Fabric Workshop and Museum unboxes an exhilarating anniversary show

The contents of this box inspired a series of Robert Pruitt photographs. Both are on display in a 40th-anniversary show at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

For 40 years, the Fabric Workshop and Museum has enabled artists’ obsessions.

Nearly all of its exhibitions are the result of a long process in which an invited artist works with the FWM staff to explore materials, processes, modes of expression, or a scale of work that the artist can’t achieve working alone. At its best exhibitions, you go in expecting to be surprised, and you are — but in a way you never could have anticipated.

This approach can be fun, but also a bit off-putting. One-artist shows are not so good if you don’t respond to the artist. And not all of the artists’ experiments work.

“Process and Practice: 40 Years of Experimentation,” an anniversary exhibition on view through March 25, seems designed to introduce this unique and adventurous institution to a wider audience. It is a multi-artist show that draws on the museum’s permanent collection of about 5,000 works. It includes well-known figures such as Louise Bourgeois, Ed Ruscha, Kara Walker, Claes Oldenburg, Chris Burden, and Roy Lichtenstein, along with lesser-known artists who have done remarkable things.

On display with the finished works are the contents of more than 100 boxes the museum asked the artists to assemble as a way of documenting the thinking and the processes that shaped the final work.

Camera icon Collection the Fabric Workshop and Museum
This 2001 photo by Robert Pruitt is one of a series on display at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, along with the box of items that influenced Pruitt’s images.

The staff asks every artist who exhibits there to do a box, and though the 371 boxes in the archive have been used for scholarly research, this is the first time they have been systematically examined or displayed.

“It was a little like Christmas,” said Susan Lubowsky Talbott, Fabric Workshop and Museum executive director and curator of the  exhibition. “Every box was a gift … It was also a little bit like archaeology, pulling away the layers and showing how art is made.”

The boxes are full of color studies, material samples, books, pictures, clippings, and all sorts of other stuff. One, by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka, contains mostly dried hogs’ intestines, some knotted and some stretched, from which, in 1997, he made a columnar light based on the measurements of his own body. The result is dull, not commensurate with the thought and effort that the contents of the box indicate he put into it.

Camera icon Fabric Workshop and Museum
“Space Walk” (2002) by Yinka Shonibare.

The box Yinka Shonibare assembled for his 2002 work Space Walk, a dramatic sculpture of floating astronauts, contains many record album covers, mostly of Philly Sound performers. Although the space suits are printed with patterns that evoke the artist’s West African heritage, they also contain imagery taken from the album covers. You might not notice that, though, unless you had looked into the box.

Similarly, the box that accompanies Renée Green’s Mise-en-Scéne: Commemorative Toile (1992) complicates the artwork. It is a living room setting, with traditional, store-bought furniture upholstered in what looks like a traditional toile fabric, with matching wallpaper, designed by the artist. If you look harder, you see that the pattern includes scenes of racial violence, including lynchings.

Talbott says that only after she looked into the box and saw an illustrated book on the war for independence in Haiti did she notice that Green shows black people lynching whites. That detail makes this already unsettling work even more complicated.

Camera icon Collection of the Fabric Workshop and Museum
“Mise-en-Scene: Commemorative Toile” (1992) by Renee Green.

Robert Pruitt’s untitled suite of photographs of a science fiction- and nostalgia-inspired African American “royal family” is funny, scary, and powerful. His subjects wear bicycle-wheel crowns and machine-gun-adorned turbans. The box that accompanies the display is a carefully curated meditation on comic book culture and costume.

This is a sprawling exhibition that takes up much of three floors of the Fabric Workshop’s Arch Street building. And though I have been emphasizing works that deal in some way with race, much of what’s here is made just for visual pleasure. You (1997) by Jim Hodges, a screen made from silk flowers, was the first of a genre for which the artist has become known. His box, filled with colorful leftovers from the mostly white screen, is almost as pretty as the work itself.

Anish Kapoor has become famous for monumental sculpture, but in 1997, working with red wool and fiberglass, he made Body to Body, a pendulous, somewhat mysterious, but obviously sexy work. Laura Owens’ silk-screened and embroidered series of trees on silk, from 2003, is just ravishing.

It seems clear that Talbott sees the opening of the boxes as part of a larger opening of an institution that is moving through a time of great change since the death of its founder, Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud, in 2015. Talbott, former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, came here on an interim basis but is now the Fabric Workshop and Museum’s second executive director.

Under Stroud’s leadership, what began as a project to involve fine artists in the production of yard goods and clothing became an important center for all sorts of new art in many different media, including performance and installations. At the beginning, exhibitions were a small part of its mission, but in 1996, the Fabric Workshop added the words and Museum to its name, to recognize what had long been part of its mission.

The institution was so closely identified with Stroud that many wondered what would become of it after she was gone. However, she provided substantial continued support for it through the foundation she funded, along with art she bequeathed. Moreover, it has continued to receive substantial grants to continue its program. Talbott describes its status as financially secure. Under Talbott, it has been increasing its public programs and partnerships with colleges and other museums in the area.

At the media preview for the exhibition, Talbott said that although the Fabric Workshop and Museum is well known in the national and international art world, it has not looked toward having an impact in the Philadelphia area, which is something she intends to change.

What she is talking about is risky. One thing that makes the Fabric Workshop and Museum special is that it has never dumbed down to be popular. But this show is a good sign that the current leadership there understands the essential character and quirkiness of the institution, even as it seeks to be friendlier to its potential audience.

The opening of its boxes is a gift to Philadelphians. It’s a good way to introduce yourself to a special place.

At Fabric Workshop

Process and Practice: 40 Years of Experimentation

  • Through March 25 at Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission: Free ($5 donation suggested). Information: 215-561-8888 or fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.