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Excerpted from Gloria F. Ross and Modern Tapestry, 2010, copyrighted by the Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

In knowing both the artist and the artisan, I have been able to develop a true collaboration in my GFR Tapestries.” —Gloria F. Ross[1]

Gloria Ross 1970

Gloria Ross in her New York studio, 1970

Gloria Frankenthaler Ross (1923–98) combined modern American and European art with traditional European and American weaving to orchestrate expressive tapestries. [2] During her career of thirty-four years based in New York, she worked with twenty-eight well-known American and French artists to translate their abstract and figurative imagery into the textile medium. . . .

As an intermediary and catalyst—akin to a musical conductor, film producer, print publisher, or book editor—she forged a distinctive identity as tapestry éditeur, producing tapestries by coordinating the efforts of traditional artisans and contemporary artists. In the evolution of her career she engaged closely with several dozen highly accomplished weavers in France, Scotland, and the United States, including Native American weavers of the American Southwest. . . .

Tapestry weaving often multiplies the hands engaged in art-making. Much like film partnerships, acknowledged at award ceremonies with near unending speeches, it may involve many people and processes. Gloria Ross as tapestry éditeur brought together painters, sculptors, collage makers, cartoon makers, dyers, weavers, collectors, galleries, and sponsors.

By describing and illustrating the praxis of tapestry making—the experimentation and decision making, the successes and failures—I hope to make clear the shared artistic contributions and creative roles, as well as the struggles to negotiate them.

For every hour that Gloria spent planning, traveling, meeting, and promoting the Gloria F. Ross Tapestries and Carpets, there were weavers, needle workers, dyers and other specialists behind the scenes. The ultimate accomplishments described and illustrated in this book are the direct results of the artisans’ hard work. They took the artists’ paintings, Gloria’s guidance, the studio director’s or trading post manager’s instructions, and converted them into the final physical products. Every story drawn from the GFR Papers and told here has back stories that could be related by others who knew these projects as intimately as did Gloria. These chronicles are imbedded in the quality of workmanship and the intensely personal and professional translations for which only the artisans were ultimately responsible. The skilled hands, sharp minds, deep experience, and dedication of the weavers do shine through.[3]

Tapestry Defined

The word tapestry holds powerful imagery for many—something to warm the walls of a castle, to express the dignity or devotion of royalty, to tell a story in monumental proportions. In popular modern parlance, any flexible and colorful wall hanging may be called a tapestry, no matter whether it was woven, painted, printed, embroidered, or otherwise decorated. Tapestry can refer generically to floor rugs and upholstery as well as garments and other fabrics, as long as they are brilliantly patterned. For non-specialists, this embellishment is what seems to matter.

For specialists, tapestry is a specific fabric structure that can only be woven by hand. This structure is described as weft-faced plain weave with discontinuous weft-faced patterning, which allows for highly varied patterns.

A tapestry-woven cloth must be made by hand, with the weft (pattern) yarns going over and under the warp (foundation) yarns, and completely covering them. Wefts of many colors appear only where the design is formed as they interlace with the warps.

This process has never been successfully automated. Even when working on a large tapestry loom, a skilled weaver must manipulate each weft thread to form the free-form patterns.[4]

Early in her career, Gloria Ross embraced tapestry as fabulous mural art, no matter how it was created. She stretched the term to cover other fabric art such as hooked rugs intended as large-scale wall hangings. As she became acquainted with European handwoven tapestries, she used the phrase “true tapestry” for those textiles handwoven in the Aubusson or Gobelins styles. In later years, she avoided using “tapestry” for anything but the strictly handwoven variety. . . .

Twentieth-Century Trends

In the mid-twentieth century, when Gloria began exploring various textile techniques for wall hangings, several trends were converging in the international art world. In both America and Europe, modernism had a firm hold on painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts. Abstract Expressionism, through which artists articulated ideas in non-pictorial forms, prospered. Modern art predominated in museums, galleries, studios, shops, and the popular media. The image of singularly inspired artists working entirely on their own was romanticized and reinforced through monographs and solo shows, while notions of open collaboration and collective installation art were just beginning.

Simultaneously, European tapestry workshops experienced a post-war revival as museums and private collectors sought the highly stylized work of designer Jean Lurçat and his artist-weaver colleagues. In France, both government and private workshops collaborated with living artists. In Scotland, a generations-old tapestry workshop looked to contemporary painters for subject matter. In Australia, the much younger Victorian Tapestry Workshop also invited painters to collaborate with its weavers and create fresh new imagery. Scandinavia and Eastern Europe had their own well-developed studios and rising stars. In Egypt, Wissa Wassef had established an innovative collaborative workshop. In the United States the modern craft movement moved forward with articulate leaders such as American Craft founder Rose Slivka and world-class textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen (both personal friends of Gloria). Private workshops using classical tapestry techniques were established by Ruth Scheuer on the East Coast and Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie on the West.

Individual weaver-artists were producing intriguing bodies of work, but public understanding of tapestry weaving lagged behind many other handcrafts, including basketmaking, ceramics, glassblowing, woodworking, and functional handweaving. [6]

Meanwhile, a movement to take tapestry off the wall and explore three-dimensional fiber art grew. American artists Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and Claire Zeisler pushed their woven work into sculptural forms. In central Europe, the Lausanne Biennial exhibitions, begun by Jean Lurçat and Toms Pauli in 1962, portrayed the dramatic divide between traditional and innovative textile arts. The monumental work of Magdalena Abakanowicz from Eastern Europe, Olga de Amaral from South America, and others championed in Constantine and Larsen’s seminal work Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric, rose to international prominence.[7]

In the midst of this, Gloria Ross energetically espoused the notion that the strengths of American modernist painting and traditional European textile techniques could be fruitfully combined. Gloria didn’t cause a renaissance in modern tapestry, but she actively participated in and contributed to one that was in flux. In 1947, the Museum of Modern Art in New York turned down the loan of a contemporary French tapestry exhibition for lack of interest. By 1965, MOMA organized Tapestries and Rugs by Contemporary Painters and Sculptors, in which Gloria showed two hooked wall panels designed by Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell (plates 17, 42). In planning the exhibition, the Museum’s director, René d’Harnoncourt, pronounced these works, “absolutely magnificent . . .  too beautiful to let go.”[8]

A Developing Career

At first she didn’t know what to call herself, nor did anyone else in the American art world. Even toward the end of her career, Gloria avoided titles or quick summaries of what she did. . .

Gloria took a hands-on approach to executing each project. Although never an artisan-lissier or cartonnier in the European sense, her editorial involvement deepened as her career progressed. The GFR Papers are replete with sketches and annotations that indicate the many tasks she performed. In her earliest projects, Gloria created her own full-scale patterns for the hooked rugs. When working with European tapestry makers, she stopped short of making full-scale drawings or weaving trials. The French ateliers always hired specially trained cartonniers, and the Dovecot weavers developed their own versions of full-scale cartoons. With the Native-Noland projects, she again made scaled drawings and cartoon-like templates for the Navajo weavers, as they generally worked straight from images held in their minds.

Her tapestry making, as described in coming chapters, involved coordinating the actions of painters and other artists, weavers, dyers and other textile specialists, and galleries and their clients.

She functioned as an intermediary, what the French would indeed call an éditeur (or the feminine version éditrice). Quite literally, an éditeur is a producer of editions. This encompasses selecting the artist, artwork, and weaver or weaving company; establishing and assuring the tapestry’s scale, materials, quality, and number of editions; reviewing dyed yarn samples and woven trials; overseeing construction of a cartoon enlarged from the original artwork (the model or maquette); approving the final woven work; and, equally important, financing the project. . . .

The European system of producing limited editions contrasted generally with the American approach of working as an independent studio artist and making one-of-a-kind tapestries. This separated Gloria from the larger modern American craft movement. Her work also ran counter to the romantic concept of fine artists as uniquely inspired and solo-driven creators. Instead, she connected with the earlier workshop traditions of Europe and elsewhere around the world. She asserted that an original painted image should be “translated,” not copied or reproduced, into the handwoven textile medium. One museum director affirmed her approach: “The resultant tapestries cannot be called reproductions since they become new works in wool, notably different from the original.”[11] In the United States her work raised awareness of modern tapestry’s broad applications and appeal. In Europe she engaged tradition-based workshops that needed artistic and financial support to survive.

Neither gallery owner, dealer, curator nor workshop director, Gloria took responsibility for educating others to what she called her métier—which can be translated into English at once as a profession, craft, and loom.[12] She became intent on educating the American public, collectors, and galleries about the rich heritage of European tapestry and its expressive possibilities for modern American art. . . .

What follows is the unfolding of a creative career in the art world and how Gloria Ross persistently negotiated between two somewhat contradictory goals for her work. On the one hand she intended to remain true to each individual artist’s aesthetic intent for the artworks. On the other she learned and maintained that the best tapestries should be created and viewed as objects in their own right, the weavers’ unique creations, not illusions of something else. . . .

As we shall see, the process of creating art is rarely simple, whether the results are painting, sculpture, prints, photography, or—one of the most intriguing and complex of all collaborative media—the tapestry.

[1] Ross (1983).

[2] Throughout this book, I refer to Gloria F. Ross by her first name. She was born Gloria Frankenthaler and took the name Gloria F. Ross when she first married. After a divorce in 1970, she kept her first husband’s surname as her professional name. In notes and other informal records, she referred to herself as “GFR” or just “G.” The body of work that she orchestrated is known as the Gloria F. Ross Tapestries and Carpets, or the GFR Tapestries. During her second marriage, Gloria became known socially as Mrs. John J. Bookman and Gloria Bookman. For other individuals in this book, following the first mention of their full name I generally refer to them in standard literary fashion by last name only.

[3 The focus here is on weaving collaborations, but the rise of individual weaver-artists, who independently design and produce their own tapestries with or without studio assistance, is another important twentieth-century movement (Phillips 1994:148; Shaw 1989:9-13).

[4] One of the most common imitations of tapestry weave occurs in fabrics woven on the mechanized Jacquard loom (an elaborate contraption that was the precursor to modern-day computers), but the pattern wefts pass across the entire width of the fabric and are not discontinuous as in “true” tapestry. In contract to the latter, the resulting fabric often has unclear color divisions and appears blurred. Elaborate scenes from historic tapestries are replicated on commercially woven Jacquard wall hangings.

[5] The development of European tapestry is well documented and illustrated by Adelson (1994), Bennett (1992), Campbell (2002, 2007), Cavallo (1997, 1993, 1998), and Standen (1987), among others. For a popularized worldwide summary, see Stack (1988).

[6] For further descriptions of the Scottish, French, and Australian workshops, see chapters 4, 5, and 6. A special issue of FiberArts (1983) describes some organized tapestry studios at the time, including the American workshops, which are further profiled in Shaw (1989), Lurie and Larochette (2008), and New Jersey State Museum (1985). Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre (2006) recounts its remarkable history.

[7] Constantine and Larsen (1973).

[8] René [d’Harnoncourt] to HF and RM, 7/28/1965.

[9] Ross (1988).

[10] GFR to François Pinton, 9/26/1990, 204-013.

[11] Harris (1979:3).

[12] Métier is variably defined in Dictionnaire Larousse (1955:160) as “trade, profession, craft; loom (à tisser); handicraft (manuel)”—all would seem appropriate in this case.

[13] Ross (1990).

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