Tapestry snippets: A chat with Marianne Yoors
February 16, 2011

Ploughshare, 1977, wool, 84"x84." The Yoors Family Trust.

More about the Yoors tapestries (see previous post here).  If you missed last summer’s exhibition of work by Jan Yoors, or would like a chance to see some of his fascinating output,  there is currently an exhibition of tapestries,  drawings,  and gouaches from the estate of Jan Yoors at reGeneration Furniture, NYC.  The exhibition has been extended until June 5, 2011.

There are several striking pieces in this show, but the standout is the enigmatic “Cobalt Mountain” (shown below), which measures over 20′ wide and took hundreds of hours of weaving to complete, and like most of their tapestries,  was done “on spec.”

"Cobalt Mountain," 1977, wool, 259" wide x 89" high. The Yoors Family Trust.

I continue to be intrigued by the Yoors’ mystique, and I asked Marianne if she would be willing to talk to me about her life and art.  She graciously agreed,  and here are some snippets from our conversation:

Jan, Annabert, and Marianne Yoors, together produced dozens  of handwoven tapestries in their Greenwich Village Studio between 1945 and 1977, the year that Jan died. The actual number is closer to 200,  seven of which are over twenty feet long.

Jan “dreamt in wool – only in wool”  because he loved the intense color that it absorbed.  Coincidentally,  he met and worked exclusively with the Paternayan Brothers, two Armenian wool dyers in New York. Their wool-dyeing business produced the skeins of rich Persian wool for the Yoors’ tapestries.  The colors are as brilliant today as when they were first dyed.  See, for example, the detail below,  from the border of “Wolves Howling at the Moon,” woven in 1956:

"Wolves Howling at the Moon," border detail, 1956, wool.

The tapestries were always signed, “Jan Yoors.”  Marianne  sounded weary of being asked why she and Annabert didn’t sign the weavings, and her answer is “we signed with every stitch.”

The Yoors family’s lives were inseparable from their work. Annabert and Marianne sometimes wove for days without a break. “When you spend six, eight, ten months weaving a tapestry,  you weave a foot or so and roll it up.  You cannot make a mistake because it cannot be fixed.”  Weaving together for fifty years,  Marianne says that they wove as one person,  as the tapestries’ flawless surfaces show.

Jan wove too, but he also wanted to design, and had “definite ideas of what he wanted.” He painted, drew, designed, traveled, sculpted, wrote and took photographs. (Jan Yoors’s photography can currently be seen at the L. Parker Stephenson Gallery in New York City.)

Since most of the Yoors’s tapestries were designed and woven during the 1960s and 1970s, I wondered where their work fit into the “fiber revolution” and concluded that their almost religious devotion to the work,  put it into another realm.  But Marianne has definite ideas on the subject, too, that she summed up by saying,  “all tapestry is fiber art, but not all fiber art is tapestry.”

Postscript:  Shortly after Marianne and I had our conversation,  I came across this sharp snippet of dialogue,  from Nicole Holofcener’s brilliant film “Please Give.”  It’s only 23 seconds long, so I transcribed the clip to make it easier to understand.  Note:  the “tapestry” being argued about is only seen briefly at the beginning of the clip, but is clearly a cut-pile rug.

Shopper 1:  I feel like that would look good in our house in New Paltz, either on the wall or on the floor.

Shopper 2: I’m more of a floor rug person.

Owner 1: It’s actually a tapestry.

Shopper 1: No it’s not.

Owner 1: Yeah, it’s a tapestry.

Shopper 1: It’s a rug.

Owner 1: OK, it’s a rug . . . or a tapestry.

Shopper 1: I’m like a hundred percent sure that’s a rug.

Owner 2 (on phone): You know, I think you’re right.  It’s a rug.

Nicole Holofcener has perfect pitch for yuppie bickering, but I was amused that she chose a tapestry, of all things, for her characters to argue about.



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The tapestries of Jan, Annabert, and Marianne Yoors
July 15, 2010

"Annabert Weaving" (c) the Yoors Family Partnership

With some exceptions,  I am not a fan of contemporary tapestry weaving,  so when my friend Ann Rosenthal called recently to ask if I had seen Annabert Yoors’s obituary in the paper,  I asked,  “Who?”  Ann said,  “She was a weaver who wove with her husband,  and there’s a picture of her at her loom.  Maybe it will be your next article.”  I didn’t know who Annabert Yoors was,  and when I finally found the obituary,  I still didn’t recognize the small,  grainy picture in the paper as being of a weaver at her loom,  even when I was looking right at it  The photo at the top of this post is a clearer,  enlarged version of the one that was in the New York Times’ June 29 obituary.

So if I didn’t know who Ann was talking about,  why did the name Yoors ring a bell deep in my memory?  I associated it vaguely with my friend,  mentor,  and one-time boss at Atwood Fabrics,  Sharon,  so I e-mailed to ask whether she remembered mentioning someone named Yoors to me.  Sharon surprised me by replying,  “As far as Yoors is concerned,  you’re right . . . I modeled for him when I first met Gerry.  His studio was above hers.”  Ann’s call and Sharon’s remark started me on a meandering trip back to bohemian New York.

I started my research by reading about Jan Yoors (1922-77),  and learned that he was a protean figure,  Belgian-born,  whose life story is worthy of a screenplay.  In fact two films were made about him,  but I was only able to track down one,  a short video called Weaving Two Worlds, available on Amazon.  The other film is mentioned in Cathryn Drake’s  excellent article about the Yoorses,  “Tied in the Wool,”  in the June 2001 issue of Metropolis magazine online.

If you’re interested in reading about Yoors — and as I said,  his life is such a great yarn one would swear it was fiction — I also recommend the article “Bohemian Rhapsody,”  by Beatrice V. Thornton,  in the current issue of Modern magazine.  Modern magazine was unfamiliar to me,  but it’s an interesting,  stylish  new quarterly interior design magazine that focuses on midcentury furniture and conoisseurship.  Ms.  Thornton writes,  “In his relatively short life he [Jan Yoors] became a sculptor,  a painter,  a filmmaker,  a writer,  an illustrator,  and a photographer,  as well as a member of the World War II underground . .  . But if any medium can be said to secure the name of Jan Yoors in the pantheon of artist-artisans,  it is his work in tapestry.”

Jan,  Annabert (his first wife),  and Marianne (his second wife)  came to NYC after World War II.  Jan had been trained as a sculptor,  but after seeing a tapestry exhibition,  he became smitten by French tapestries.  So the three set up an independent tapestry studio in NYC in 1951,  according to Kore Yoors,  son of Marianne and Jan.  It was  “at 96 Fifth Avenue [in Greenwich Village].  It was the Van Buren estate,  which was converted to artists’ studios — William Zorach,  Jack Levine,  and Kalas,  to name a few.”

They built their large vertical tapestry loom themselves and taught themselves to weave so Annabert and Marianne could produce the large tapestries Jan designed.  The warps were cotton,  and the wefts were custom-dyed,  richly colored Persian wool.  It didn’t surprise me to learn that Jan’s father,  Eugène,  was a well-known stained-glass artist (see below),  because there are echoes of stained-glass style in Jan’s bold shapes,  solid blocks of saturated colors,  and black accents.  The image below is one of Eugène Yoors’s stained-glass works.

Stained glass by Eugene Yoors

and this is a detail from one of Jan’s tapestries,  Tantric Yellow.

Detail "Tantric Yellow" tapestry by Jan Yoors

Historically,  the artists who designed tapestries were not the same people as the expert weavers who wove,  or “transcribed,”  them.  The weavers worked facing the back of the piece and saw the front only in a mirror.  But the Yoorses — like many other artist-weavers (including Ann Rosenthal) — worked facing the front side of the tapestry,  which allowed them a freedom and spontaneity that they could not get the other way.  (Notice the pattern in the tapestry that Annabert is weaving at the top of this post.)

I have no idea whether Jan Yoors was familiar with the work of William Morris when he took up tapestry weaving and set up his studio,  but the parallels are striking.  William Morris,  the complex Pre-Raphaelite genius,  lived about 100 years before Yoors,  and he said,  “The noblest of the weaving arts is tapestry:  in which there is nothing mechanical.”  He built a tapestry loom in his bedroom,  taught himself to weave,  and wove his first panel — which took him 516 hours to complete — in 1879.  (My source for that information is Linda Parry’s fine 1983 book,  William Morris Textiles.)

In 1959,  the Yoorses moved their studio uptown to E. 47th St.,  near the United Nations,  and it was there that my friend Sharon — a teenager at the time — was,  coincidentally,  learning to handweave bedspreads and handbags in a studio on the floor below.  Sharon met Jan and modeled for tapestry sketches for a while,  an experience she described as “mostly sitting around drinking Turkish coffee and chitchatting,  and two women tiptoeing around.”  The photograph below of Marianne,  an unidentified feline,  and Annabert  was taken in that 47th St. studio.

"Yoors Studio 47th St." (c) the Yoors Family Partnership

(Of course,  not all weavers have this kinship with cats,  but the slideshow below contains a photo of Marianne weaving with a cat on a cushion beside her,  and one that I slipped in of my cat Puffy and me in a similar arrangement.)

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The Yoors studio remained on E. 47th St.  until 1967,  when they moved back to Greenwich Village,  this time to Waverly Place.  Jan Yoors died in 1977 at the age of 55,   but,  remarkably,  the two women continued to live together,  to raise their three children,  and to complete Jan’s not-yet-woven tapestries.

Family dynamics are not my subject,  but there are interesting insights from some members of the Yoors family in Cathryn Drake’s article,  and also in Robert Lipsyte’s interesting 1998 interviews with Marianne and Annabert in the New York Times.

The research that I did made me long to see the actual work.  In photographs,  the tapestries look like hard-edged paintings,  but in an uncannily serendipitous moment,  I discovered a current exhibition of some Yoors tapestries at reGeneration Furniture in Soho, NYC.

ReGeneration Furniture is a seventeen-year-old store,  owned by Valerie Guariglia and Christine Miele,  that deals in midcentury vintage furniture,  with a focus on the fifties.  Yoors’s tapestries and other works harmonize beautifully with their furniture.  The exhibition,  scattered gracefully throughout the showroom,  consists of three tapestries,  a group of charcoal drawings,  several photographs,  and a variety of other material,  all well chosen by Eric Hibit.

reGENERATION

The show opened in April and was scheduled to close July 17,  but it has been attracting so much interest that Valerie and Christine decided to extend it through October.

The tapestries are flawlessly woven,  and Jan’s bold designs look completely contemporary,  even though the latest one in the show is dated 1975.  The surfaces aren’t flat;  they have a subtle ribbed texture that creates a quiet rhythm and warmth.  And they look so at home on the first floor of reGeneration’s inviting two-story space that it feels as if they are,  well,  in somebody’s home.  I hope that you will visit and enjoy the exhibition as much as I did.

Throughout the time I have spent on this story,  I have been trying to figure out why I feel so close to it,  and the answer is simple:  it made me remember lands I have wandered through.  I never was a “bohemian in Greenwich Village,”  but I had relatives who were,  and I “grew up” there in those years.  Greenwich Village of that period will always be the sophisticated center of my New York,  no matter how much it changes.  It’s my spiritual home.

I am grateful to Kore Yoors for providing the picures of Jan,  Marianne, Annabert,  and the figurative tapestry Conquerors Will Be Conquered.  The pictures from the exhibition at reGeneration are my own.  I want to give sincere thanks to Kore Yoors and Valerie Guariglia for their generosity and help with this article.  It’s been a pleasure.

2010 Weave of the week #1: “Swept Away”/Coptic weaving
January 2, 2010

"Swept Away," designed, handwoven, and photographed by Ann Rosenthal

Ann Rosenthal is a longtime friend and a textile artist whose work fascinates me.  (To read my earlier posts about her weaving,  see herehere,  and  here.)  Each of  Ann’s weavings is about trying to resolve a different complex weaving idea.  The idea behind her latest piece,  Swept Away (shown above),  was to weave a pattern and then “dissolve” it,  but when I looked at the image of the girl sweeping away the checkerboard floor,  all I could think of was how intensely I wanted to sweep away 2009.  So Swept Away seemed like the perfect choice for the first featured weave of the New Year.  (It is just a coincidence that last year’s first weave of the week was When Opposites Attract,  another of Ann’s works,  see here).

Ann’s unique hybrid tapestries have been baffling me since she started doing them in the 1980s,  but I had never asked her what inspired them until I started thinking about writing this post.  Her technique of combining twill and tapestry in the same weaving comes from fifth- to sixth-century Coptic weaving.  (The Copts are native Egyptians whose ancestors embraced Christianity in the first century.)  Coptic textiles woven in that style are sometimes misidentified as being embroidered or even painted (that happens to Ann’s work, too),  but she examined both sides of several Coptic woven pieces at the textile library of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Ratti Center)  and confirmed that the two weaves were created as a single piece.  The detail below from a fourth- to seventh-century Coptic weaving (Museum of Natural History and Ethnography,  Colmar,  France) shows the two weaves particularly well,  as well as the single row of twining that surrounds the motif.

Coptic textile detail. Photo: Julien Schweiger

Here are some weaving details about Swept Away:  It is 12″ x 14″ and was woven sideways,  tapestry style,  on an 8-harness Macomber.  The diagonals visible in the background have the same function as Navajo rug weavers’ “lazy lines” do:  they make it easier to work on small sections of a large area.  Ann shaped the words with yarn and tied them down with couching threads (they are not woven in).  Personal note:  my favorite detail is the broomstick,  which was woven with a bit of leftover velveen yarn from one of my scarves.

I read a bit about Coptic weaving on the Indiana University Art Museum’s excellent website and in Early Decorative Textiles by W.  Fritz Volbach (a 1969 book available on Amazon),  and it’s easy to see why Ann is so drawn to it.  See her lively 2009 piece,  A Not So Still Life (below,  right),  and the charming fifth- or sixth-century Coptic piece that inspired it, Vase with the Tree of Life (below,  left).

In trying to put Coptic weaving into context,  I learned that much of it was created during the period of great upheaval popularly known as the Dark Ages (fifth to eleventh centuries) that started with the decline and fall of Rome.  It was a period of barbarian invasions,  social and political chaos,  wars,  economic depression,  epidemics,  and perhaps a global climatic catastrophe in the sixth century.  But through it all Coptic weavers kept on working,  weaving images of warriors,  gods,  plants,  and creatures into their fabrics.  Happily,  enough of those cloths have survived to help inspire us to do our own work,  and hope for better times.  And whatever debris history leaves on your doorstep — sweep it away!

Cheers and Happy New Year.