PRINT March 2012


Collecting Textiles, Introduction by Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Reverse of fragment of silk damask weaving, Spain or Italy, ca. 1600, 20 7/8 x 20".

Seth Siegelaub is recognized primarily as a key force behind the emergence of Conceptual art as we know it, through his work as a dealer and curator. The groundbreaking exhibitions and publications he produced between 1968 and 1971––such as “The Xerox Book” of 1968 (for which several artists were each allotted a set of pages to work with) and “July/August 1970” (a group show that appeared in the British magazine Studio International)—have all but eclipsed Siegelaub’s subsequent projects. Indeed, it will come as a surprise to many that he has devoted nearly fifty years to the study and collection of textiles––from woven and printed fabrics to costumes, embroideries, and headdresses––ranging in date from the fourth to the twentieth century. In 1986, he founded the Center for Social Research on Old Textiles (CSROT), which encompasses an extensive and growing library, and in 1997, he assembled the Bibliographica Textilia Historiae––now available as an online annotated bibliography with more than twenty-five thousand citations of books on the history of fabrics, cloths, and related materials. Both projects fall under the auspices of the Stichting Egress Foundation, which Siegelaub created to advance his various research and archival initiatives.

Where does the dematerialization of the art object intersect with warp and weft? Considering Siegelaub’s textile collection in relation to the Conceptualist ideas of serial production he fostered, correlations between the workings of the loom and Sol LeWitt’s “machine that makes the art” begin to emerge. On the occasion of London gallery Raven Row’s exhibition this spring, which features over three hundred items from the CSROT, Siegelaub spoke about his interest in textiles, the problems of conservation, and their connection to collaborative, industrialized systems.

—Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Cotton and silk face veil, Tajikistan, Central Asia, ca. 1850, 30 3/8 x 22 7/8".

TEXTILES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN important to me, and for a very brief stint in 1964 I even showed small Caucasian rugs in my gallery on Fifty-Sixth Street. I closed that space in 1966, realizing that I wasn’t ready to show the old and the new together. By then, I was beginning to concentrate on what’s now known as Conceptual art, planning group shows as an independent curator, so other interests were put on the back burner for the time being. For many years, I had been an autodidact, collecting books on textiles to learn about their history, and when I left New York for Paris in 1972, I loaned them to Gordon Bailey Washburn (then director of the Asia House Gallery, which didn’t have a textile or rug collection at the time). It wasn’t until the early 1980s, while I was living in France, that I really started to get involved again with that library and my collection. I went back to buying books, with the primary goal being to develop the largest private library in the world on the history of textiles, since one didn’t really exist yet. After a while, the Stichting Egress Foundation created a website to host all of this bibliographic information (a principal concern for my projects is that they must be open-access and free—one should never have to log in).

I also started to collect textiles more seriously in the 1980s, yet I never really had the money or the time, so it was a slower process than sourcing books. I was mostly buying from markets, dealers, and auctions. Textiles were, and still are to some degree, our most undervalued cultural product. The problem with buying them is not finding them at the right price; it’s more about finding them at all, since so many had been considered mere rags.

A number of things led my interest back to textiles; for one, they belong to a technical, highly specialized world—one that’s not nearly as appreciated, by institutions or by the general public, as it should be. I was drawn to the idea of these very beautiful objects being so deeply wedded to economic history. The textile industry has been key to the development of many cultures—when it took root in thirteenth century Flanders, particularly in Ghent and Bruges, it was, in effect, perhaps the first capitalist, industrialized trade. I was intrigued by this specific relationship between beauty and commerce, but I was also struck by the fact that, unlike artmaking, the production of textiles is a social activity—it is always a collective endeavor.

The history of textiles is teeming with odd and funny stories. There’s Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, for instance, and the punch-card technology he invented for it, which went on to influence IBM. The historian James Essinger has written about how Babbage’s computing device (designed in 1837) was actually based on Joseph Marie Jacquard’s looms and their system of punch cards instructing the machine how to design or how to weave. Before that invention in 1801, an underpaid kid—a “draw boy”—would have to sit there plucking and pulling the strings, as the weaver would make the design. With extremely fine silk, which became popular in the seventeenth century, you’re talking about thousands upon thousands of strands of silk going into a yard’s worth of cloth. So Jacquard’s technology was very important, not just to the history of textiles but also to design and technology, not to mention labor.

The few great textile collections housed in major museums are basically study collections, meaning that they only have certain things in drawers, and visitors can come view them by appointment. Those collections are by no means comprehensive—they are mostly built from special donations and gifts. The rare museum that does have a textile gallery has to rotate its objects every few months so that they aren’t exposed to too much light. Obviously, textiles are extremely light sensitive and will lose their colors unless they’re carefully protected. We recently hired a curator for the CSROT, and now we’re focusing on cataloguing everything­­—some 650 textiles as of early 2012—in the archive properly. I have yet to restore them, and even now that we’re mounting this show and everything is coming out from closets and storage units, it’ll be a while before we get to that kind of work. For many years all I did was find them, buy them, and try to take care of them­­—in other words, I’d stick them under the bed. This sort of mirrored my art collection, most of which I barely ever saw since it was traveling so much.

Though it was not originally my intention to publicly exhibit these materials, Raven Row proposed the show in July 2010; I agreed, and they’ve made their own selections. Something that really drew me into this particular project is the history of the gallery’s location: Spitalfields, London, was an important eighteenth-century silk-weaving district that collapsed in 1824 after the end of a sixty-year embargo on foreign-spun silks. The exhibition will be arranged according to type, and organized chronologically within each category, with a large area devoted to European velvets and non-European headdresses. The range of other objects will be wide, including pieces from a fourth-century Egyptian tunic, a panel of dark blue silk from the Ming dynasty, and woven fragments of garments from the Wari period in Peru, ca. 1000. There will be Italian ciselé velvet upholstery from the seventeenth century, liturgical clothing, handpainted bark cloth from the Mbuti people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and several ceremonial headdresses made in the past century in South America and Papua New Guinea, just to name a few. We’re also showing silks banned in Europe during the eighteenth century, and thirty to forty early books, archival documents, and decrees from the textile library, including some royal proclamations. The gallery’s architectural partner, 6a, is designing the installation and building special vitrines to show the textiles, since they have to be safeguarded from the elements, from all the various kinds of rays. They must be kept in the dark, so to speak.

So far, I’ve purchased textiles that I liked and could afford, mostly those that complemented my book hunting. The library was always more important to me because I’ve been under the illusion that somehow it would be possible to have a complete collection of books on the history of textiles, whereas a comprehensive archive of the objects themselves is definitely impossible. I am very far from accomplishing my goal, and perhaps I never will. It’s something that can be done, however. Most likely by someone who’s crazy and rich enough to really do it.

“The Stuff That Matters: Textiles Collected by Seth Siegelaub for the CSROT,” curated by Sara Martinetti, Alice Motard, and Alex Sainsbury, is on view at Raven Row, London, Mar. 1–May 6.