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Lucienne Day's textiles transcended mere fabric as examples of fine abstract art

Lucienne Day's textiles brought the look of modern art into many British homes in the years after World War II. A new exhibition at the Textile Museum at last gives her her due.
By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, July 18, 2010

In the late 1950s, the great French artist Yves Klein came up with a radical, pie-in-the-sky idea: How about an abstract painting without shape or size that could take over any space it was in? It was the kind of pure, improbably conceptual work that won him international fame. (And the fabulous show now at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum.)

One thing: Another artist -- an entire art form, in fact -- had got there before him. In 1951, on the far side of the English Channel, a 34-year-old named Lucienne Day had come up with a fabulous abstract picture that could be the size of a dish towel or stretch out to cover the wall of a mansion. Her abstract art could sprawl across every object in a room, from furnishings to windows to architecture -- even to the bodies standing by them. It was an abstraction that knew no limits.

It was also textile art -- and woman's work, which means it could never get, and still barely receives, the attention it deserves. Klein, working as a painter, properly gets kudos for grandly imagining that his trademark blue pigment could encompass the entire world, but textile artists had always imagined their work spreading out that way. The only problem is that we've taken this for granted. Looking at Day's fabric abstractions in light of the painted ones from her own time -- seeing her, that is, as Klein-before-Klein -- gives us a better sense of the true power of her art, and her art form.

A show at the Textile Museum, titled "Art by the Yard: Women Design Mid-Century Britain," helps us get there.

"Calyx" is the name of that piece that Day designed in 1951, when her husband, the furniture designer Robin Day, said he couldn't find any truly modern textiles. In one classic version, "Calyx" is a swarm of bizarre shapes, in yellow and orange and black, that crawl across the olive-brown linen they're silkscreened onto. Dotted white lines connect some forms, as though we're looking at a diagram from a science text. Other forms seem to be floating, like jellyfish trailing tentacles in a brown sea. Still others might almost be hybrid flowers blooming on the finest of stalks. All of them look more like something from a dream than from a living room. Spread out across a swath of sofa, or hanging from a curtain rod, they must have been unnerving.

Remember, we're talking England. Even today, the most sophisticated homes can still be swamped in tea-rose wallpaper, Blue Willow china and Laura Ashley curtains. In 1951, as that country was barely recovering from the privations and destruction of war, "Calyx" must have come across as sitting somewhere between raging folly and a blast of fresh air.

Day, who trained at the Royal College of Art, had already been taking commissions for textiles from a forward-looking British firm called Heal Fabrics. When she showed "Calyx" to her boss there, he said he'd print it -- mostly as a favor to her and her well-known husband -- but could pay her only half the usual fee, "because he was certain they wouldn't sell a yard of it," Day once said.

"Calyx" won the American Institute of Decorators award, and became a smash hit in Britain as well. It was the first of many Day had there. The Days labored to make work with an appeal for all classes and within the budgets of most people. (Reprints of some of Day's fabrics are available in the Textile Museum shop -- but at deluxe prices.) For a while in the 1950s and '60s, the couple achieved celebrity status. They were in an ad for Smirnoff vodka and another for a car. They helped move Britain from design nowheresville to being the world-famous source of Carnaby Street cool.

What makes Day's textiles so particularly great is that they don't much read as textiles, at least right away. For any design to unroll by the yard, it has no choice but to repeat. Usually, that's one of its most prominent features: Look at almost any classic wallpaper, and it ends up being all about its symmetries and repetitions.

But with Day's best fabrics, you feel much more as though you're looking at a stretch of picture that's been worked on edge-to-edge by hand, like a doodle -- or a fine painting -- spreading out in all directions. It feels as though there's detail worth examining all over a Day fabric, with the kind of attention that you might bring to a passage in a painting by Paul Klee or Joan MirĂ³.

Those are two obvious sources for the abstracted surrealism in Day's work, and she didn't deny it. But I think the path of influence is more complex than that. Klee, especially, might himself have been influenced by textiles -- by the way their patterns extend all across a field, as his abstractions do, rather than sitting primly in the middle. A lot of early abstraction came closer to such fabriclike "all-over-ism" than Old Master pictures ever had.

With Day, it's almost as though she's returning to the roots of abstraction by putting it back down on cloth. In the process, she keeps some of the handmade feel of classic painted abstraction. In "Calyx," her forms aren't solid and clean, like the cutouts or stencils that designs are often built around. Instead, they're messy and fractured, with one color showing through another like brushstrokes laid down in layers. "What I was aiming for was much nearer to fine art . . . [to] produce textiles as though I were a painter," she says in the show's documentary.

In other works such as "Trio" or "Larch," Day first puts down a clean geometric background of colored stripes or rectangles. Those then become a foil for brushy or scribbled marks that seem to sit on top, breaking away from the geometry's clean edges and messing them up. The tidy backgrounds stand for the traditional repeating order of textile design, and that lets the handmade patterns that Day layers over them seem even more disorderly, and less repeated and symmetrical, than they would on their own.

There are moments when her work gets so complex it seems almost conceptual. In 1959, about a decade before "conceptual art" became an official movement, Day designed a textile called "Runic" that is just a plain blue field covered edge to edge with strange, alphabetical marks in white. (Day had derived them from medieval runes.) The fabric looks almost like a modern computer printout, before such things existed. And it seems to reveal meaning even as it conceals it, in a trick typical of text-based art from the 1970s. It hints at later works by "fine artists" such as Sol LeWitt, who deconstructed geometric outlines, and Mel Bochner, who did the same with words.

By 1975, Day had done so well that she could quit commercial work and devote herself to the "fine art" of a collage technique that she called "silk mosaic," none of which is in this show. (It also has only a very few pieces from the wonderful china settings she designed for Rosenthal's Studio Line.) Day died this year, shortly before her survey opened in Washington but after earlier versions had been mounted in Colorado -- where most of its objects normally live, in the Denver collection of Jill A. Wiltse and H. Kirk Brown III.

Had Day lived to visit the Textile Museum, what would she have made of the Yves Klein show across town? Would she have seen Klein as a wild man, as a kindred spirit or as an artist lost in the clouds -- as she was busy reforming the British interior, one chintz couch at a time?

Art by the Yard: Women Design Mid-Century Britain at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, through Sept. 12. Call 202-667-0441 or visit Admission is by donation, suggested at $5.

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