Artists of all stripes have a favorite medium, whether it is oil painting, woodcarving, or etching. Changing up that method can result in some surprising and unprecedented work — a point proved by the Katonah Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Wall to Wall: Carpets by Artists. On show from July 9 to October 1, the exhibit features 17 painters, sculptors, and mixed-media artists taking on the concept of the carpet with impressive results.
According to Elizabeth Rooklidge, the museum’s associate curator, as well as the coordinating curator of the exhibit, the show nicely corresponds to the museum’s greater mission. “A large part of what we do [at the KMA] is to reflect changes in society and in artistic practice,” she explains. “The carpet exhibition dovetails so nicely because within our history and through contemporary art, it is a medium that seems almost conflicted.”
This conflict arises from the two dueling aspects of the carpet, which serves a utilitarian purpose within households and in prayer while acting as an artistic and creative outlet. “The medium was revered during the Renaissance and much further back than that,” says Rooklidge of carpet making. “But it wasn’t, at that time, necessarily considered art in the sense that it was made by artists. Really, they were made by artisans.”
Rooklidge explains that by the early 20th century, carpets had broached the fields of painting and sculpture. Rock-star painters like Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Gustave Moreau all dabbled in producing them. Although carpets never became central to these artists’ work, even these small forays into producing such objects furthered the concept of carpets as a legitimate medium for fine art.
Ken Lum’s 2015 carpet The Path from Shallow Love to Deeper Love, which draws its inpiration from ancient mandalas and Chinese ceramics.
photo courtesy of ken lum, equator productions, and goldenrule.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, the feminist art movement really tried to reclaim [carpets],” notes Rooklidge. “It was a domestic medium, but they were bringing it into the fine-art context. At that time, that actually functioned as a kind of rebellion.”
And due to this frequent experimentation by both feminist artists and legendary painters like Picasso and Léger, carpets grew to be a small but enduring aspect of contemporary art. “So, not to make an embarrassing pun,” says Rooklidge with a laugh, “but there’s this weaving of the medium through art history.”
The KMA’s new exhibition finally manages to put this oft-ignored work on the center stage. Polly Apfelbaum, Marilyn Minter, Jorge Pardo, and Richard Prince are just a few of the acclaimed artists whose eye-popping carpets will appear in the show. “Some of the artists already work with carpets as a medium, like Polly Apfelbaum or Rosemarie Trockel — it’s part of their practice,” notes Rooklidge. “For others, like Richard Prince or Sarah Morris, it’s their first adventure into this medium. So it’s fascinating to see how these artists’ vision translates to the carpet.”
According to Rooklidge, Minter’s work is a “fantastic example” of the ways in which artists adapt to find new forms of communication by operating within this unlikely medium.
“Marilyn Minter is known for her photorealistic paintings about glitz and glamour and the human body,” explains Rooklidge. “On the surface of the paintings, you get all of these different treatments that really evoke the actual objects she’s painting.”
With Minter’s carpet — which displays an image of cracked glass and condensation — the surface’s sharpness, hardness, and reflective qualities must all be translated into the soft, woven material of the carpet. “[Minter] is coming at it with questions of how you merge these different visual and tactile qualities,” says Rooklidge. “For her, the carpet becomes this really ambiguous visual space.”
A pair of public programs will accompany the exhibition. The first will be a gallery talk with Petra Singh, cofounder of Equator Production, a group that commissioned several of the works featured in the show. The second event will be a full-day workshop with artist Lindsay Carone, a sculptor who produces textile-like works out of recycled and discarded materials.
For Rooklidge, the exhibition and its accompanying events have the potential to change the way in which museum visitors view the countless objects that surround them each day. “I think ultimately people will walk away with a transformation of their ideas about the carpet,” she says. “We hope that this will really prompt them to look at the everyday objects around them and see these as full of possibility for artistic vision.”