Curator Interview: Tracing the Bauhaus Threads with Erica Warren

Continuing Decorating Dissidence’s exploration into the legacy of the Bauhaus weaving workshops, Suzanna Petot got in touch with Erica Warren, Associate Curator in the Department of Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, to ask a few questions about her career and her most recent exhibition…

Erica Warren looking at objects in storage at the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of Erica Warren.

Prior to her appointment at the Art Institute, Erica was a Curatorial Fellow in the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture and a Research Assistant in the Department of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She also has taught courses on the History of Design and Craft at Drexel University and at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She earned her PhD in Art History from the University of Minnesota and has participated in the Attingham Summer School. Erica’s current projects include an exhibition and catalogue about the contemporary artist Bisa Butler and research on Dorothy Liebes, the American weaver, textile designer, and entrepreneur. 

Her latest exhibition, Weaving beyond the Bauhaus, which was on view in the Textile Galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago from 03 August 2019 to 17 February 2020, celebrated the centenary of the school’s opening, focusing on the weaving workshops and the emigration of Bauhaus artists, or Bauhäusler, to the United States in the wake of the Second World War. The exhibition wonderfully traced their subsequent relationships with fellow artists and students in art educational institutions across the nation ­- such as Anni Albers at Black Mountain College (1933-1957) in North Carolina and later at Yale University, and Marli Ehrman at the Institute of Design (originally the New Bauhaus), the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The sharing of knowledge and experiences with students and contemporaries, including Else Regensteiner, Ethel Stein, Lenore Tawney, Claire Zeisler and Sheila Hicks, greatly influenced the next generation of artists and shaped the course of American art.

Can you tell us more about your background and journey into textiles?

While working on my Ph.D., I began researching nineteenth-century Scandinavian design and decorative arts, which I knew little about at the time. Through this research, I encountered the work of the Norwegian artist Gerhard Munthe. A landscape painter turned designer, Munthe made watercolour cartoons for tapestries, which offer his interpretations of folktales, and these works greatly captured my interest. They have a marvellous aesthetic that adapts the geometric character prevalent in Norwegian tapestries from centuries prior into a modern form. Moreover, I became fascinated with the way in which nationalists marshalled Munthe’s tapestries (and decorative arts broadly) to construct a narrative of Norwegian identity and independence in the late nineteenth century.

Gerhard Munthe, Den røde hane (The Red Cock) Three Maidens Tapestry, ca. 1900, Photo: Nasjonalmuseet/Harvik, Andreas

While finishing my dissertation, I was fortunate to have a curatorial internship at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and a curatorial fellowship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both of these experiences focused on the decorative arts broadly (European and American), and the breadth of these collections, as well as the opportunities I had to work with a wide range of colleagues, really prepared me for the rewarding rigor of my current position!

We are incredibly interested in your most recent exhibition Weaving beyond the Bauhaus at the Art Institute of Chicago. What was your experience of curating this show?

Curating the exhibition proved a pleasure, in large part due to the Art Institute’s strong collection of works that speak to the theme. Chicago is a key location in the story of the Bauhaus in the United States, therefore it made sense to choose works that related to the city in one way or another. The installation is roughly based on a chronology, yet, the works also are in conversation with one another, either in terms of materials, technique, approach, or all three.

Installation view, “Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus,” 2019/Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago

Researching the artists furthered my sense of the extensive and robust relationships they forged with one another and contributed to the installation “conversations.” A few volumes proved particularly essential to my research, such as Women’s Work: Textile Art from the Bauhaus (1993), Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design (2014), and Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957 (2015). Together, these three volumes helped elucidate connections between artists and highlighted the impact of an experimental pedagogical environment. Also, to better understand the artists’ points of view, I found the online transcripts of artist interviews, available through the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, invaluable! To give you an example of how the research, artwork, and design come together, in one of the galleries, there is a quote from Sheila Hicks in which she mentions the profound impact of seeing Anni Albers weaving; this quotation appears alongside a work from each artist. Both artworks were woven with the discontinuous weft technique as well as some of the same materials, but to distinct effects! 

In our recent exhibition WEAVE IT! in London, Decorating Dissidence similarly looked “beyond the Bauhaus” to explore the legacy of the weaving workshops and the influence its participants have had on contemporary practice. Why do you think it is important to celebrate 100 years of Bauhaus and revisit modernist legacies?

The Bauhaus remains relevant and continues to have an impact on art and arts education in the United States, and it sounds like that is true in the UK as well! Celebrating the centenary of the school’s founding provides an opportunity to re-examine its history as well as the scholarship that has grown around it. The ideals upon which it was founded remain quite attractive, particularly the notion of equality among artists as well as their materials. Although many stories have been told about the school and the artists who taught and studied there, there are stories yet to emerge, as well demonstrated in the recently published Bauhaus Bodies.

Claire Zeisler. Free Standing Yellow, 1968. Gift of David Lawrence Fagen, Richard Rees Fagen, and Edward A. Fagen in memory of Mildred and Abel Fagen.

As a curator myself, I found it really interesting that you chose not to write wall labels for this exhibition. Can you explain why you decided to omit wall labels for this show for in particular? 

There have been quite a few exhibitions that have covered the Bauhaus, especially over the course of the past fifty years. Since Weaving beyond the Bauhaus focuses on the relationships between artists and their educational, institutional, and professional affiliations, their words best illuminate these connections and demonstrate their recognition of the impact of these networks in shaping their own practices. Shifting the voice of the exhibition to focus on the artists featured in the show highlights their shared artistic philosophy and sense of place in the art world. The artists’ words also provide a framework for contemporary artists and individuals who might think of themselves as part of this Bauhaus network that continues to grow.

In reading reviews of the show, it’s clear that relationships, networks and community are at the heart of the exhibition itself, which is something our show highlighted as well. Why do you think these kinds of relationships are common in textile art and craft in general?

I think that these relationships are in fact common across art making regardless of materiality, however, these networks and relationships have not necessarily been the focus of scholarship, rather narratives of individual achievement and greatness prevail.

Claire Zeisler. Hanging, 1950/91. Gift of Joan Binkley. 

Tell us more about being an Associate Curator of Textiles. What is your favourite part about your job? What is the most challenging? 

The best part of my job is that I learn something new every day! The textile collection at the Art Institute includes more than 13,500 objects and has the most expansive reach – in terms of geography – of any curatorial department. It also represents over two thousand years of human history. As you might suspect, this presents a number of challenges! It is impossible to know something about ALL textiles, and at times, it can be frustrating to realize that not all of the objects get the attention that they deserve. That said, I feel extremely lucky to have generous curatorial colleagues across departments at the Art Institute and from other academic institutions and museums who are willing to share their expertise.

Lenore Tawney. The Bride Has Entered, 1982.
 Gift of Lenore Tawney; restricted gift of the Textile Society, Joan G. Rosenberg, 
Mr. and Mrs. Richard J.L. Senior, Mrs. William G. Swartchild Jr.,
 and Mrs. Theodore D. Tieken. © Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

That sounds like you are a maker to me! You have such great admiration for your colleagues, I am sure they have the same for you. Is there anything you would like us to plug/give a shout out for to our readers? 

My colleague at the Art Institute, Alison Fisher, has curated an excellent exhibition Bauhaus Chicago: Design in the City which explores the work of instructors and students at the Institute of Design (founded as the New Bauhaus by László Moholy-Nagy) and the Illinois Institute of Technology (established by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe). It is another great opportunity to think about the Bauhaus centenary and the way in which the ideas of the school were translated and transformed in Chicago!

Weaving beyond the Bauhaus was on view in the Textile Galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, U.S. from 03 August 2019 to 17 February 2020.

Bauhaus Chicago: Design in the City has been extended through Fall 2020.

All images are courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago unless otherwise noted.

Interview by Suzanna Petot