Women, Art and Ideology (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 49.

[4] Auther, 95.

[5] Buckley, Cheryl. 1986. “Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design”. Design Issues. 3, no. 2: 5.

[6] Museum of Arts and Design, “Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today” Exhibition, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Exhibition’s Audio guide.

[10] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2015), 46.

Septiembre 7, 2015

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