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.

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."

Founding director Holly Solomon believes that there is a political implication to the decorative movement as well. "A lot of this work came out of the generation that fought against our participation in the Vietnam war. This is the pacifist work of flower children." She also feels that the art is profoundly democratic not only in its attitude toward other cultures but toward the public.

She continued, "The whole thing about these younger artists is that they're trying to make the world available to two audiences: the academic and the mass.It's a generous kind of movement where you don't have to be steeped in art history to go into a gallery and appreciate it."

These artists are committed to taking art down from its pedestal, literally and figuratively, and reintroducing it to daily life. As Miss Stroud expressed it, artists want to "paint the world;" that is, decorate the environment around them rather than the walls of galleries or museums. In the manner of the pop artists they also want to use the world -- the trite, the overlooked, the taken-for-granted -- as material for art as well as social statement.

Here is the manifesto of "wallpaper" artists Cynthia Carlson: "My working with decorative concerns is to take something (art) historically located in the periphery (visually as well as philosophically) and move it to center stage. Borders, edges, ornamentation, decoration, embellishments, and adornments are first dislocated as the focus of attention, and then relocated in the conceptual idea of home. Home as a place for privacy, safety, family, useful things, loved things, closeness, etc. The wall (paper) pieces have to do with the function of art: Instead of having it and locating it within the home, insisting on home as location is the art."

Significantly, more and more decorative artists are working with fabric because of its natural affinity with decoration, both as function and design. For example, Joyce Kozloff's elaborately patterned, Kaleidoscopic paintings that borrow from Islamic, Egyptian, and Indian traditions translate easily into silk and acquire a more lustrous texture. Miss Kozloff, who is also experimenting with tile and stained glass, has declared, "The Fabric Workshop has provided an opportunity for me to extend my work to an environmental scale. Working with silk, that light airy substance, I have found myself moving from ideas about painting to fantasies about architectural ornament.

Another decorative painter who recently spent a period of residence at the Fabric Workshop is Brad Davis. In an interview there he explained how he arrived at his exotic, florid depictions of nature: "Tradition is very important to me.I need to feel a part of it. But the whole notion of the avantgarde was to dump everything from the past and move into the future. Now there's a new humanistic spirit and a reaction against the Machine Age, the plastic and steel at the Museum of Modern Art. The whole thrust of the 20th century was this strongly reductivist, highly intellectual tradition that left very little for the artist or the person looking at the art. Now there's an interest in the East and Eastern religions. That kind of thinking has changed people. Art is becoming more individual and more satisfying."

These artists are drawing upon not only Western tradition but upon other cultures and interpreting them in a contemporary, personal manner much as the cubists reshaped primitive art. To recall Ezra Pound's famous dictum, "Make it new."

Mr. Davis freely admits his indebtedness to the Islamic, Oriental, and Indian cultures and goes the heretical step further of feeling perfectly comfortable with the anti-minimalist "horror vacui" and the anti-intellectual adjective "beautiful" to describe his paintings. "I want to make my paintings as beautiful and gorgeous as possible," he exulted. "Rather than attempt to reproduce the world I want my art to be a part of it."

Mr. Davis spent a week in residence at the Fabric Workshop to adapt his birds of paradise theme and the style of his "Shiva's Dog" drawings to panels of satin or polished cotton to achieve a more luminous effect. Mr. Davis is fascinated by fabric's textural variations and by "the warmth of fabric, its softness." As an admirer of medieval tapestry, he also finds the flexibility of scale that fabric offers appealing.

But what about the artists who create fabric for clothing or interior design? Robert Kushner, for example, has proclaimed, "My greatest hope is to walk into someone's house one day and see my design on their couch." Kushner has also made clothing which he wears in his "performance" pieces. In this sense he is using art to decorate himself as well as the environment and making the point that an artist can express himself as personally in clothing as on canvas.

The growing convergence of arts and crafts raises questions about what distinction, if any, remains between them and whether it is valid. Fabric is a particularly good example of the tension that creates. Textiles are not considered "fine art" and even if they make their way into a museum, they are segregated in their own department. They have the additional negative connotation of being "women's work." Yet the great irony is that the canvas on which artists paint is itself fabric, so does this simply mean there is a hierarchy among fabrics? The artists and craftsmen at the Fabric Workshop have worked with materials as diverse as bedsheets, felt, pigskin, silk, Belgian linen, and scraps of found fabric, all of which have not only their inherent aesthetic properties but a social status as well. Kim MacConnel, Lucas Samaras, and Miriam Schapiro make abstract collages from bits of clothing and accessories -- art from the remnants of life.

So why if an artist of the repute of Robert Rauschenberg chooses to make a hanging rather than a painting is it of any less importance? Is the issue the process rather than the material?Mrs. Solomon avers, "What characterizes the artists of the period is process and use of material in and of the material itself, whether it is a stone or a sequin."

But certain processes, such as silk-screening or printmaking, involve technical procedures that distance the artist from his creation despite hand-coloring or hand-painting. Similarly these processes are geared toward duplication -- fabric multiples or print editions -- and the quality of uniqueness has a great deal to do with the value we ascribe to a work of art.

Another confusing element in judging the "value," monetary and aesthetic, of fabric art, is whether it is utilitarian. Traditionally, functionalism has been the province of crafts, but the decorative artist is saying that decoration is function too, whether it be of a person or a wall. Are Judith Shea's vests clothing if she wears them, art if she hangs them on the wall?

In summary the more one analyzes the distinction between art and crafts, fine and decorative arts, the more ambiguous and even absurb it becomes. Yet everyone agrees that it is necessary. One cannot accord the same status to a pair of overalls, a tablecloth, or a laundry bag that one does to a "serious" work of art whether it be a silk-screen print or a painting. Also the commercialism implicit in utilitarian objects inevitably taints their artistic image, even though this is exactly the kind of snobbery against which the decorative artist is protesting.

The consensus seems to be that the criterion for determining a work's status pertains to the artist's background and intention. Mrs. Solomon declared, "I think the distinction between art and crafts has to do with a certain education. The Artists I choose to show come out of an art history background, and they are intelligent as far as art history is concerned even if they are using the notions and sources of crafts."

Mr. Davis concludes that "a lot has to do with intention. A great Chinese pot embodies the intention of craft. Craft is about the medium and the material , but art is about ideas."

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