“We thought we’d adore it but damnit she wore it.” The comment, about fiber artist Debra Rapoport, succinctly describes Off the Wall: American Art to Wear, now at Philadelphia Museum of Art.
PMA’s exhibition tracing the wearable art movement from its emergence in the late 1960s was inspired by a promised gift from Julie Schafler Dale, whose New York gallery celebrated the form for 40 years. The gift, Dale said, will make PMA the foremost museum custodian of art to wear.
Gathered in sections set to emblematic songs of the 1960s and 70s, including Good Vibrations (Beach Boys), Colour My World (Chicago), and I Am Woman (Helen Reddy), 130 one-of-a-kind works exemplify artistic invention fired by cultural upheaval. Social and political turbulence expanded artists’ consciousness and changed their creative language. They made the body their canvas and armature and adorned it in painted silk, extruded wool, repurposed objects, and feathers.
Crochet, coats, and controversy
The comment above, made by a judge at the 1971 International Tapestry Biennial, referred to Fibrous Raiment (1969), Rapoport’s floor-length hooded gown made of dark green sisal. Instead of mounting it on the wall, Rapoport donned it, transforming herself into a seaweed goddess arisen from the waves. In the Perelman Building, the gown stands before a wall-size photo of Rapoport at the biennial.
Traditional weaving evolved into fiber art in the mid-1950s, as weavers began to see themselves as artists and trained artists sought new modes of expression. At Pratt Institute in the late 1960s, students taught one another to crochet and employed the unfamiliar technique in studio assignments. Janet Lipkin crocheted a doll for sculpture class, prompting classmate Dina Knapp to remark, “We were doing formal drawings of eggs…and here was Janet doing something absolutely nuts, absolutely off the wall.” Works by both women are on view, including Lipkin’s Doll (1969).
Initially, Lenore Tawney’s Bound Man (1957) was very controversial, and it remains an affecting work. The open warp tapestry depicts the crucifixion of Christ, executed in abstract shapes and neutral tones. The figure isn’t immediately recognizable, due to the sidelong perspective, then the slumping body appears: arms pinioned, head bowed, legs buckling.
Three coats Sharron Hedges created for private clients are here, including Midnight Sky (Julie’s Coat) (1977), which she made for Dale. The wedge of woolen squiggles in autumnal darks is a thick, soft refuge. “It hangs in my living room. I look at it every day and it gives me more joy than I can say,” Dale said at the exhibition opening, calling the artist's coats “pieces of poetry.”
Culture in counterculture
Young artists in the Age of Aquarius not only sculpted fiber but also painted and printed it. Marian Clayden, a master of hand dyeing, tie-dyed costumes for the 1969 rock musical Hair. Her Off the Wall transforms her work in a meditative set-piece: Ceremonial Enclosure (1974), a silk background, which shelters a cross-legged mannequin clad in a flowing Lion Tabard (late ‘70s).
Berkeley, California, just across the bay from the counterculture's ground zero, was where Fred Kling and Candace Kling created and sold almost 500 singular dresses emblazoned with rainbows, giraffes, and other original designs. Fred drew the images, and Candace cut, sewed, and applied light-reactive dye that blossomed in the sun (Dress, 1968). Candace later became known for elaborate headpieces like She Sells Sea Shells Headdress (1988), a cloche inspired by aviator helmets. It’s a pitch-black cockleshell of precise ruffles that curve along the skull, lined in hot pink, with striped tentacles springing out along the jawline.
A frieze of pharaohs, griffins, and ibises promenade along K. Lee Manuel’s Maat’s Collar (1990). This exquisite circlet of feathers, named for an Egyptian goddess, is painted in iridescent purple, cobalt, and aquamarine.
The written word inspired Jo-Ellen Trilling, whose 1984 Jacket (1983) could have been ripped from a first edition of George Orwell’s dystopian tale. Drawing with brown indelible marker on parchment-colored cotton, she created a rat-infested fantasy.
Susanna Lewis’s Oz Socks (1978) immortalize the film version of the Wizard of Oz. Each stocking ends in a machine-knitted ruby slipper and depicts a different phase of L. Frank Baum’s story. The right leg is Kansas, topped by a garter reading “Somewhere over the rainbow.” On the left, the Emerald City and flying monkeys with the words “We’re off to see the wizard.”
Linda J. Mendelson memorialized the vintage radio series Grand Central Station with Grand Central Coat (2003), a swing coat across which dance the words “the two-and-one-half-mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue.” Mendelson’s trickiest task was programming a knitting machine to produce legible type in curved lines to follow the garment’s shape.
A new conversation
Wearable art adds a third element to the creative exchange between viewer and artwork: the person wearing the art (who may also be a viewer). That feature, which adds physical sensation and movement, changes the way in which art is experienced and perceived.
At the exhibition opening, Dilys Blum, PMA senior curator of Costume and Textiles, discussed the challenge of creating art that achieves full form only in motion, on a human body. “The first generation [of artists] saw their work as art first. They were trained as artists, and the creative challenge was to anticipate the conversation between the art and the wearer.”
Blum, who curated Off the Wall with independent textile historian Mary Schoeser, was credited by museum CEO Timothy Rub for championing the exhibit through her belief in the significance of wearable art. Blum’s confidence in the form is the same sense that led Julie Schafler Dale to showcase wearable art in 1973, and the sense that drove artists—many of them women—to express themselves off the wall.
What, When, Where
Off the Wall: American Art to Wear. Through May 17, 2020, at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 763-8100 or philamuseum.org.
The Perelman Building is wheelchair-accessible by an elevator to the left of the public steps at Pennsylvania and Fairmount Avenues. Visitors with limited mobility should ring the bell and staff will help them enter. Visitors using motorized wheelchairs may be directed to the back of the building for entry. For information, call (215) 684-7602 or email [email protected].