Opening Textile

By Philip Beesley, 1996

Warren Seelig’s work has developed during the past three decades from loom-woven fabrics into increasingly free and expansive sculptural constructions. There are two large groups of new work at The Museum for Textiles. In the first, many independent figures float; taut membranes held by skeletal structures, catching and holding light. The second group is a series of sculptural fragments supported by a broad plaster shell; on that surface is cast a delicate skin of shadows behind floating metalwork. The structure of weaving runs through both groups of work, a play of warp and weft in myriad cycles of tensing and compressing.

Two fields

The work in Machina Textrina represents a juncture between one group of refined figures and another of fragmentary hybrids.

The first group shows a unified vocabulary based on translucent membranes stretching over circular arrays of metal spokes. This work is the result of many years of development, refining and clarifying the elements and approaching an essential purity. Here, radiating spoke-and-axle skeletons are developed with a variety of stiffened frames and counterweight details. Spokes and membrane manipulations render these as independent bodies. The membranes swell in the centre and thin out at the ends, approaching a structurally optimal form in which accumulated stresses, born by elements near the centre, match the width of the supporting web, in contrast with lesser stresses born by the thinner webs toward the outer parts of each arc.

White Wheel (1996) includes a pair of semicircular spoke arrays held by a tapering sled structure. The arrays face each other, nearly touching, nearly making a circle. Along the edges of the spoke set stretches a nylon ribbon; a pure arc except at its centre where tension from main hanging struts makes a dimpled interval. This is effectively a textile monad: a single warp, supported by a weft series, arranged as a simple quantum - zero increasing to full, and returning to zero.

By contrast, the wall-mounted group is fragmentary. There, instead of extending an established language, Seelig seems to be raising questions. Seelig opens the refined vocabulary of the previous work, embracing layered patterns, subtle graduations of reflection, and complex surface treatment approaching the intertwined calligraphy of a middle-eastern Kufic. A provisional set of parts extends across rough-rendered plaster wall thickets of bent rings, counterbalanced weights, and gossamer scrims so thin that their shadows are more visible than actual forms.

Development

The membrane-and-skeleton constructions culminate 30 years of work. This development is progressive, leading from industrial textile engineering to textile approached as an increasingly free discipline. In fact, the development carries the legacy of several family generations: Warren Seelig is the great-grandson of a superintendent in the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill (Massachusetts), the grandson of a textile machinery designer, and the son of an engineer and inventor of textile machinery. Drawing on this heritage, his early training included engineering foundation studies at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, followed by a master’s degree in fine art at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the early 1970s, where he was exposed to constructivist art theory and Bauhaus design method.

Seelig acquired an international reputation following his time at Cranbrook. He reached against contemporary work of such peers as Magdalena Abakanowicz, which emphasized primal organic forces and raw emotion, by extending his own work’s clean and impersonal qualities. He developed loom-based work featuring technical rigour, pure materials and simple forms. He referred to early modern theory to support his commitment to formal abstraction, in particular to Wilhelm Worringer, whose writing erected elemental simplicity as a refuge against the “trivialized” modern world. Worringer said “Just as the urge to empathy as a pre-assumption of aesthetic experience finds its gratification in the beauty of the organic, so the urge to abstraction finds its beauty in the life-denying inorganic, in the crystalline or, in general terms, in all abstract law and necessity”.1 A key strategy for Seelig during this time was the conducting of mechanical operations - folding, gathering and cutting - for the purpose of generating a new kind of substance, free from literary reference and self-indulgent emotion.

Seelig’s work after Cranbrook initially confined itself to ordinary black and white cotton string, employing a double-cloth loom technique involving simultaneous construction of two separate weaves within a single fabric. Seelig explored sculptural qualities - swelling, fluted surfaces, arches and radiating folds - within wall-mounted works. At first Seelig made three-dimensional forms in which flat, double-woven and splint-reinforced facets were supported along their back surfaces by a structural network of miniature struts and guys. This external system then shifted, indicating a new integrated approach. Using pockets formed between woven layers, Seelig inserted pliable plastic and Mylar splints during the weaving. These flexible spines were entirely encased, and acted in concert with woven layers, yielding crisp pleats within folded fan-shaped textiles. Expanding them from 90-degree fans to 180-degree curves, and developing framed perimeters of banded and checkered panels, Seelig found striking highlights and shadows in the reliefs. With folded top and bottom edges, in tapered or arched gathers, the textiles became self-enclosed figures - shields and totems.

A hybrid material quality is a defining aspect of the work from this period. The double-cloth fabric skins enveloping and stretching over the internalized plates created a new material based on controlled internal stresses. Seelig said, “I was not attempting to mimic anthropomorphic form, but rather attempting to create a relationship between the skeleton and skin elements, which was as convincing as bone pressed against skin.” Also telling is his description of working method: “Sometimes, when selective plates were omitted, the internal stress dynamic of tight and loose cloth created a fluted edge, as in Vertical Shield #2 (1977). The folded and rounded ‘totem’ forms, and creased and pleated fan shapes were the result”.2 This description alludes to Seelig’s preoccupation with anonymity. Instead of personal expression, the work was apparently the product of an impersonal process. That process does seem almost mechanical: he performed operations with scrupulous care and determined the final form of his constructions according to the results. However the results, whether swelling totem forms or complex shaped weaves, each contained qualities too compellingly sensual to be entirely explained by an ethos of selfless work. A tension is apparent in which an urge to achieve a rich and dramatic palette of material qualities underlaid Seelig’s public aura of impersonality and rigorous industry.

This tension was increasingly pronounced in Seelig’s work of the following years. Between 1977 and 1983, he developed a new series titled Ribbon Folds. Eschewing exotic material such as silk, the artist used base cotton. However, by working ingrosgrain - a dense, warp-face rib weave with fine mercerized thread yarns at densities up to hundreds of threads per inch - he achieved extraordinary lustre. High-key combinations of striped and checked patterns exuded glistening colour that seemed embedded within the threads. He began using simple armatures to hold wide swaths featuring back and front surfaces of a length of cloth arranged in simple creases and folds. Welded and painted sheet-aluminum hangers shaped the cloth like vestment. One body of work employed a composite of coloured double-cloths accompanied by painted-wood flats and dowels to form abstracted window shades. Another featured assemblies of dyed-wood slats arranged to emulate draped cloth, a disembodied cousin of the earlier striped-ribbon folds.

Matrix

Starting in 1981, Seelig increased attention to the essential structure of weaving and developed a new approach. He produced Checkerboard Awning that year during a residency at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia. Spokes and ribs introduced as structural elements in that work quickly developed into a new vocabulary. Expanding the approach into a wide spatial complex, he conceived an interplay of hybrid weft and warp elements. Weft elements became an ordering system of props and struts, built as metal skeletons. Warp elements in turn became ribbon-shaped screens and meshes stretching between weft supports and describing pure geometries - a reversal of the traditional hierarchy of dominant warp and subservient weft imposed by loom mechanics. A nylon fabric and stainless-steel wall suspension developed for Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, California in 1986, employed a network of spokes radiating from support strut arrays in front of the wall surface. Membranes of translucent nylon stretched between these struts, following the arcing and fluted paths determined by the framework.

In contrast to the concealed members that Seelig previously used to support woven shapes, this structure was exposed. The space of the work changed from closed fabric surface to an open matrix. Where fabric elements were previously constructed by hand loom, they now came from special industrial sources. Seelig used meshes of almost microscopically fine warp-knit plastic fibre and Tyvek, a heat-pressed translucent membrane. Amplifying the expansive spaces projected in the work, transparency and lightness marked the material palette of the emerging work.

It is tempting here to think of Seelig keeping company with minimalist artists. Like the ethereal white square, which floats on Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Painting No.1 (1918), the discipline of these open textile matrices invokes a universal state. Seelig’s current statement: “When yielding to its natural geometric form textile becomes an energy field which increases in power proportionally to its abstraction and simplicity”3, seems cousin to Malevich’s: “I have transformed myself in the zero of form”.4

Turn

Yet with the new figures in this exhibition, Seelig’s long-standing wish to achieve an essential purity seems to have turned. While Plato’s absolute geometry still plays in some arcing and circle figures, the purity of earlier taxis has changed into a tracery of higher mathematics: accelerating trajectories and planetary ellipses. Instead of completed forms, partial gestures prevail. These inflected bodies are sensitive - their skeletal frames cast shadows on nearby walls; their fragile skins filter views of neighbouring forms.

Here, Seelig is approaching a reflexive mode in which the physical forms respond to the presence of the viewer. The play of shadows and filtered views is so pervasive in the space of the gallery that these usually secondary effects shift to centre stage. Instead of emphasizing their separate identities, Seelig chose to assemble the constructions into a general field using angles and overlaps to ensure that individual works will always be seen together with adjacent pieces. This arrangement challenges the identity of the work: is the space in the gallery really one large textile?

The wall-based work presented in the gallery confirms this possibility. A work in progress, this wall is a collection of samples and experiments developed within Seelig’s studio during this past year. This newest generation of work rests on a broad, curved plaster surface. Repeating many small elements, each balancing on pivoting wall-mounts, the fragments compose a hybrid brocade. The specific arrangements and groups of parts seem deliberately circumstantial. Instead of proscribed figures and frames, the viewer is anchored there by phenomena of light and hovering balance.

Kuba includes a spread of numerous turned rings with projecting arms. The arms are detailed with drilled and forged ends. Needles balance on these arms, each holding a silver-soldered arabesque of stainless-steel wire. They stand informally, turning slightly according to air currents or the touch of the viewer, catching chromatic highlights from gallery lights and casting a dense scrawl of shadows behind. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the elements occupy individual territories of open space and lock together into a hovering surface. None of the parts touch, but as a whole they construct a tangible surface resembling a Kufic.

Composite Field is a collage of different parts. A large chalk-lined grid is lightly incised into the plaster wall. A staccato of support rings similar to those in Kuba works in counterpoint to the grid. Upon these rests families of elements. One group is made of serrated rings, alternately brass and stainless steel. Another is a jostling bundle of vertical counterweights made of angled-wire stalks and polished brass-ball ends. A third is virtually all shadow: a transparent veil of “noseeum” fabric, embedded with horizontal seams, each containing wire filament stiffeners, which floats, barely visible except for its cast pattern on the plaster surface beneath.

What emerges? The resulting complex makes a hovering surface. The surface seems woven from personal industry: touch, gesture, craft and machinings. This new work seems free of the ideological weight of early modernist work: empathy no longer seems antithetical to abstraction. The work no longer stands in reaction to raw primitivism: Seelig’s subjects are no longer stripped and purified. Nor is he reacting against dominating forms, opening and rendering them transparent. Instead, space seems already free, unconstrained.

By making his forms reflexive and his surfaces circumstantial, Seelig seems to have moved beyond his early strategy of minimalist discipline. Purity has been achieved, and a different project now seems possible - a substance rooted in phenomena and developed through poetic economy. A new constructive play emerges, a refreshed complex of structure and light. Textile - writ large.

Notes:

  1. Wilhelm Worringer. Abstraction and Empathy, a contribution to the Psychology of Style (1906), trans., Michael Bullock, London and New York, 1953.
  2. Warren Seelig personal correspondence, 1997.
  3. From introductory statement, Warren Seelig Machina Textrina, 1996.
  4. Kasimir Malevich. From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism:the New Realism in Painting (1916), trans., Anderson, Copenhagen, 1969.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada