On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism

July 23, 2016–April 2, 2017
de Young, Textiles Galleries

HeadcoverWoman’s headcover (adghar ibrdane tasslit), early to mid 20th century, Morocco, Anti-Atlas, Ait Abdellah people, 155 x 85 cm (61 x 33 7/16 in.), Museum Purchase, Textile Arts Council Endowment Fund 2015.13

The term Minimal art, or Minimalism, is applied to a school of abstract art that emerged in the late 1950s, characterized by a shared visual aesthetic of reductive geometric abstraction, as seen in works by such artists as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol Le Witt, and Robert Morris. Today the movement’s definition and even its existence continue to be debated by critics and artists alike. However, certain underlying principles are generally applied to Minimalism: regular, symmetrical, or gridded arrangements; repetition of modular elements; direct use and presentation of materials; and an absence of ornamentation. On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism presents a broad range of textile traditions from around the world that share many of the same aesthetic choices ascribed to Minimalist works as a means of underscoring the universality of the movement’s design principles.

Minimalist art is based upon pre-existing systems that conceive of the artwork in advance of its actual execution. These systems, often mathematical, rely on the repetition of simple forms. Textiles by their very nature comply with these core elements, and textile artists, like the Minimal artists, predetermine the finished work through their selection and processing of materials and in the warping or preparing of the loom. On the Grid examines these processes and further explores both the preeminence of weaving in the textile design vocabulary and its influences on the design of painted and dyed pieces that also conform to Minimalism’s repetition of forms and the grid as patterning devices.

The woven shawl worn by the Aymara people of Bolivia and Peru exemplifies a purity of design that is achieved in the preparation of materials. The process begins with hand selecting alpaca fiber of the highest quality, followed by spinning the fibers; dyeing the yarns; and then, to enhance their textural quality and strength, plying or twisting two yarns, sometimes in two different shades, together. The overall design of the shawl is derived from the careful layout of its colored bands during the preparation of the warp—the parallel yarns that are fixed onto the loom. The simplicity of each striped composition shows an innate understanding of proportion and of spatial and color arrangements.

Dictated by the loom, woven structures fundamentally exist on the grid, their patterns plotted according to mathematical systems. A mid-20th-century American coverlet, made during the heyday of Op art, incorporates a pattern that in fact dates back to the 19th century, with an extant example housed in the Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York. Here, a relatively simple checkerboard pattern is transformed into a pulsating optical field through an incremental reduction of the size of the squares on both the horizontal and vertical planes and a repetition of the pattern.

With its preference for an aesthetic purity and the use of negative space, traditional Japanese design is often considered a precursor to Minimalism. Contemporary Japanese artist and master indigo dyer Hiroyuki Shindo has created his own method of dyeing by laying his cloth atop a shallow trough layered with stones then repetitively pouring his indigo dye bath onto the cloth. During his process, he watches as the indigo seeps through the cloth, accepting the natural process and the resulting variations of hues. Shindo has explained the importance of the negative space: “In my exploration of indigo dyeing I have discovered that the white in each work—whether hand-woven cotton or linen or a mixture of both—is as great a concern as the dyed portion. If the white is not brilliant enough, or the un-dyed portion is not of the right proportion, the balance is broken, and so I insist: white is as important to my work as is indigo.” While his process is both organic and accepting of chance, defying Minimalism’s typical dictate for order, the finished product is, like Minimalism, completely reflective of its materials and process.

Together, this selection of 27 textiles from the Museums’ permanent collection examine various aspects of the Minimalist art aesthetic that address abstraction, precision, geometry, materiality, and process. These objects reflect the core principle that there is a beauty in simplicity that is both universal and timeless.

This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The Sumatran Ship Cloth

April 2, 2016 – February 12, 2017,
de Young, The Gallery of Oceanic Arts


Ceremonial hanging (palepai), 19th century, Indonesia, Sumatra, Lampung, Kalianda, Handspun cotton; plain weave with supplementary-weft patterning, 330 x 69 cm (129 15/16 x 27 3/16 in.), Museum Purchase, Textile Arts Council Endowment Fund and the Nasaw Family Foundation Fund

For Indonesians, who inhabit an archipelago of thirteen thousand islands, the sea represents their lifeblood, and ship imagery, a recurring theme in ritual arts, reflects their social structure, ritual life, and cosmological belief system. The ship can be seen as a spirit boat safely guiding the individual from one stage in life to another. In the Lampung region of south Sumatra, ship imagery predominates the woven arts. This installation will present three ceremonial textiles from the region, representing two of the major categories in the type often referred to in the West as ship cloths: the palepai and the tampan. These pieces from the Museums’ permanent collection are being shown for the first time.

The palepai is considered the pinnacle of Indonesian weaving, both within Lampung society and by Western collectors. Once owned exclusively by Sumatran aristocrats, the expansive cloths were hung for display at significant occasions such as engagements, marriages, births, and funerals. Woven on a back-strap loom, these cloths present motifs from a limited repertoire: one or two red ships, a single blue ship, the tree of life, or ancestral figures.

This exhibition highlights a major acquisition from 2010 of a two-red-ship palepai. The acquisition was made possible by the Textile Arts Council Endowment Fund and the Nasaw Family Foundation gift in memory of trustee Marshall I. Wais Sr. This palepai, measuring nearly 11 feet long, depicts the two large ships with sweeping oars and gracefully arching bowsprits and tails. The cloth is masterfully woven with finely detailed human figures, mythical creatures, birds, and ancestral shrines. Its rich color palette, combined with the intricate execution of the fine details, makes this an exceptional example. The multilayered or stratified docks depicted lend themselves to multiple interpretations: they may represent the upper and lower worlds of Sumatran cosmology a ledger of ancestry, or a reflection of social hierarchy. The cloth was likely used in an aristocratic marriage ceremony, with each of the two red ships representing a clan. During the marriage rites, a single-ship palepai would replace such a double-ship cloth to symbolically represent the merging of the clans.

Joining this palepai on display in The Sumatran Ship Cloth are two tampan cloths. Unlike the palepai, which had restricted use among the elite, tampan cloths were omnipresent at all rites of passage in Lampung. During transition rites—such as presentations of newborns, circumcision ceremonies, weddings, and even elopements—dozens of tampan would be exchanged as gifts between relatives, often being used to wrap food or other gifts. Accordingly, tampan display a wider range of motifs and thus do not lend themselves to such discrete classification as the palepai. Their compositions range from the simple to the complex, from repetitive geometric forms to representational figures. Most frequently, they include a ship motif, again reflecting the vital importance of the sea.


Beyond the Surface: Worldwide Embroidery Traditions

Autumn 2016–Spring 2017
de Young, T. B. Walker Education Gallery

Apron (maekake), ca. 1900. Japan. Plain-weave cotton; indigo dyed; cotton sashiko and chain stitch embroidery. Image courtesy FAMSF. Gift of Susan York, 2016.37.

Beyond the Surface: Worldwide Embroidery Traditions presents more than a dozen embroidered costumes and accessories from around the world, drawn entirely from the Museums’ collection. While embroidery may be appreciated for its ornamental beauty, it also can be an expression of cultural and social identity. A textile’s distinctive stitches, patterns, and colors often reflect its maker or wearer as well as communal traditions. This selection is presented as a visual complement to the special exhibition Summer of Love, emphasizing that global textiles and embroidery traditions were profoundly influential on the creative output of the 1960s counterculture. Learn more.