In a somewhat hidden lower level of the Art Institute, you will find the newly reopened textiles galleries: the Agnes Allerton Gallery and the Elizabeth F. Cheney Gallery – home to the textiles collection for the museum. On a cold morning in early November, I had the pleasure of a private tour of this unique exhibit with curator Daniel Walker. A retrospective installation, a first for the artist, of 38 draw loom weavings executed by the artist from 1982 through 2008, Walker begins the tour with “her work seems deceptively simple, but as one understands the mysteries and complexities of this weaving method historically favored for creating figured textiles, the sophistication and challenge of her work becomes undeniable.” Consider me hooked.
Ethel Stein is an artist who only now, at the age of 96, is beginning to get the recognition she deserves from the broader public. She has never been overly concerned with promoting or marketing her work, and she has tended to lean “counter-trend,” as textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen has aptly put it. You have to admire an artist who is so focused on the making, simply to satisfy her own curiosity. I am, admittedly not very familiar with Stein’s work, but as an avid fan of any artist who values the mastery of technique – I can avidly state that for this fact alone, the exhibit is worth viewing.
Though non-representational, Stein’s weavings are, in fact, interpretations of the physical world – each a unique study of place, shape, and ultimately relationships. Consequently, Stein’s works are a maze of dualities in terms of aesthetics: quiet yet challenging, simple but complex, traditional and modernist. She invites us in with technique and pattern and spits us out with reflections of the complexities contained within the simple.
Though Stein has considerable training in sculpture (among other media), she has focused primarily on creating 2-dimensional wall-hangings; though the presence of a 3-dimensional history is still present in her concern for surface, texture, structure and form. There is lusciousness to the material, silky smooth or richly opaque, that brings a real presence to the completed works. They feel substantial, even if just in technique and final product. Seen in her damask works of a single color, such as White Pinwheel, 1990, the interplay of pattern (created by the difference of warp-faced and weft-faced sections) is sophisticated in the subtle shifts in light from the opposite sides of the threads. A frequent theme in Stein’s work is the study of light, dark and the infinite gray scale in-between the two, and it moves beyond just a question of positive and negative. It is within the absence of color and simplicity of pattern that Stein’s real technique shines and my interest is drawn to the work.
Stein was heavily and obviously influenced by the work and teachings of her mentor Joseph Albers, as well as the German Bauhaus philosophy with its emphasis on simplicity, order, functionality, and modesty. This interest is evident in almost all of Stein’s weavings; but in particular, in her color grids where geometry, spatial relationships, and color juxtapositions are on full view. In this sophisticated example, Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, Orange, III, 1995 Stein is able to double the number of hues in the damask at her disposal by the mixing of warps and wefts. This also allows the work to be viewed from either side with a different finished product.
Moving through the exhibits, the most beautiful works on view are those that feature Stein’s indigo strands, which she hand dyes in her cellar. Her work with Ikat dyed strands is admirable, and it this specific color and high-stylized pattern that really allows the work to come to life. Panel, 1982 (a set of five) is inspired by Stein’s impression of tall buildings, but also reflects the influence of Albers in her explicit use of geometry, color shading, and the deconstruction of fragmentation of forms. The color is soft and subtle, but has extraordinary depth built through the visual layers of the individual tones building on top of and in comparison to one another.
Her more recent works, Whole and Half Moons, 2007 are a return to her beloved damask technique but you can see a bit more experimentation in composition, color and material. Broader in study, the introduction of gray in specific correlation with the stark black and white offers another investigation into the material as well as concept. It also cements Stein's skill in a lifelong investigation that continues to produce new and interesting inquiries without simply reproducing what has already been explored.
The skill of Ethel Stein is unparalleled, in all aspects of her work from spinning, dying and weaving. She is a master of historical weaving techniques and modernist design, a unique combination that will ultimately be her greatest contribution to the field – though still a practicing artist at 96, she may surprise us yet.
Ethel Stein, Master Weaver is presented at the Art Institute of Chicago, Galleries 57-59. The exhibition is currently open and runs through Sunday, January 4, 2015.
You may also view a wonderful little video about the artist by Mark Chamberlain that shows her amazing loom and process here: http://vimeo.com/97457445
*All images courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago Collection. From top to bottom: Moon Wall, 2008; White Pinwheel, 1990; Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, Orange iii, 1995; Indigo 22, 1984; Whole and Half Moons, 2007.