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By Diana LoercherSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 13, 1980


A soft sculpture airplane hangs from the ceiling, and the 75-foot-long table paved with squares of colored fabric looks like a runway. Panels of patterned cloth shade the tall windows that enclose the 6,000-square-foot room and confirm the impression that we are in a sort of magic hangar where ideas take off instead of airplanes.

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The scene is the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, the first of its kind in the country and a place where distinctions between arts and crafts, fine and decorative arts, fade and bleed into one another.Founded in 1977 by Marion (Kippy) Stroud, formerly of the Philadelphia Print Club, and funded primarily by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Fabric Workshop offers to artists, craftsmen, and apprentices the opportunity to experiment with silk-screen printing and design.

Seamstresses stand by with sewing machines and irons to piece together and polish the finished products. These objets d'art generally assume the shape of flat fabric such as Robert Kushner's "Lilies" and Sam Gilliam's "Philadelphia Soft," which hang on the wall like a painting or tapestry, or of a functional object such as Roy Lichtenstein's shifts or Jun Kanecko's laundry bags. The works may be unique or print multiples, rather like graphic editions, and in some respects the Fabric Workshop is modeled after the great graphic workshops such as Tamarind and Gemini.

But a key difference is that while the artist's design is initially printed on a two-dimensional surface in both instances, paper remains two-dimensional whereas fabric is as mutable as the imagination would make it. Thus, classification is often difficult. Among the works that were on view in the workshop's recent exhibition "Material Pleasures," Ned Smyth's "Philadelphia Pattern Palm," four silk-screened palm trees affixed to the wall, seem more like environmental sculptures than prints, Scott Burton's "Fabric for Window Curtains" more like conceptual art than curtains, and Judith Shea's "Vests" more like minimal paintings than articles of clothing.

The question is: What does the versatility of fabric have to do with art? The answer is: Much more than most people realize. Out of the so-called "pluralism" of the visual arts during the '70s there were at least two trends that gathered sufficient momentum to carry them into the '80s. One was the decorative movement and the other experimentation with new media. Both trends dovetail at the Fabric Workshop.

The decorative impulse, as an exhibition organized by the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art was entitledM, derives from such diverse sources as the paintings of Matisse, Islamic and Oriental design, and the more ubiquitous patterns found on wallpaper, furniture, borderS, etc. The result is art that integrates color and form in a manner that is visually dense and aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps the best known of its practitioners is Frank Stella, who has progressed from hard-edged geometric design to a more fluid and sinuous composition.

The movement has been interpreted as a reaction to the sterility of minimalism -- as ICA director Janet Kardon put it, "a post-modern response to a kind of sensual starvation shared also by architecture and design." The movement's extremists are known as pattern painters, such as Valerie Jaudon, who locate a symmetrical, repetitive "pattern" within a gridlike structure. Patterns are of course nothing new, and for an erudite analysis of their origin E. H. Gombrich's "The Sense of Order" is the best source. He infers that the patterning impulse derives from man's survival need to establish regularity and predictability in his environment and that it reflects a perception of biological rhythms.

Horace Solomon, co-director of the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York, which handles several decorative artists and pattern painters, sees decoration more simply as a revival of art's fundamental purpose. He explained, "All art is decoration. Art is used to enhance or embellish an environment or wall. It's the icing on the cake."