Friday, November 22, 2013

Ruth Reeves: Art in Fabric Instead of Paint

[Ruth Reeves]
Ruth Reeves
ca. 1947
New York
Over this past year, we have explored painters, sculptors, and photographers. This post, I would like to introduce you to a textile designer who rightfully belongs in the category of Fine Art. Textiles are intimately related to us more so than painting and sculpture-we all wear clothing according to our tastes, climate, country, and ethnicity and, in some cases, our religion. Influenced by ancient civilizations and primitive peoples, Ruth Reeves felt that "The fabrics of our own time express our contemporary life both in actual motif, where fine contemporary forms seem feasible, and in feeling."

Ruth Marie Reeves (1892 - December 23, 1966) was a painter, an Art Deco textile designer, and an expert on Indian handicrafts. Her wall hangings were created for the children's room of the public library in Mount Vernon, New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England; and for the carpet at the Radio City Music Hall in New York.  In that project, she was commissioned by textile designer, Donald Deskey, to create a wall fabrics and "vast carpet that would cover the grand lobby, staircase, and three mezzanines---and be symbolic of theatrical activities. In a mosaic-like configuration, Reeves interwove strong geometric abstractions of musical instruments. The rhythmical patterns, with a colorful combination of geometrically shaped banjos, guitars, accordions, piano keys, saxophones, and harps, hover against clouds of bright orange and yellow in a deep blue sky.  . . .The result is an immense, jazzy carpet that is opulent and urbane. It is perfect for a public pleasure palace." [1]
Ruth Reeves
ca. 1929
Radio City Music Hall Lobby, New York

Born in Southern California, Reeves attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York from 1910 to 1911, and returned to the West to attend the San Francisco School of Design in 1911-1913. Reeves won a scholarship to the Art Students League where she studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller during the years 1914 and 1915. She travelled to Paris and lived there from the years 1921-1928 where she studied with renowned Avant-garde artist Fernand L├ęger. Her designs displayed a modernist idiom and were influenced by artistic movements in France such as Cubism and other contemporary French styles.

Upon her return to New York, Reeves established herself in the artist's community and began to create hand-printed textiles. She joined the newly established American Union of Artists and Craftsmen which sponsored major exhibitions in 1930 and 1931 to promote modern American design. [2]

A commission to design fabrics for the period furniture retailer, W. & J. Sloan established Reeves' reputation as one of the foremost original designers in the field.
Ruth Reeves
American Scene
Block Printed cotton
105 1/2 x 47 1/4 inches
Yale University
Art Gallery, John P. Axelrod Collection

In her design for American Scene, Reeves combined "imaginary rooms in a country house where her given textile would have meaning." [3] The American Scene pattern recalls eighteenth century textiles with repeating groups of picturesque figures, surrounded by arabesques or foliage however, this particular type of pattern was also typically used in Art Deco fabrics. She took an eclectic approach in her design and choice of fabrics she employed. She elevated simple materials such as billiard-table felt, Turkish toweling, homespun, and unbleached cotton as she glorified those fabrics in a variety of treatments. Reeves also referred to Cubism, Futurism, folk and tribal art for inspiration.

Reeves, like many of her contemporaries, embraced modernism which served to move design away from old-fashioned historical styles and create sleek, abstract forms appropriate for modern life. She was able to incorporate both modern and primitive in her designs that combined "old and new as a synthesis of primitive vitality and machine-age sophistication." [4]

Ruth Reeves
Design for a Child's Room
ca. 1930?
Indianapolis Museum of Art

Funded by a grant from the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C., Reeves traveled extensively in Guatemala in 1934 where she visited the most remote villages and studied traditional Mayan textiles. Her intention was to create a set of modern variations that were inspired, not copied, by native work. She collected costumes that became part of an exhibition along with her own Guatemalan-derived designs at Rockefeller Center in March of 1935. Simultaneously, Macy's opened a display of additional costumes from her collection as well as a selection of modern adaptations and accessories using Guatemalan motifs. [5]

Reeves was a perfectionist who refused to compromise her high design standards. She always believed that textile design belonged to the Fine Arts. She also held that it was important to acquire an 'artistic literacy,' a familiarity with art in all forms and histories. Good design, she wrote, "rings a wonderful bell inside me." [6]

Overlooking Kingston 2
Ruth Reeves
Overlooking Kingston (Hudson River Series)
ca. 1934
Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection

A woman of the world, after 1956, Reeves lived in India, where she served on the All-India Handicrafts Board. She died in New Delhi in 1966.
1. Christine Roussel, The Guide to the Art of Rockefeller Center ( ), 17.
2. On the AUDAC, see R.L. Leonard and Adolphe C. Glassgold, Modern American Design by the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen, intro. Mel Byars (1930; rpt. 1992)
3.Harry V. Anderson, "Contemporary American Designers," The Decorators Digest (Mar. 1935), 44. 
4. Reeves, "What Creative Design Means to Me," typescript ms., 3, in Ruth Reeves Papers, microfilm reel no. 3093, frame 59, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
5. Marian Wardle, ed., American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 36.
6. Reeves, "Let's Not Be Timorous," Curtain and Drapery Department Magazine (Mar. 1946): 22; Reeves, "What Creative Design Means to Me," ms., 4-7; Anderson, "Contemporary American Designers," 58.

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