Soft fabrics have solid appeal

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Textiles have become a must-have medium for museums—and collectors are slowly catching on

Material world: Caroline Achaintre’sBefor, 2013, sold for £11,000 at Arcade gallery (FL, J9)

Once dismissed as utilitarian, homespun and intellectually flimsy, textiles are gaining international stature in art museums. The US artist Richard Tuttle unveiled a vast installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall this week (I Don’t Know, or the Weave of Textile Language, until 6 April), while new and older works are on show in his retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London (until 14 December). Meanwhile, there are shows on fibre art, weaving and embroidery at the Drawing Center in New York and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. It is no coincidence that examples can also be found at Frieze London and Frieze Masters this week.

“It’s not an embarrassing material any more,” says Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern. “When I started to talk about textiles in Rotterdam [at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, in the 1990s], my colleagues thought I was completely nuts.” The Tate is now steadily acquiring textiles, including three by the US artist Sheila Hicks earlier this year. In April, the gallery is due to host the first UK retrospective of the French artist Sonia Delaunay, known for her textile designs. The untold history of 20th-century artists working with textiles, Dercon says, “is a can not of worms but of wonders”.

The market has been slower to catch on to the appeal of textile art, partly because it poses conservation challenges: it is light-sensitive and vulnerable to moths. Textiles made by big-name artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter do not achieve the exposure or eye-popping prices that their paintings do; the auction record for a tapestry by Richter, set this year, is £866,500, while his paintings can fetch tens of millions. The medium “is still something that seems extraordinary to many collectors”, says Lukasz Gorczyca of Raster Gallery (FL, G23). He presented tapestries by Slavs and Tatars at Frieze London (edition of three, €16,000 each), and the Tate bought one on Tuesday, thanks to the Outset Frieze Art Fair Fund.

Commercial interest is on the rise, however. Rosemarie Trockel’s wool work Untitled, 1985-88, sold at auction for nearly $5m in April, and last month, S2, the private sales gallery run by Sotheby’s in London, launched its autumn season with “Stitched Up”, an exhibition of textiles by contemporary artists. “Textile [art] has entered the mainstream,” says the art adviser Emily Tsingou.

Woven works by Alighiero Boetti and Trockel are holding their own alongside Old Master paintings and Renaissance bronzes at Frieze Masters, while textiles fresh from the studio are selling briskly at Frieze London.

Michael Werner (FL, A7) sold Enrico David’s wool work Untitled, 2014, for $80,000, while Standard Oslo (FL, D1) sold Ann Cathrin November Høibo’s tapestry Untitled, 2014, for €16,000. Galeria Louisa Strina (FL, D8) sold two works by Tonico Lemos Auad—Untitled, 2014, featuring embroidery, and Odalisques, 2014, which includes crochet—for $25,000 and $50,000 respectively.

The growing demand has come as a surprise to the UK-based artist Caroline Achaintre, who has been working with wool for 13 years. “Before, people were quite scared of [the material]; it’s very nice that they are now responding to it,” she says. The artist has a solo show at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin next month. Her wool piece Befor, 2013, sold at Arcade gallery (FL, J9) for £11,000.

Many point out that artists made textiles long before they were fashionable, and will continue to do so. “Fibre often becomes mired in conversations about art and craft, but artists don’t think about categories—they consider how a material might be deployed,” says Jenelle Porter, a curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The artist Teresita Fernández, who has a large-scale textile on show at the Kyoto University of Art & Design in Japan (until 16 January), says she likes the medium because “you can control the density of the weft and the warp—it’s like a three-dimensional drawing”.

Chris Dercon is evangelical about the power of textile art. “Social history, cross-cultural relationships, technology, teamwork—all these aspects come together in one piece of cloth,” he says.

Who’s afraid of a Richard Tuttle work?

Galleries are making the most of the buzz surrounding Richard Tuttle’s exhibitions at Tate Modern and the Whitechapel Gallery—but his work, featuring unorthodox materials like Styrofoam, wire and cloth, is not typical art-fair fare. “There’s an intimacy to Tuttle’s works,” says Angela Westwater of Sperone Westwater (FM, C6), which brought nine pieces to Frieze Masters, priced between $60,000 and $300,000. “A collector would look at it and ask: ‘Should I be afraid of this work?’” says Marc Glimcher of Pace Gallery (FL, A2; FM, C9), which sold the dyed fabric piece Walking on Air, B12, 2008, to a German collector for between $65,000 and $150,000. Tuttle discourages Pace, his primary dealer, from raising his prices, according to a source familiar with his market, but his prices on the secondary market are climbing. At David Zwirner (FL, B7; FM, F11), an early cloth work, Red Brown Canvas, 1967, was on reserve on Thursday for $800,000.

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