Orderly But Exuberant Textiles Mine Minimalism at the de Young

Installation view of 'On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism' at the de Young. (Courtesy of FAMSF)

“When a textile is following its core principles, it is minimalist,” says Jill D'Alessandro, curator of On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism, on view at San Francisco's de Young through Feb. 12, 2017.

The exhibition presents over two dozen textiles from the museum's permanent collection. Dating from the late 18th century to the present, and made of materials ranging from paper mulberry bark to sheep's wool to silk, these quilts, tunics, ceremonial shawls, altar cloths and contemporary pieces are unified by minimalist aesthetics. Free of ornamentation, the composition of each was preconceived by the artist and dictated by regular, symmetrical or gridded arrangements.

Quilt, "Checkerboard" pattern, ca. 1900.
Quilt, "Checkerboard" pattern, ca. 1900. (Courtesy of FAMSF)

The inventive installation of the exhibition enhances a viewer's experience; grouped by a progression of color -- from reds and oranges to chocolatey browns to cooler blues and whites -- many of the textiles hang from displays that expose both their front and back sides. Thanks to this presentation, we can look through them as much as at them; we can imagine them swaying, sense their weight and how they might bunch when wrapped. We can decipher which are translucent, and which are dense enough to inhibit the passage of light.

D'Alessandro calls Rebecca R. Medel’s Wall of Windows, a ghostly, 106-inch-tall cotton and linen piece dominating one end of the gallery, “a phenomenal feat,” given its “extremely mathematically challenging” approach to combining knotted netting with double-ikat dyeing. “My work is about the spiritual, about infinity,” Medel says. One indeed feels this cosmic push, staring into the intricate layers of the commanding piece.

Installation view of 'On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism.'
Installation view of 'On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism.' (Courtesy of FAMSF)

Some textiles on view, like an energetic Senegalese cotton skirt panel (pagne), featuring loosely aligned wax printed squares, embrace more freedom than we tend to associate with minimalism, loosening the borders of the oft-debated and sometimes casually used term.


A cotton coverlet, made in the United States in 1960, at the height of op art's popularity, achieves a transfixing effect through an incremental reduction of the size of the squares on each plane. The pattern appears to undulate.

Made in the Southern Altiplano in Bolivia by the Aymara people, a pre-19th-century ceremonial shawl (llacolla), uses a warp-faced plain weave to blend two shades of blue yarns with brown, creating a rich composition that appears nearly black from a distance.

Installation view of 'Kay Sekimachi: Student, Teacher, Artist.'
Installation view of 'Kay Sekimachi: Student, Teacher, Artist.' (Courtesy of FAMSF)

Each of these textiles seem to own and track a stretch of time, to present a kind of organized wilderness as it makes vivid and explicit the artist's process. The harmony these pieces achieve intersects with a pure sensation of possibility.

A small and excellent companion exhibition Kay Sekimachi: Student, Teacher, Artist, lends a fascinating look into postwar fiber art pioneer, lifelong teacher, and San Francisco native Kay Sekimachi's radical and spirited practice. Highlights include Emotional Stripes and Intellectual Stripes, studies created in response to an assignment she received early in her six-decade-plus career, and Katsura, an elegant and ominous jellyfish-inspired monofilament hanging she made in 1971.

Kay Sekimachi, 'Katsura,' 1971.
Kay Sekimachi, 'Katsura,' 1971. (Photo by M. Lee Fatherree)

Artist Gyöngy Laky (whose piece Laura's Quilt, made of applewood and vinyl-coated nails, is hung on the title wall of On the Grid) describes Sekimachi as “like a scientist.” Sekimachi’s unyielding curiosity and experimental application of the double-weave technique is indeed palpable. It is a unique joy to see the artist’s early studies alongside her later and most recent work (linen necklaces, book-like sculptures and woven boxes). Of Katsura, Sekimachi says, “I felt like an explorer because no one else was using that material, so no one could tell me what to do, and the possibilities seemed endless.”

In Danish poet Inger Christensen's alphabet (translated by Susanna Nied and published by New Directions), the Fibonacci sequence acts as structural guide for the book-length poem. Like a weaving, alphabet begins with a small action of composition -- two phrases repeated (“apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist”) -- and via loyalty to its mathematical constraint, awakens and allows an entire lush and stirring world to breathe honestly within its frame. Seven pages in, as momentum builds and her field expands, Christensen writes, “given limits exist, streets, oblivion ... eagerness exists, given limits.”

Both On the Grid and Kay Sekimachi inspire audiences to consider how applied constraints -- a simultaneous trust in and pressure on the material at hand, and a dedication to set organizing principles or techniques -- can lead to sensuous and evocative work in all mediums.


On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism is on view at the de Young through Feb. 12, 2017. Kay Sekimachi: Student, Teacher, Artist is on view through Nov. 6, 2016. For tickets and more information, visit deyoung.famsf.org.