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Meet Françoise Grossen, the artist who predated your love of rope by four decades

A retrospective on her work at the Museum of Arts and Design cements her in the canon

Four years after the publication of her book String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art, curator Elissa Auther found herself working at the Museum of Arts and Design. Her book covered the pioneering midcentury artists who “set the stage for how fiber is used in contemporary art,” artists like Françoise Grossen, who was born in Switzerland and has lived and worked in New York since the 1960s. MAD, as it just so happens, has several of Grossen’s large-format pieces in its permanent collection—all but forgotten by the public since fiber art went out of fashion three-plus decades ago.

Auther knew exactly how to fill an empty spot on the exhibition calendar once she arrived at her new post, and called Grossen to participate in the museum’s “Point of View” series, in which a chosen designer curates pieces of the museum’s collection “as it pertains to their own artistic practice.”

The meat of what’s on display comprises seven sinew-y, earthy rope sculptures made by Grossen in the 1960s and ‘70s, including four wall hangings of the type featured in MoMA’s seminal exhibition from 1969. That show, curated by Grossen’s former boss, Jack Lenor Larsen, paired the young Swiss artist with established names like Sheila Hicks and Lenore Tawney.

Contemporary fiber artists “don't have the same burdens that someone like Françoise would have dealt with in her day,” explains Auther. “That divide, with strict boundaries around what constituted art and craft, has since dissipated.”

I ask Auther to theorize why the medium has gained such traction in the 21st century, almost to the point of ubiquity. “Fiber art is a medium that was marginalized for a long time and has now found its place due to its connection with the everyday,” she says, making a connection I had never fully drawn, but that makes complete sense. “The associations that were then liabilities now have a relevance: a connection to the domestic realm, women’s history. And there has never been such a large audience sensitive to those issues.”

During the install for the exhibition, I spoke with Françoise Grossen herself about her origins as a fiber artist, the enduring appeal of rope, and the dearth of modern-day architectural commissions.

Rope has completely come back. What do you think of its resurgence?

Françoise Grossen: People are so involved with their computers, to such an extent that they’re looking for something else they can touch, that’s tactile. People now see rope in a window and tell me, Oh! You would like it. But I’m trying to do something else; where they only see the material, I want to make people forget the material and see the shape.

So what are the qualities of rope that make you want to work with it?

FG: Well, it’s additive. Unlike working with marble or stone, where you take things away, with rope you add.

What got you into this in the first place?

FG: Well, we can look at a piece here (Conte Clair des Nuits Noir, above). I had made a very similar piece with wool, and then I went to Africa and I couldn’t find any wool, so I used rope. My father was working in Gabon and I was between studying architecture. I there for six months and discovered a new way of life, a new way of considering the time.

How did you dye the rope?

FG: It was really make-do, with a garbage can on top of a camping stove on the beach. You have to cut the rope and tie the ends so it doesn’t unfurl. Then you boil the water with the dye, dip it in, and wait for the color to seep in. It’s faded a little, but it is 50 years old.

You lived in Los Angeles for two years. How did that affect your work, especially in comparison to your long run living in New York?

FG: I guess I’m a city girl. I moved back to New York because I like to be on the sidewalk and see people. But I worked so hard at the time that it really didn’t matter where I was. I lived on the UCLA campus, had no money, and no car, so my professor, Bernard Kester, helped me.

I took the bus from New York to Los Angeles. They had this $19, 19-day trip. It was amazing, and I think I really learned English [on that trip]. We stopped in Montreal, Chicago, and Salt Lake City—then I arrived in LA, totally terrified.

How has the exhibition of your work changed over time?

I used to show my work outdoors and in different environments that related to architecture. I had a show at Reed College [in 1977, where a rowboat dragged one of Grossen’s rope sculptures along the surface of a pond] and they let me use the pond for the piece Inchworm II. It was just the beginning for performance art. I’ve hung them outside, in the snow, over gravel. [Contact I, from 1979] I hung on Staple Street in Tribeca, close to where I lived. Now, with this mania for security, they’d never let me do that.

Are you still doing large-scale architectural commissions for clients?

FG: No, that stopped quite a while ago, in the early ‘80s. And a lot of them are no more, because when ownership changes they want to put their own mark, and they take it down. I did a beautiful piece in Secaucus, New Jersey, and the new mayor wanted a fountain instead. They call and say, Do you want it back? But what am I going to do with a piece that is 24 feet high?

I think the architecture has changed, too. It was really necessary [to hang textiles] in those days because there was so much concrete and Brutalism. Now everything is more decorative.