By Anna-Maria Kretzer
The other night I was watching the Antiques Roadshow and I saw a story about a mobile by Alexander Calder that I got really excited about. The woman who brought it explained that Calder had attended a party at her aunt and uncle’s house in 1958. When he saw a pillow that the woman’s aunt had embroidered with an image of his artwork, Calder was “astounded.” I imagine he had never seen modernist abstract imagery interpreted in a textile medium before that. Calder was so excited about the pillow that the woman’s aunt gave it to him. And in return Calder sent her one of his own creations: a mobile.
As a huge fan of textile arts I was thrilled to hear this story! Alexander Calder recognized the aesthetic value of a needlepoint pillow as equal to his own work during a time that pretty much anything a woman might make in her own home had inferior status to art made by men in studios. Although many feminist writers, including Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, have written about art forms that have traditionally been made by women, they are often still placed way below painting and sculpture in the hierarchy of high art. A growing number of professional artists use “craft” media in work that is destined for a museum or gallery, but there is still a prejudice against people who learn their technical skills at home from a relative instead of at an art school.
Alexander Calder was able to see past the rigid boundaries of the established boundaries of what ART was in his time. A newfound respect for Calder blossomed within me as I watched the show. The appraiser, Christopher Kennedy, went on to explain that the mobile in question was probably made earlier than ’58, and that Calder was making larger “public art” by that time. In contrast, this mobile was constructed on a smaller and more intimate scale. Even so, the appraiser revealed that it would probably bring a million dollars at auction. The story about Calder’s interest in a needlepoint pillow and the exchange that followed had almost roused me to that complete state of awe experienced by art nerds such as myself when I heard the (male) appraiser say, “Not bad for a pillow.”
My awe switched instantly to anger. Calder may have valued a needlepoint pillow as much as one of his works of art, but the appraiser obviously didn’t. His condescending comment made it clear that sexist ideas about what art is and who makes it are still very much alive today. I wish I could see the pillow that “astounded” Calder so. I would love to see it in exhibit with the mobile that Calder gave in thanks. Especially if that meant that a needlepoint pillow would be on display in the Modern gallery at a prominent museum!
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