It’s not a solo exhibition – yet. 😉 But you may remember a couple of years ago that I took part in an exhibition organised by South London Women Artists (SLWA), entitled Pillow Talk. It was a collaboration with the Women’s Art Library (WAL) and took the form of a pop-up reading lounge in a geodesic dome furnished with a selection of readings, cuttings and ephemera from the WAL collection and art pillows by SLWA artists as seating.
My contribution, a felt snail pillow, was inspired by the idea of a nomadic library, carrying information about the ambitions, stories and histories of women artists around the country.
Now the exhibition (and snail) has reached Tate Modern. As part of a homage to the centenary of women getting the vote in February 1918, Pillow Talk will form part of the Uniqlo Tate Late event on Friday 23 February, 6-10pm.
For this event, the pillows will be laid out on the floor in the shape of the female symbol where visitors will be invited to sit, read and have conversations. At its heart will be a mobile library full of publications, catalogues, magazines and ephemera about women artists.
We’ll be on Level 2 in the Blavatnik Building – hope to see you there!
There’s a wonderful exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work at Tate Modern at the moment. She is best known for her flower paintings, which are indeed wonderful – you can almost feel the blossoms unfurling before your eyes, the strong lines offset by gorgeously subtle colour gradations.
(Interestingly, O’Keeffe always denied the interpretation that her flowers were representations of the female body. This idea came from her husband, photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, who tellingly wrote: “Woman feels the World differently than Man feels it….The Woman receives the World through her Womb. That is her deepest feeling. Mind comes second.” OK, this was written in 1919, but some might say that attitudes towards women artists (or indeed women in general) haven’t changed much since then. 🙂 )
But I digress. One of the new discoveries for me in this exhibition was her charcoal work. Two early pieces, Special No 9 (1915) and No 15 Special (1916-17) seemed to glow on the wall, while her Eagle Claw and Bean Necklace from 1934 just blew me away with its precision.
There are lots of other great works, but in the last room Sky Above the Clouds III (1963) made me think of ombre indigo, which inspired me to try making a nuno felt piece.
I started by making a small sample using ombre indigo dyed cotton scrim topped with natural merino. After making this I wondered how it would look in reverse, so I made another sample with the scrim on top.
I then did a small straw poll on Twitter and Instagram, asking people which version they preferred. As so often happens, opinion was divided! There was probably a small majority in favour of scrim on top – but then one person said that they liked them both and couldn’t I join them together?
So after a bit of re-engineering, here is the final work in progress.
On a larger scale in a portrait format I didn’t think the elliptical shapes would work, so I went for a repeating grid of circles instead, despite misgivings about being able to make them regular enough.
I also added some white tussah silk to the plain white circles for a bit of extra texture, which you can just about see in the detail shot below.
Calder was an innovator from the off. Although his mother was a painter and his father was a sculptor, he initially trained as an engineer before attending evening classes in drawing. The exhibition opens with displays of his wonderful wire sculptures, which use a linear substance to describe volume. In his circus figures a gentle arc evokes a pectoral muscle, while squiggles, spirals and coils become genitals, pubic hair and breasts.
The rangy tension of a leopard becomes a series of tight coils, while an elephant sits more solidly on four hollow wire legs.
Even at this stage, Calder was fascinated by the idea of movement in sculpture – Goldfish Bowl, the first piece in the exhibition, included a small wire crank that, when turned, caused the fish to wriggle from side to side.
Unfortunately, for conservation reasons, none of the motorised sculptures in the exhibition move, so it’s worth investing in the audio guide, which contains footage of some of the pieces in action.
Calder also captured portraits in wire of several artists friends, including Léger and Miró. But it was a visit to the studio of abstract artist Piet Mondrian in 1930 that he described as “the shock that converted me…like the baby being slapped to make its lungs start working”.
After Mondrian disagreed with his suggestion to make the geometric elements move about, Calder started experimenting with his own abstract sculpture, suspending spheres and other shapes on wires to allow free movement.
Other artists of this period, including the Cubists and Futurists, were attempting to convey the feeling of movement in their work. Calder drew on his engineering background to make it a reality, installing small motors to “control the thing like the choreography in a ballet”, as in Black Frame, below.
He even went on to make real stage sets for Martha Graham and Erik Satie, but felt frustrated about the lack of total control and that his efforts were relegated to the status of props.
In 1938 he took part in the New York World’s Fair, creating three maquettes for “ballet objects”, consisting of revolving elements creating a choreographed movement.
In the 1950s, Calder made a connection between his work and how the universe worked: “The idea of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities…some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.” Ironically, much of his work in this room consists of elements held in fixed positions by steel wires.
One of the exceptions is A Universe, in which red and white balls originally moved along wires – apparently Albert Einstein stood watching it for 40 minutes when it was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
By contrast, room 9 brings together a stunning collection of Calder’s mobiles. After he moved to an old farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, the forms became more organic and less geometric in form. Calder saw the shadows cast by the mobiles as part of the work, and the way they have been hung and lit in this room is particularly striking.
The following room features mobiles incorporating small gongs, which rely on the random movement to produce sounds. As visitors are not permitted to touch or blow on the mobiles, you have to hope that the air conditioning will move them in the right way to make music. 🙂
The exhibition finishes with spectacular 3.5m Black Widow sculpture, loaned abroad for the first time by the Institute of Architects of Brazil in São Paulo.
Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture runs at Tate Modern until 3 April 2016.
Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) was an artist who broke with convention in all sorts of ways. A leading figure of the Paris avant-garde, she rejected the hierarchy that placed painting above other art forms, working with fashion and textiles, set design and interior decoration, architecture and advertising. The current exhibition at Tate Modern explores this beautifully.
Her early figurative paintings show influences from Gauguin and German expressionists such as Ernst Kirchner. Her first abstract work (1911) was actually a textile – a patchwork cradle cover for her son Charlie. Combining traditional Russian peasant techniques with modernist abstract design, this piece seems to have marked a turning point.
Together with her husband Robert, whom she had married in 1910, she developed the theory of simultaneous colour contrasts, which they called simultanism. Her paintings from this period show her moving from figuration towards abstraction: Le Bal Bullier represents embracing tango dancers as rhythmic repetitive swirls of colour and light.
When the First World War broke out, the Delaunays moved to Spain and Portugal. In 1917 Sonia decided to focus on the applied arts, partly because the Bolshevik revolution meant that she no longer received money from her family in Russia. A year later she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, selling fashion, accessories and home furnishings. It was a huge success, and when they returned to Paris in 1921 she continued to produce fabric designs, which she showcased at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts.
Sonia employed a team of Russian women to manufacture, knit and embroider her products, but she kept her hand in. For example, she invented an embroidery stitch called point du jour, which emphasised the surface movement in her zigzag designs.
For textile enthusiasts (and maybe others), room 6 is the highlight of this exhibition. The space is filled with fabric swatches, designs and an extraordinary range of garments, including embroidered shoes, knitted bathing suits. Not all of them pop with colour – I particularly liked a simple blue and white linen day coat.
What I found interesting is that while Sonia’s abstract paintings are full of circles and curves, her textile designs have more geometric blocks and zigzags. I wondered if this was related to the practicality of producing curved patterns when knitting or embroidering, but who knows?
The economic crash of 1929 led Sonia to close her business, and she returned to painting. She and Robert were invited to contribute to the 1937 Paris Exhibition, and three of the murals she created for the Palais de l’Air are on show here. As well as her distinctive combinations of vibrant colours, they manage to incorporate quite technical drawings of machine and engine parts, a propeller and instrument panel.
Robert Delaunay died in 1941, but Sonia continued to work, often revisiting old themes in new media, including gouache, tapestry and even mosaic. She died in Paris at the age of 94.
Sonia Delaunay runs at Tate Modern until 9 August 2015.
Yesterday I visited Tate Modern to see the Richard Tuttle installation I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language before it closes on 6 April.
Well, I don’t know. I didn’t get it. The scale is impressive, the colours were gorgeous (the fabric was provided by an Indian textile mill), but it left me cold.
Much more interesting was work by an artist new to me, Nicholas Hlobo. This South African artist combines paper, rubber and stitch in beautiful, tactile pieces. He uses rubber from inner tubes and satin ribbon to bring together masculine industrialisation and feminine domesticity. The suture stitches also bring to mind surgery and internal organs.
There are also some other interesting pieces in the same Energy and Process section on level 4. Chen Zhen’s Cocon du Vide sculpture is a hollow chrysalis-like form made of rosary and abacus beads, resembling a figure bent over in prayer.
In a section entitled Homeworkers, the work of three female artists use materials and techniques traditionally associated with feminine craft and the domestic sphere to make political points.
Margaret Harrison’s Homeworkers is a banner-like canvas highlighting the manual labour involved in piecework and the money paid.
The Pikes by Annette Messager manages to make stuffed heads and toys made out of old tights look startlingly creepy.
And Geta Brǎtescu’s embroidered panels feature different versions of the same machine-stitched motif to represent the character of Medea, who took revenge on her husband Jason by sending his new bride a poisoned dress.
The Arte Povera and Anti-Form section features artists who used everyday materials in their works to upset ideas about how art should be created and displayed.
Jannis Kounellis’s untitled piece of uncarded wool displayed on a wooden frame had visceral appeal, especially as some of the wool was dyed blue (which could have been indigo!).
Godret Stone by Korean artist Seung-Taek Lee features the stones used in traditional Korean weaving.
Finally, I had a look at the temporary exhibition Louise Bourgeois: Works on Paper. I loved the organic forms of her etchings, but the exhibition also includes a couple of her fabric books.
Ode à la Bièvre has been deconstructed, with each page displayed in a separate frame. The varied techniques include lithograph printing and dye on fabric as well as abstract drawings patched together from her fabric stash, including napkins from her bridal trousseau. One page (last one on the second row down) looks like shibori. 🙂