Why Fiber Art Is (Still) Having a Moment as Prices and Recognition Continue to Climb

Some artists working in the medium have hit high water marks at auction just this year.

April Bey, If You Hate Your Enemies, Your Enemies Shine (2023). Courtesy Tern Gallery. On view as part of “The Golden Thread: A Fiber Art Exhibition,” organized by BravinLee Programs.

During New York’s spring fair and auction season this past May, when Phillips was selling a $46 million Basquiat canvas and Hauser & Wirth was moving $850,000 Ed Clark paintings at Frieze, another contestant for art lovers’ attention was a sprawling exhibition of works in mediums that come at a lower price point but are riding an ongoing wave of market and critical attention. 

Organized by New York dealers John Post Lee and Karin Bravin of BravinLee Programs, “The Golden Thread: A Fiber Art Exhibition” commanded an entire landmarked 1797 building in the historic South Street Seaport neighborhood. Among its 61 artists were canonical figures like Louise Bourgeois; artists known for working in fiber, like Elaine Reichek; and some less associated with it, like Wangechi Mutu and Jonas Wood.

“The art world really turned up,” said Lee. “We had a cross section of artists, critics, and collectors.” BravinLee Programs has long shown a commitment to fiber art, with a decade-long project commissioning artists to create rugs; the latest is by Willie Cole, and Rashid Johnson is on tap for the next.

BravinLee’s exhibition is just one example of a remarkable wave of museum, gallery, and art fair presentations of textile works over the last decade or so. Artnet’s own Katya Kazakina noted the phenomenon two years ago. Painting has long dominated the art market, but Lee predicts that can’t last forever. “There isn’t a lot of juice left in the lemon,” he says, while Bravin observes of textile arts, “I think there’s still a huge sense of discovery in the medium.”

Art works on display at an art fair booth

Far left, Norberto Nicola, Ciranda (2002); far right, Sheila Hicks, Bâtons de paroles (2024), at TEFAF New York 2024. Courtesy Nara Roesler.

In fact, there was plenty of fabric on offer at the fairs this spring in New York as well. At TEFAF, Nara Roesler showed works by Sheila Hicks and Norberto Nicola. Among the fabric works at Frieze, Brazil’s A Gentil Carioca presented works by Angolan artist Ana Silva and Brazilians Laura Lima and Vivian Caccuri, while New York’s Ortuzar Projects staged a solo presentation of Feliciano Centurión.

At Art Basel this month, a star was Faith Ringgold’s quilted diptych, South African Love Story #2 (Part I and II), at Goodman Gallery’s booth, with a price tag of $2.4 million. Sheila Hicks’s work Abondance (2023-2024) was sold during the fair for $350,000; on the younger end of the market at Liste, quilts by Justin Chance hung in a booth shared by London’s Ginny on Frederick and New York’s Tara Downs, with prices ranging from $6,000 to $15,000.

Prices for textile works have been climbing, with some artists seeing high water marks at auction just this year. Olga de Amaral’s Pueblo X (2013) commanded $698,500 against a $350,000 high estimate at Sotheby’s in May; Igshaan Adams’s Study for Kicking Dust (2020) sold at Christie’s New York for $100,800 in March against a $60,000 high estimate and Bisa Butler’s Nandi and Natalie (Friends), 2007, fetched $75,000 at Swann against a low estimate of just $7,000 in 2021. Lee said that sales were “satisfactory” at BravinLee’s event, if mostly in the modest range of about $10,000.

A work of art showing a bird of prey over a landscape.

Feliciano Centurión, Untitled (1994). Courtesy of the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA) and Ortuzar Projects © Feliciano Centurión. Photo: Arturo Sánchez.

Overdue Attention

Fiber has also received the highest imprimatur: museum exhibitions, stretching from the groundbreaking “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, in 2002-2003, to three currently on view: “Weaving Abstraction in Ancient and Modern Art” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; “Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and “Anni Albers: In Thread and On Paper” at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas.

To be sure, partly driving the phenomenon is a campaign to pay overdue attention to the women artists and artists of color who have historically worked in these mediums, such as the Gee’s Bend Quilters and Native American weavers. The hard and fast divisions between high art and craft have come in for scrutiny, resulting in an elevation of the latter.

A work of fabric art, stretched along two horizontal poles.

Vivian Caccuri, O’Kinimba Zoom (2024). Courtesy the artist and A Gentil Carioca.

But there is also a more gimlet-eyed angle. For one thing, collectors are always on the hunt for areas where prices remain low. “You have to look where others aren’t looking,” says New York art advisor Alex Glauber. Currently president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors, Glauber has placed works by Hicks and Olga de Amaral with clients. Moreover, it’s hard for young artists to make something that is truly novel, he points out, so many are looking for new mediums to work in and mining history for artists they can enter into a dialogue with. 

And just as auction houses have begun to mix periods and mediums in their sales (a Leonardo in a contemporary art sale, a Ferrari in a postwar), buyers are collecting in a cross-category fashion, adding “craft” work to their holdings of painting and sculpture. “The common denominator is no longer simply an arbitrary time period,” Glauber says, “but a consistency of quality and rarity.”

These artists are no longer relegated to the galleries that focus on design, either. Asked what dealers were leading the charge, Bravin didn’t hesitate, saying, “I actually think: every single art dealer. You cannot look at an art gallery’s program without seeing a few fiber artists.” It may have raised eyebrows when New York gallery Sikkema Jenkins mounted a Hicks show in 2012, Glauber says. But today, to name just two examples, London gallery Alison Jacques shows Hicks, the Gee’s Bend quilters, and Lenore Tawney, while the most blue-chip of galleries, David Zwirner, represents the estate of Bauhaus artist Anni Albers.

Getting Caught Up

Dealers who have championed design and craft for years, like Evan Snyderman, co-founder of New York’s R & Company, are happy to see the rest of the art world paying attention the medium. In its two expansive Tribeca showrooms, R & Company offers works by designers like Dana Barnes and Ashley Hicks who incorporate fabric in their pieces, as well as historical and contemporary makers working in fabric such as Evelyn Ackerman, Roberto Burle Marx, and Marilyn Pappas.

“It is obviously really exciting for us to see,” says Snyderman. “We’ve seen it happen with ceramics, and now with textiles. All these mediums that were relegated to ‘craft’ are having a moment.”

His gallery sometimes aims to bring together the historical and contemporary, for example in the recent show “Objects: USA 2020,” which marked the 50th anniversary of an important (and eponymous) exhibition of craft artists that traveled to some 33 venues and blurred the bounds between high and low art. He notes that one artist from the recent show, Liz Collins, is included in both the Venice Biennale and LACMA’s “Woven Histories” exhibition. (She also appeared in the BravinLee show.)

An artwork made from textiles.

Liz Collins, Fire (2020). Courtesy Candice Madey.

Snyderman recently traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval outpost, the Cloisters, to revisit one of the venue’s great draws, the Unicorn Tapestries. “In medieval times you had to be a king to acquire one of these,” he said. “They were the ultimate luxury good, much more so than a painting.” Marking the divergent uses the medium can serve now, he mentioned a project in the works by artist Roberto Lugo, mostly known for his ceramics, that will consist of a series of large tapestries that, rather than speaking of luxury, tell the story of a person of color from North Philadelphia. “They’re going to be extraordinary,” promises Snyderman.

Both Lee and Snyderman agree that one factor pushing the medium forward today is rapidly advancing new technologies. This provides a kind of historical symmetry, since the Jacquard loom was powered by punch cards that are at the root of modern computing. 

A number of small fiber artworks on view in a gallery

Installation view of “Evelyn Ackerman.” Photo: Logan Jackson, courtesy of R & Company.

“Technology is really crucial in terms of thinking about what’s going on today,” says Lee. We associate textile arts with manual processes like sewing or stitching, says Bravin, “and there’s plenty of that.” But, adds Lee, “There’s all kinds of technology, and it’s cheap enough to get into the hands of individual artists.” Snyderman sees the potential for A.I. to contribute.

While Post and Snyderman see a bright future for creative techniques, Glauber equally sees good things ahead for the market. He thinks that, long overdue though this attention may be, and though it has stretched over at least a decade, there is still plenty of growth to come. 

“I don’t see it culminating now,” he says. “There’s still a runway.”

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