John Boyer has wanted to showcase the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s impressive tapestry collection for years – ever since museum benefactor Andreas Bechtler bought six tapestries to complement the two, by Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró, he already owned.
Shortly before the museum opened in 2010, Bechtler invested in those additional tapestries to complete his collection, Boyer said. All eight will be shown together for the first time – along with more than 30 additional pieces on loan – in “Nomadic Murals: Tapestries of the Modern Era.”
Boyer, the museum’s president and CEO, curated the exhibition, which opens April 5.
The tapestry exhibition marks the 24th show Boyer has curated during his tenure as CEO. The museum’s first curator, Michael Godfrey, died unexpectedly three months after the museum’s opening. Godfrey had worked with Bechtler for more than 20 years and knew the collection, some say, better than Bechtler himself.
Many of the artists who designed these tapestries are usually associated with painting, sculpture and architecture. Some are famous enough to go by just one name – Picasso, Calder, Chagall. Their tapestries will be hung alongside their work in more familiar media to provide context.
To be clear, the modern masters who designed these tapestries didn’t do the weaving themselves. They created the design, and a master weaver – or a weaving company – brought it to life.
Ancient and timeless
Tapestries have been around for millennia. This exhibition demonstrates that some of the biggest names in modern art took an interest in one of the least modern art forms.
Yet some of the most arresting works are by artists whose names are less familiar than, say, Picasso’s – whose work is also represented here. Ojai, Calif.-based artist Jeff Sanders’ “Full Moon” is a tapestry based on a photograph, Boyer said. “Like Frank Stella’s tapestry, this one is round,” he said. “When you step back from it, you discover it’s curved like the moon.”
It’s thoroughly contemporary in its execution: It was created by an algorithm that runs the loom. “You can achieve exquisite and extraordinary detail this way,” Boyer added.
Don’t miss April Gornick’s lush landscapes or Lewis deSoto’s “Security.” Boyer said, “On its face, it appears to be abstract. But on closer inspection, you see it’s about safety and security. It was the artist’s response to 9-11.”
The exhibition includes two tapestries designed by Charlotte-born African-American artist Romare Bearden (including the exuberant “Mille Fleurs”) and three geometric tapestries by Mario Botta, the Swiss architect who designed the Bechtler museum.
And there’s one tapestry, “Alphabet,” by English pop artist Sir Peter Blake, most famous for co-designing the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover.
While Boyer resists choosing a favorite, he will say that Ebony G. Patterson’s “… they wondered what to do … for those who bear/bare witness” is likely to be a showstopper. “There’s a richness and variation in both color and material and a combination of different fabrication techniques at work, and it’s all lovingly executed by hand,” he said. “It’s more than a tapestry.”
It is, in fact, a 3-D installation in which the tapestry is mounted on a wall that’s covered in wallpaper designed and signed by the artist. Three resin roosters are mounted on stands in front of the work.
The list of materials Patterson used in this piece provides a clue to its intricacy: Hand-cut jacquard woven photo tapestry with glitter, appliqués, pins, brooches, embellishments, fabric, tassels, acrylic, glass pearls, beads and three hand-embellished resin-based roosters on stands.
Every other tapestry in the show has a much simpler materials list – usually just “wool” or “wool and cotton.”
“This work is multi-layered,” Boyer said. “There are messages relating to sexuality and the roles men and women play in modern life. This is a work that rewards additional attention.”
Murals on the move
The title of the exhibition – Nomadic Murals – comes from Le Corbusier’s essay “Tapestries: Nomadic Murals.” Le Corbusier, a modernist architect, painter, sculptor and writer (1887-1965) called the tapestry “the mural of the modern age.”
The New York Times story on Le Corbusier noted that “many 20th-century architects and artists, including Picasso, Matisse and Braque, liked having their designs translated into woven wool tapestries.” https://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/28/arts/antiques-le-corbusier-saw-tapestry-as-part-of-art.html
Eight tapestries by Le Corbusier will travel from the Le Corbusier Foundation in Paris to Charlotte for the show. Other works on loan are coming from London, Chicago, New York, Montreal and California.
The exhibition has broad appeal, Boyer said, because tapestries are “an accessible art form. Many people have been exposed to tapestry, often through their place of worship.”
Boyer traces his own interest in the form to both his interest in Le Corbusier and his “obsession with the Arts and Crafts movement, including Bauhaus, which began in the 1870s.”
“All Arts and Crafts designers – if they had their way – would have wanted to design the space in which you live, your furnishings, your dinnerware and cutlery. And the most ambitious among them would’ve wanted to design your clothes, too.”
Want to go?
Check out “Nomadic Murals: Tapestries of the Modern Era” at the Bechtler from April 5 through Dec. 1. The museum is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors, students and educators, $5 for youths age 11-18 and free for children 10 and younger. Learn more at bechtler.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.