The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art reveals the richness of tapestry as modern art form.
When Andreas Bechtler established the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art to share his family’s collection of mid-century modern art with his Charlotte, N.C., community, he created an institution that boasts an impressive, highly varied, and personal selection of works by some of the 20th century’s greatest creators. Among these are a collection of rather unusual artworks: tapestries by highly significant artists who are generally not associated with textiles, including Alexander Calder, Diego Giacometti, Fernand Léger, Roy Lichtenstein, Le Corbusier, and Pablo Picasso.
This fascinating collection of pieces is what inspired the Bechtler Museum to mount the exhibition “Nomadic Murals: Tapestries of the Modern Era.” John Boyer, the president and CEO of the Bechtler Museum, says, “We have eight spectacular pieces in our collection, and we thought it would be helpful to put our pieces in a larger context, not only of other tapestries by the same artists but exploring even farther. Who among their peers might also have been exploring the potential of tapestries?”
This question led the museum’s curators to many other significant painters, sculptors, and designers who also ventured into the world of tapestry—among them Joan Miró, Victor Vasarely, and Charlotte-born African-American artist Romare Bearden. All together, the show includes more than 30 works spanning 1930 to today. “We tend to think of so many modern figures as working only in the medium for which they’re most broadly known,” says Boyer, “Giacometti as a sculptor, Picasso as a painter. But it’s important to see their expressions in as many media as we can.”
One interesting element of the show is that many of the works on display were not expressly designed to be tapestries, but rather began as paintings or drawings. A tapestry of Picasso’s famous L’Acrobate is a perfect example. In this case, the tapestry was one of several commissioned by art patron Nelson Rockefeller, according to Boyer. Working closely with Picasso, Rockefeller commissioned a long-established weaving studio in the South of France to create tapestry versions of a few of Picasso’s paintings and drawings. The studio would weave three of each design: one for Rockefeller, one for Picasso, and the last to be kept by the studio.
“So here you have two of the most important figures in the trajectory of Modernism—one on the artistic side, and one on the side of patronage—committing themselves to the importance of this medium,” Boyer says. “For Picasso, we come to understand his interest in another material and how that helped give expression to his vision, as was the case with his printmaking and ceramic work. So the Picasso pieces in particular are illuminating when it comes to the breadth of appetite that so many Modernists had in their willingness to explore a wider variety of media.”
Other artists, particularly Le Corbusier, made designs specifically for tapestries. Le Corbusier was emblematic of the artists who were born as the Arts and Crafts movement was in full swing, near the end of the 19th century. Part of that movement’s influence was a kind of agnosticism toward different types of art—artists could be painters, furniture designers, and draughtsmen, because all of those disciplines were, simply, art. “This generation didn’t really see the same kind of separation between media that the rest of us do,” Boyer says. “They didn’t see those boundaries. This show is an expression of that.”
One of the more exquisite pieces in the show is Roy Lichtenstein’s Modern Tapestry (1968). This was a piece the artist designed specifically as a tapestry; however, at the same time, Lichtenstein was working on a series of paintings called Modern Paintings. Many of the motifs from that series are seen in Modern Tapestry. Another work from that same year is Frank Stella’s Sinjerli Variations. Featuring two joined half-circles in green, blue, black, and yellow, the piece is lush and vibrant, and it was designed to be a tapestry. “Stella was very moved by the tactile qualities of tapestry,” says Boyer. “When he would move from one color to another in his paintings, there’s no opportunity to feel that transition or to feel the role of line in the composition. He loved that tactile quality—he felt it more clearly conveyed what he was trying to do with color than a painting could.”
Moving into the contemporary period, “Nomadic Murals” features pieces by Kiki Smith, Robert Motherwell, and April Gornik. These tapestries represent yet another dimension of the art form: the collaboration between artist and weaving studio, in these cases, Magnolia Editions. While earlier artists—and many contemporary artists, too—had their tapestries created on traditional looms, artists who work with Magnolia choose to have their pieces woven on cutting-edge, computerized looms that capture the most minute details of the artist’s work. This creates pieces with incredible clarity and almost photographic detail.
“Nomadic Murals” includes a remarkable piece by Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson, …..they wondered what to do…for those who bear/bare witness. Patterson’s work is not a typical woven tapestry but instead a highly handcrafted mixed media piece that includes glitter, pins, fabric, wallpaper, and other materials. “She produces pieces that are breathtaking in scale and color—more like installations than tapestries,” Boyer says. “We’re so very happy to have one of her pieces in the exhibition. It takes you rather full circle—we have the works that Picasso would do in the South of France, which tied all the way back to the Renaissance, right up to Ebony’s work, which is very much about life today in the islands.”
Boyer’s hope for the exhibition is that it allows visitors to gain a more complete and complex understanding not only of tapestry as an art form but of the artists whose work is included. “Take Picasso,” he says. “We understand him as a painter the more we understand his drawings. We understand his drawing the more we understand his printmaking.” Who can say what new aspects of these artists’ work visitors will discover by examining their tapestries?
By Elizabeth Pandolfi