My article about that exhibition was published in the September 2017 issue of Specialty Fabrics Review under the title "What is art?"
It was a time of major changes in art and perception, with New York serving as the hub of most artistic creation and display in America. At the August 29 debut of “Textiles U.S.A.” the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was a still-young 17-years old, and the only major institution in New York devoted to modern art in all its forms, including architecture and industrial design. Frank Lloyd Wright’s inverted spiral ziggurat for The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was in construction but still three years away from opening. Abstract expressionist artists like Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock had come into their own after World War II and Dada artists like Marcel Duchamp and Pop Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were questioning the very meaning of art at its foundation.
DESIGNING WITH TEXTILES
Given these challenges to what constituted art, it is not surprising the MoMA curators found the recent introduction of synthetic textiles, with all of their saturated colors and new textures, attractive as a subject for serious examination. A New York Times art critic, on reviewing the Textiles U.S.A. show asked, “Just what has this exhibition, 90 percent machine-produced and principally directed to the industrial market, got to do with ‘art’?” He went on to applaud the curators for bringing many exciting textiles and patterns to the public’s attention in what he described as “one of the most lavish and imaginative exhibitions ever installed here and the first to be devoted exclusively to American fabric design.”
“In presenting such an exhibition,” he continued, “the Museum of Modern Art recognizes the obvious fact that the field of industrial design increasingly attracts genuinely gifted young men and women who years ago would have been sitting solitary, irresolute and bored in front of an unfinished canvas.”
Some of those gifted young men and women included Alexander Girard, architect and textile designer from New Mexico for the Herman Miller Furniture Co upholstery fabrics; Florence Knoll for the Knoll Planning Unit upholstery fabrics; Marc Chagall, the Russian-French modernist artist, designing printed fabrics for wall coverings; and Jack Lenor Larsen, for his own furnishings company as well as for U.S. Rubber Co. for a line of upholstery fabric called “Trilok”, a complex of linen, mohair, viscose, cotton and polyethylene. The exhibition catalog described this construction as “double weave with alternating stripes in yellow, white and green."
MoMA dedicated its entire first floor to the show and to the museum’s open-air garden terrace, overseen through a glass wall from the main exhibition gallery. A press release from the museum described the terrace portion of the show: “An awning of Herculite, a Fortisan mesh laminated between clear plastic, runs the length of the terrace. At the other end of the terrace, two regulation air force parachutes are hung from the awning, one of magenta Day-Glo ribbons, the other of white and orange nylon.”
FUNCTION WITH STYLE
Longtime IFAI member, Sy Hyman, now retired CEO of Herculite, well remembers the excitement and importance of the MoMA exhibition to the specialty fabrics industry: “During that early period of Herculite company formation we developed a clear, strong and waterproof, high (artificial and sun) light transmission laminate. It served as a fabric upgrade to opaque, moisture seep-through cotton duck,” common at the time he says. It was a new textile promoted to national utilities as a shelter material for telephone linesmen. “The folks at MoMA were so excited about the properties of this fabric, they ordered a huge extended canopy covering a large portion of their garden exhibit.” As Burlington Fabrics Corp. was the main supplier of woven scrim to Herculite, and was a MoMA sponsor to Textile U.S.A., Hyman suspects they were the ones who brought this new industrial fabric to the attention of the museum curators.
Selection of the 190 fabrics chosen for display was accomplished by a small team of reviewers led by newly appointed, 31-year-old director of the museum’s architecture and design department, Arthur Drexler. Sorting through more than 3,500 entries of fabrics with Drexler were 11 jury members including Rene d’Harnoncourt, director of MoMA; legendary architect and the museum’s first director of the architecture and design department, Philip C. Johnson; William C. Segal, editor of American Fabrics Magazine, co-sponsor of the exhibition; Anni Albers, textile designer formerly with the Bauhaus faculty during the 1930s; and Mary Lewis, fashion director for the department store giant, Sears. American Fabrics Magazine devoted the entire fall 1956 issue of the magazine to the show.
Commenting on the industrial section of the exhibition, Drexler said: “Many industrial fabrics inadvertently heighten properties familiar to us in other materials. The blond opulence of loosely plaited tire cord, though it is always hidden within layers of rubber, rivals fabrics used for formal gowns. Day-Glo, a chemical treatment, makes color reflect with a new clanging, eye-splitting luminosity. Often such fabrics are eligible for other uses: the manufacturer of a sludge filter, resembling homespun, disposed of some extra yardage to a men's tailor. Industrial fabrics rarely, if ever, are designed for aesthetic effect, yet they seem beautiful largely because they share the precision, delicacy, pronounced texture, and exact repetition of detail characteristic of 20th century machine art.” Drexler was quoted in a newspaper review of the show as calling the rayon lining of auto tires as the “Marilyn Monroe of fabrics.” “This stuff is incredible,” he said, “It sways, it ripples, it’s the most luscious material you’ve ever seen.”
The memory of the opening of that landmark exhibition is still vivid in Hyman’s memory: “Ironically, there occurred a heavy rainstorm during the opening night, wherein the unique outdoor Herculite structure provide protection to the important evening museum attendees. This feature was duly noted by the New York Times’ art editor in his review.” “We assume that the fabrics ‘work,’” wrote Stuart Preston in the September 2, 1956 Times, “and were indeed grateful, on the exhibition’s wet opening night, that the awning of Herculite, a nylon mesh laminated between clear plastic, kept the rain off the terrace.”