A Good Yarn: Artists’ Tapestries Are Popping Up in Museums, but They’re Not Yet Woven Into the Market

Earlier this month, Guild Hall, a nonprofit exhibition space in East Hampton, opened an exhibition of the work of painter

Chuck Close, Self-Portrait (Pink T-shirt), jacquard tapestry,
Chuck Close, Self-Portrait (Pink T-shirt), jacquard tapestry

Earlier this month, Guild Hall, a nonprofit exhibition space in East Hampton, opened an exhibition of the work of painter Chuck Close. The 27 works in the show all feature his trademark, mostly large-scale portraits of himself or his artist friends. There are ink drawings from the 1970s, several oil paintings, a Japanese-style woodcut, silkscreen prints and digital prints. Not many surprises there. There is, however, a handful of works here that are eye opening: five woven tapestry portraits—two of himself, one of artist Lucas Samaras, one of deceased artist Roy Lichtenstein and one of singer Lou Reed.

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“The tapestries seem three-dimensional,” Ruth Appelhof, executive director of Guild Hall, said. “The images seem to glow from within the black background; they come out into the space, much more than the other works that seem flatter.” She noted that the tapestries have intrigued a number of visitors “who ask, ‘How does he do it?’” Of course, he didn’t do it. Mr. Close presented a design to Magnolia Editions, an Oakland, Calif., publisher of prints, which commissioned a Belgian factory that uses a computer-updated version of the 200-year-old Jacquard weaving technique.

Tapestries once had a place of honor in the fine art realm, but that was during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Oil paintings, for a time, were viewed as the poor man’s tapestry. Since then, that equation has altered. It’s relatively rare to see artists tapestries on
exhibit, partly because the market, which tends to shun them, can’t seem to decide whether they are real works of art or just expensive novelties. “Tapestries serve a lot of purposes,” Donald Farnsworth, president of Magnolia Editions, said. “They absorb sound and add warmth to a room.”

Magnolia works with a growing list of prominent artists in the United States (including Mr. Close, William T. Wiley, Mel Ramos, Alex Katz, April Gornik, Robert Kushner, Ed Moses, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero and the collaborative artist team The Art Guys) to determine the specific colors and types of weave before sending the computer file to the Jacquard factory where the tapestry is produced. Final stitching, if needed, is completed back in Oakland, and then the tapestries are ready for sales and distribution.

Sales and distribution, however, is tricky. Mr. Close’s New York gallery, Pace, and his London gallery, White Cube, have exhibited and sold tapestries among other more traditional media by the artist, but most of the other dealers representing artists who have worked with Magnolia Editions or other tapestry producers seem to want nothing to do with them.

Painter Alex Katz said he has “no idea” who buys his tapestries “or if anyone buys them. I’ve never seen any of my tapestries in anyone’s house.” Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, his New York gallery as of 2011, has not yet had occasion to deal with them. Director Lucy Chadwick said the gallery doesn’t have any tapestries by Mr. Katz, nor have they ever sold any. Painter April Gornik does know that “a few” of hers have sold, although she also doesn’t know who bought them, and she hasn’t seen them in the homes of those who buy her paintings, “but,” she cautioned, “I’m not the kind of artist who hangs out with my collectors.” The tapestries are “an independent enterprise of April’s,” said her principal dealer, Renato Danese, who added that “I don’t deal in tapestries.”

None of these artists actually sits at a loom and weaves. They create designs, or they have made paintings whose designs are suitable for a tapestry, and then these images are sent elsewhere by a publisher to be woven into tapestries, which the artists will eventually approve and sign. Artists’ tapestries are a hybrid of the art multiple market that art collectors, dealers and even the auction houses are having a difficult time knowing what to do with. “People may be puzzled by what their place is in the art world,” Ms. Gornik said.

Galleries of original (one-of-a-kind) art can be reluctant to handle multiples or even less-expensive originals, such as drawings or watercolors, because their profit margin is lower. The tapestries that Magnolia sells generally range in price from $100,000 to $150,000, which sounds like a lot of money but is relatively small compared to Mr. Close’s original paintings. And the fact that tapestries are woven by hand or by looms or machines may strike the trade as more artisanal than artistic. Artists have, at best, a limited involvement in the process. “How much energy do you really want to put into one of these things?” Mr. Katz said. “Tapestries are kind of interesting; they are decorative, and it’s nice to experiment in another medium, but I don’t feel like making jewelry or dishes either.”

Tapestries can seem more like reproductions than original works of art. Earlier this summer, the Gagosian Gallery in London had a show of four tapestries by Gerhard Richter that were sold to buyers before the exhibit opened. Abdu, Iblan, Musa and Yusuf, all made in 2009, were based on his 1990 painting
Abstract Painting (724-4).

Similarly, Mr. Close didn’t create new images for his tapestries. For Mr. Close, however, who has experimented in numerous media throughout his five-decade long career, tapestries seem more central to his body of work–—one of many ways of producing an image. (To date, he has worked with stamp pads, finger paints, Polaroids, daguerreotypes, ink jet printers, collages, various printing methods, oil paints and drawing materials.) The fact that this particular medium has an ancient lineage appealed to him, and he rejected the division between art and craft. “The dirtiest word in the art world is ‘craft,’” he said. Mr. Close has created 22 editions of tapestries through Magnolia since 2006. “Originally, my dealer didn’t want them. He told me, ‘I’m not a rug merchant,’ but, when he saw how well they were selling elsewhere, he changed his mind.”

Tim Marlow, director of exhibitions at White Cube, postulated that artist tapestries “are more accepted in Britain and Europe than in the U.S. I think over here we are more relaxed about them than people are in the States.” Still, he noted that “there is not a voracious market” for these artworks and the select buyers are “discerning collectors who understand that they aren’t just decorative or novelties, that tapestries are intrinsically linked to the artist’s entire body of work” rather than just another product by the artist to buy—a translation of their images onto wool.

Mr. Close, who monitors the sales of his work, said tapestry buyers frequently are a different group than those who purchase his photographic and graphic prints, which range from $20,000 to $100,000) or his paintings ($1 million to $3 million). “$150,000 is a lot more affordable for many people than $3 million,” he said. At other times, collectors acquire his tapestries along with other works by him. “Some print purchasers step up, and some painting buyers step down.”

STILL, THERE IS THE MATTER OF HOW and where to sell these tapestries. Magnolia Editions sells its tapestries directly through its Web site, and it also distributes the artworks through a network of art galleries around the country but not in New York City. “Collectors look at the tapestries as very fine artworks,” said Steve Hartman, owner of Contessa Gallery in Cleveland, Ohio, which has sold Close tapestries produced by Magnolia Editions. “It’s an opportunity to own a Close work at an affordable price that are the size of his largest paintings.”

Various companies have sought to produce and sell contemporary artist tapestries over the past century, with varying but limited degrees of success. The London-based Rug Company worked with 14 contemporary artists (including Kara Walker and Fred Tomaselli) five years ago to produce tapestries in China that were exhibited and sold in a variety of locations in the United States and Europe. But they have no plans to produce more, according to owner Christopher Sharp.

Contemporary artist tapestries have had their true believers. Gloria Ross, the now-deceased sister of painter Helen Frankenthaler, worked with a number of postwar artists—Richard Anuszkiewicz, Milton Avery, Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, Adolph Gottlieb, Al Held, Mr. Katz, Willem de Kooning, Richard Lindner, Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson, Kenneth Noland, Saul Steinberg, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Jack Youngerman and Ms. Ross’s sister, Ms. Frankenthaler—to create editions of tapestries that bore their designs. Another company, Modern Master Tapestries, was in business for a period of time in the 1970s and ’80s and also attempted to gain recognition for this type of multiple. “The mainstream art world has pooh-poohed things associated with the crafts, such as fiber art,” said Dominique Mazeaud, who was director of Modern Masters Tapestries between 1981 and 1985. “It is very frustrating to work with these wonderful artists and not be able to sell these works.”

Tapestries had a brief vogue in the United States in the 1920s, when tycoons such as Albert Barnes, J.P. Morgan, George Vanderbilt and others traveled to Europe to buy art, returning with tapestries by such artists as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso along with paintings and sculptures. These tapestries still hang on the walls of their homes or have been donated to museums, but it is mostly in office building lobbies that they can be seen.

Part of the reason the art trade tends to shun them is the lack of resale opportunities. “There is no market for these things and no secondary market,” said Louis K. Meisel, the Manhattan art dealer who represents Mel Ramos, another painter whose body of work includes tapestries. But that’s not strictly true. There have been auction sales of artist tapestries produced by Magnolia Editions and other companies, but the results have been mixed. A Close 2006 Self-Portrait published by Magnolia Editions sold at a contemporary art sale in 2009 at Phillips de Pury for $158,500 (estimate $90,000-$120,000), while a similar work by Mr. Close, the 2007 Kate, was sold in a photography sale at Phillips de Pury London in 2008 for $130,111 (estimate $97,828-$136,959). These weren’t the first Close images to be translated into tapestries. In the early 1990s, Pace Editions produced a number of woven silk tapestries based on the artist’s paintings. The 1991 Phil (51” x 38”) earned $6,388 (estimate $5,000-$8,000) in 2010 at an artnet auction, while the 1993 Self-Portrait (50” x 37”) brought $4,200 (estimate $2,000-$3,000) at a Christie’s prints and multiples sale in 2007. Other artists’ tapestries have come up at auction as well. An untitled 1963 Roy Lichtenstein tapestry, published by Modern Masters Tapestries, earned $23,000 (estimate $7,000-$9,000) at a Sotheby’s Arcade sale, while a 1959 Kenneth Noland tapestry, The Bell, fetched $1,200 (estimate $2,000-$4,000) at a furniture and decorative arts auction at Leslie Hindman in 2004. Many other Noland tapestries brought to auction, all with low estimates, have failed to sell.

For the moment, it is mostly noncommercial galleries like Guild Hall and the occasional museum that will exhibit contemporary artist tapestries. In 2015, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design has plans to stage a large-scale exhibition of contemporary artist tapestries. Through Nov. 11, des Papes et à la Collection Lambert in Avignon, France, is exhibiting works by a number of noted contemporary and historical female artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Camille Claudel and Kiki Smith, from whom there are two new tapestries. Last year, several of Ms. Smith’s tapestries were included in an exhibition, “Visionary Sugar: Works by Kiki Smith” at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y. “The responses to the tapestries were very positive,” Neuberger’s chief curator, Helaine Posner, said. “Kiki has always worked with a variety of materials, but her themes have been consistent—women’s bodies and the lives of women. Weaving has been a traditional activity of women over the centuries.” Again, craft, but now in a more positive (and feminist) light. And there may be more developments down the road. The Jacquard technique used by Magnolia permits “a much larger palette of colors than that used in older tapestries,” Ms. Smith said. “I think a lot more artists will be drawn to creating works in this medium.”

A Good Yarn: Artists’ Tapestries Are Popping Up in Museums, but They’re Not Yet Woven Into the Market