By Lynne Milgram, 1990
Helen Frances Gregor: Textiles in Architecture is the first in a series of one-person exhibitions in the Contemporary Gallery, which will exhibit and document the work of artists who have made significant contributions to the field of textile art. As both an artist and an educator, Helen Frances Gregor has made a unique contribution to Canada's artistic heritage.
From the beginning of her career in Canada in the early 1950s, Gregor was one of the international artists working in fibre media who challenged the academic division between fine and applied arts, reviving the interest in this field and bringing it to the forefront of visual arts in the 1960s and 1970s. During her 33-year career as founder and head of the Textile Department at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, she introduced hundreds of students to the history and contemporary challenges of textile arts.
Gregor succeeded in fostering the often tenuous communication that transpires between artist and architect, resulting in the placement of many of her works in an architectural milieu. This exhibition presents the most significant of these works through the artist's models and photographs of the installed works. Three autonomous woven pieces borrowed from public collections reveal the physical intricacies of Gregor's tapestries.
Helen and I began working together on the concept of this exhibition in the autumn of 1988. With her sudden death in May 1989, the opening of this show took on a further dimension: it is not a celebration of a body of work, but also a tribute to Helen Gregor's prominent role in the development of Canadian art.
I wish to thank the following individuals and organizations for their contributions to the preparation of this exhibition: The Canadian Museum of Civilization for loaning the artist's manquettes, The Ontario Crafts Council and The Library and Gallery, Cambridge Ontario for loaning works in their collections; The Ontario Arts Council, George Hancock Textiles Limited, The Charles H. Ivey Foundation, The Toronto Arts Council and The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto for their financial support, and; Susan Warner Keene and Kai Chan for their help with the installation and documentation of the show.
My warmest appreciation is extended to John E. Vollmer, a professional colleague and personal friend of Helen Gregor, for his perceptive essay, and to Petra Smith, Tibor Gregor and the Gregor family for their assistance and support.
Helen Frances Gregor: Textiles in Architecture
By John E. Vollmer, 1990
The designing of textile works for specific architectural settings fascinated Helen Frances Gregor throughout her artistic career, particularly during the years from 1975 until her death in 1989. Although the commissioned pieces represented in this exhibition are on public view, or were intended for it, they are not widely known outside of the specific locales of their installations. In isolation, each work presents a challenge and a resolution that illuminate a single facet of Gregor's art. As a group, these site-specific commissions or unrealized projects provide an opportunity to examine the substance of her creativity. In particular, Gregor's work raises issues about the formal relationship of tapestry to architecture, its metaphorical relationship to music and its function as a symbol.
Textiles in Architecture is about the interconnection of art and building. Through weaving, Gregor aspired to create a dialogue within the architectural setting. Her work addresses the environment of contemporary meeting places. Those shown here include the theatre, office tower lobby and the university student union. The difference between these meeting spaces and the domestic living room, however, is one of degree. For Gregor, tapestry gave symbolic form to the ideas and concepts that link our indoor lives with external experiences - personalizing, celebrating and decorating the spaces in which we conduct the business of 20th-century existence.
Her work frequently refers directly to formal aspects of architecture. The submission for the Commercial Union Tower, Toronto Dominion Centre, entitled Wall, calls attention to the juxtaposition of the travertine-faced service-core and the glass curtain wall of a Mies van der Rohe office building. Meeting Place, the 1979 commission for the Toronto Board of Trade, is a two-part composition that adorns adjacent interior walls. Its exploration of symbolic contrasts and developments acknowledges and reinforces the meeting place of walls - the corner.
Like the medieval tapestry tradition from which it stems, Gregor's work remains architectonic, depending on walls or ceiling for support. It imparts a sense of environment that transforms, and is transformed by, whatever space it occupies. At a structural level, tapestry, like architecture, is governed by geometry. Form is created on the loom through the precise interlacing of weft elements that are built course-by-course at right angles to a foundation - the warp. The loom-width rectangle, with its parallel selvages, forms a basic component, which can be extended in any direction by adding components.
The sense of utility, in which good design is applied to clearly defined function, can be traced to the principles of the Bauhaus and the English Arts and Crafts movement that formed part of Gregor's training and discipline. The weft-faced tabby technique utilizing pairs of warps for colour and textural effects (as well as for stability and strength) acknowledges tradition; but like much of the architecture influenced by the Bauhaus, Gregor expanded the meaning of traditional form by making subtle shifts in syntax rather than by introducing a radical new vocabulary. This concern for nuance within an established framework may account for the serialization and multiples that characterize her work.
Gregor's passion for music was expressed through her art. While her tastes in music ran the gamut from plainsong to contemporary Canadian, the rich resonances and subtleties of her beloved Czech composers, Mahler and Dvorak, established an aesthetic touchstone. The childhood interest in the stage and performance (coupled with an exile's nostalgia for home and the perspective of the internationally travelled artist), confirmed Gregor's conviction that music and art have universal appeal. The concert hall or stage as a site for tapestry prompted a particular synergy that led to some of her most lyrical abstractions.
Tapestry and music frequently serve as metaphors for each other, but for Gregor, the notions of rhythm and counterpoint, of colour, texture and tone, of pace or mood in both media, were in fact interrelated. The 1975 four-part commission for Hamilton Place takes its inspiration from the movements of a classical symphony. Four tempi are evoked by reconfiguring the basic elements of weaving, colour, texture and structure, which function in the work not unlike the notes, key signatures, and dynamic markings used for music. The 1983 festiin curtain for the Bluma Appel Theatre and the National Ballet of Canada set I'île inconnue, place art directly in the service of music, helping define the architecture for performance, both figuratively and literally.
For Gregor, tapestry was always more than embellishment; her weavings are symbols of larger ideas. The Wall and Terra series evokes relationships with the earth and our origins through reference to the landscape. We are challenged to confront a past - actual, remembered or imagined - within the context of present realities. Other commissions, like the 1978 Lifescape No.1: John Deutsch for Queen's University or the unrealized Homage to Johannes Itten submitted for the Royal Trust Tower, Toronto Dominion Centre deal directly with the human condition. Through a process of distillation, personality is abstracted to reveal sense of humanity. The academic hoods adorning the John Deutsch lifescape are both the most intimate extensions of the individual - personal clothing - and the most public signs of academic accomplishment; but in the context of the tapestry they become trophy-like marks, enhancing the notion of life's passage over time. Gregor used the pendant-looped form repeatedly, calling it Totem, to stand as a public symbol of personal identity.
Textiles in Architecture reveals Helen Frances Gregor's integration of a cultural past with the technological present. The tapestries represent experiences screened through an intellectual discipline that focuses attention on the creative tensions of formal design. These experiences are explored through contrasts: fibre and metal, warm and cool, round and square, rational and sentimental. While the individual expression is specific, the infinite variety of universal experience it evokes is limitless.
© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada