Common Thread


Left: Artists Alex Da Corte and Virgil Marti. Right: Artist Fia Backström. (All photos: Anthony Campuzano)

The holiday do at the Fabric Workshop and Museum is an unmissable Philadelphia perennial, and this year promised extra buzz and pomp. Thanks to the inexorable expansion of the Convention Center, now leading a third cycle of downtown demolition, the workshop has been evicted from its home of eleven years and must tear down its incomparable archives and production facilities. Twenty-four-thousand square feet have been secured just barely a block away, though, and while there are “nasty little logistics” (a rank understatement from new director Lorie Mertes), Friday evening was greeted as an opportunity to gear up for a fresh start. A charter bus, filled with patrons and collaborating artists brought in from Chelsea, arrived at 5 PM on the nose. Scores of waistcoated waiters went around. Catering was enthusiastically and instantaneously set upon by students with matted hair and paint-splattered clothing. One had to smile for incidental New York visitors killing time before John Armleder and Christian Marclay’s performance at the ICA—described to me by museum director Claudia Gould as involving “fire and Christmas trees”—the likes of Carol Greene, Fia Backström, and the Swiss Institute’s Gabrielle Giattino, who had stumbled into as warm and familial an art fete as any going. “We’re on our first date,” joked Greene, squeezing Modern Painters senior editor Domenick Ammirati. I collided with the industrious Virgil Marti, usually a low-key local presence, a few minutes later. “You might meet someone at a cocktail party and have a nice conversation in New York,” he explained, “but I’ve done more and learned more here, always.”

Left: Swiss Institute curator Gabrielle Giattino with “New Humans” artists Mika Tajima and Howie Chen. Right: Fabric Workshop and Museum director Lorie Mertes.

This isn’t remotely the sort of institution (or, indeed, city) where people tap champagne flutes with forks and make announcements, so the crowd offered up their own plumbs from the anecdotal well, interspersed with flushed predictions for the future, as they worked away at 250 bottles of wine. The tone of jubilant self-congratulation was buttressed by the current exhibition, a taut survey of projects from the venue’s history that includes vitrines of storytelling ephemera and errata with many of the works. The mind spins at Christine Borland’s beautifully bungled early attempts to hand-harvest spider silk around blown-glass forms, a feat punctuated by the minuscule form of the collaborating artist itself, splayed and pinned next to the unfinished works. There is radiant euphoria in the photograph of Jim Hodges using a sewing machine for the first time, and the long pipe of inflated sausage casings, evidence from a fun afternoon’s digression as Miroslaw Balka sought the perfect semitranslucent organic gauze, is a pretty riot. “We had eighty interns working on that one,” project coordinator Mary Anne Friel told me with a vague gesture toward a mound of bikes and bookcases and balls, bits and bobs cast life-size in paper by Leonardo Drew. “There were hundreds and hundreds of pieces. Most of them were destroyed. Mostly by Leonardo.”

This city is tough to top when it comes to clinging to a former glory. To wit, this summer saw the installation of an eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Rocky––yes, the movie character––at the foot of the Philadelphia Art Museum's steps, an unintentional monument to cultural stasis and, as widely predicted, an instant hit as a tourist attraction. I asked the workshop’s founder, Marion Boulton Stroud—known to friends (known to everyone) as Kippy—about the artistic achievements embedded throughout her space, and how she is considering their imminent destruction. “Well, some of it is gone, and for that we’re very sad. But Jorge [Pardo] said he could reconfigure his lounge for the new space, and Virgil [Marti] and Jenny [Holzer] would rehang their wallpapers in the bathrooms. How much of our next environment should be nostalgia for all this, and how much should be cutting-edge? I suspect we’ll do something new and unique.” She smiled and turned to Mertes. “But that’s all we ever do!” Mertes was graceful and sanguine, as she’d been all evening, appreciative as the extent of support and respect commanded by her employer revealed itself to her for the first time. “This city is ready for contemporary art,” she confided in me, with deathly intensity. Gee, have I heard that one before. But she called me “honey” several times, and by then I was smiling, too.

Left: Greene Naftali director Carol Greene with Modern Painters senior editor Domenick Ammirati. Right: Fabric Workshop and Museum master printer Mary Anne Friel.

Left: Fabric Workshop Museum employees in Virgil Marti dresses. Right: Artist Michael Bell-Smith.

Left: Artist Candy DePew. Right: Collectors Peter Shaw and Mari Shaw.