Pattern and Restoration

By Slegelaub, Seth | Artforum International, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Pattern and Restoration


Slegelaub, Seth, Artforum International


TEXTILES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN important to me, and for a very brief stint in 1.9641 even showed small Caucasian rugs in my gallery on Fifty-Sixth Street. I closed that space in 1966, realizing that I wasn't ready to show the old and the new together. By then, I was beginning to concentrate on what's now known as Conceptual art, planning group shows as an independent curator, so other interests were put on the back burner for the time being. For many years, I had been an autodidact, collecting books on textiles to learn about their history, and when I left New York for Paris in 1972, I loaned them to Gordon Bailey Washburn (then director of the Asia House Gallery, which didn't have a textile or rug collection at the time). It wasn't until the early 1980s, while I was living in France, that I really started to get involved again with that library and my collection. I went back to buying books, with the primary goal being to develop the largest private library in the world on the history of textiles, since one didn't really exist yet. After a while, the Stichting Egress Foundation created a website to host all of this bibliographic information (a principal concern for my projects is that they must be open-access and free--one should never have to log in).

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I also started to collect textiles more seriously in the 1980s, yet I never really had the money or the time, so it was a slower process than sourcing books. I was mostly buying from markets, dealers, and auctions. Textiles were, and still are to some degree, our most undervalued cultural product. The problem with buying them is not finding them at the right price; it's more about finding them at all, since so many had been considered mere rags.

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A number of things led my interest back to textiles; for one, they belong to a technical, highly specialized world--one that's not nearly as appreciated, by institutions or by the general public, as it should be. I was drawn to the idea of these very beautiful objects being so deeply wedded to economic history. The textile industry has been key to the development of many cultures--when it took root in thirteenth century Flanders, particularly in Ghent and Bruges, it was, in effect, perhaps the first capitalist, industrialized trade. I was intrigued by this specific relationship between beauty and commerce, but I was also struck by the fact that, unlike artmaking, the production of textiles is a social activity--it is always a collective endeavor.

The history of textiles is teeming with odd and funny stories. There's Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, for instance, and the punch-card technology he invented for it, which went on to influence IBM. The historian James Essinger has written about how Babbage's computing device (designed in 1837) was actually based on Joseph Marie Jacquard's looms and their system of punch cards instructing the machine how to design or how to weave. Before that invention in 1801, an underpaid kid--a "draw boy"--would have to sit there plucking and pulling the strings, as the weaver would make the design. With extremely fine silk, which became popular in the seventeenth century, you're talking about thousands upon thousands of strands of silk going into a yard's worth of cloth. So Jacquard's technology was very important, not just to the history of textiles but also to design and technology, not to mention labor,

The few great textile collections housed in major museums are basically study collections, meaning that they only have certain things in drawers, and visitors can come view them by appointment. Those collections are by no means comprehensive--they are mostly built from special donations and gifts. The rare museum that does have a textile gallery has to rotate its objects every few months so that they aren't exposed to too much light. Obviously, textiles are extremely light sensitive and will lose their colors unless they're carefully protected. …

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