Susan Martin Maffei, Curator
The history of tapestry in the US in the latter part of the 20th Century owes much of its success, direction and development to Jean Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie. Both of these accomplished artists had their early development and association with tapestry in other countries. Jean Pierre born in Argentina, son of a long line of French Aubusson weavers, and Yael, the daughter of a painter, brought up in a kibbutz in Israel, trained as a painter and cartonier. Their personal story of meeting while under the patronage of the famous French father of the revival of tapestry in 20 century France, Jean Lurcat, is both romantic and instant. In the early years of their union they lived and worked in Mexico, as always, a team in both design and execution. Accomplished at many other arts such as batik, wood, leather and jewelry, as well as tapestry, they quickly established themselves in the art milieu of Mexico City. Meanwhile in the U.S., workshop tapestry had died out in the depression/pre-war era with the demise of Edgewater Tapestry Studio, Baumgarten and Herter looms. It was not until the Larochettes arrived in the early 70’s did the spark of professional European workshop tapestry establish itself again. An experimental project which was part of the exhibition “Five Centuries of Tapestry” curated by Anna Bennett of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and lead by Jean Pierre along with 10 graduate students from universities in the Bay area resulted in the founding of the San Francisco Tapestry Workshop. Working from the designs of Yael, Judy Chicago and Mark Adams, the first tapestries were produced there in 1976. The workshop continued as a non-profit organization under the Larochettes until 1984 and was responsible for training many of the professional tapestry weavers of that period as well as inspiring offshoots such as the Scheuer Tapestry Workshop in NYC. In 1985 the workshop had moved to Berkeley, became Larochette Studios, and there they focused on both private and public commissions, working only with each other, training apprentices and teaching workshops. Today they maintain a studio in both California and Mexico and continue all aspects of their work as well as producing innovative and speculative works in series for exhibition.
There is a language of tapestry weaving that grows out of medieval European work that continues in a completely different evolution in Lurie’s and Larochettes’ work. The use of hachures and bar hatching so frequent in the flow of drapery of medieval tapestry has become a decorative alphabet of Escher like imagery in their work. True to traditional ideas of materials and texture the use of gold and silk as well as wool and cotton make for bold designs of constantly moving images that seemingly float into one another. The rectangular format and verticality of the works hold and reinforce the hanging nature of the cloth. The diagonal movements of shapes counter the horizontal and vertical nature of this decorative alphabet (this counter of the diagonal is a strong compositional element also evident in early Andean textile art). And the movement of tonal change from bottom to top and top to bottom all add to the sophisticated layering and dynamic imagery of their work. Their ability to combine European and Latin American esthetics give their work a special universal appeal.
We see in the early work from Mexico such as “Genesis” (LL01) evidence of the influence of French surrealist tapestry most idealized by Jean Lurcat, mixed with a color palette reminiscent of Mexico. By the time they establish themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area their use of traditional techniques as a decorative alphabet is beginning to emerge in such early works as “Siempre Viva” (LL16). Here we can compare the large singular image patterned with bar and hatch used primarily for formation of the petals with the more complex imagery of later works. Notice in” Tree of Life with Salamander and Phoenix” (LL26 and 26a) the flattening and layering of images and color with the same decorative alphabet, but in a more complex balance. Pattern is becoming a stronger, more evident, almost musical component. Formats are becoming more rectangular and vertical and sizes are more domestic, especially in the series works. We see a transition from singular image to complex narrative concept in a personal stylized translation from the mind’s eye of the artists into their established language of tapestry.
The most recent series “Water Songs” (LL47 thru 55) allows the complex narrative to develop more completely as each work seems to grow on what has come before and leads us into new dimensions. Although the format is small as compared to European traditional sizes, the series allows that continuation of mural thought in a modern contemporary sense in that they can be seen individually and/or as a detail of the whole.
In the more recent small works by Jean Pierre we see a combination of wood, metal and/or clear Plexiglas in tangent with the soft qualities of tapestry. They make one reminiscent of the religious retablos of the Southwest and colonial Mexico while maintaining an imagery style more closely related to European tapestry subjects, reflecting perhaps that mix of French and Argentinean heritage. The experimentation with mounting and mixing small works of art within different media adds to the preciousness of the images and is a departure from the recognized traditional establishment. We can see in his “Retablo of the Bird” (LL 57) how this combination of Plexiglas and fiber works to present layered concepts. The woven fiber of the image of the fragile woven bird nest in woven tapestry form, also fiber, is layered on top of a clear Plexiglas sheet in the shape of a Mexican retablo. We not only see the tapestry but we glimpse ourselves, the viewer, as well, pondering its beauty and facility, of both bird and artist. Both the image and object is made more precious and more personal. We are intimate with the subject.
For many years the Larochettes have been commissioned to design and execute religious works of art, such as Torah covers and Ark tapestries. Examples can be seen in many major cities across the U.S. Yael’s heritage and talent give her a special place in this area of designing with her understanding of Jewish language and tradition. Using their decorative alphabet of traditional tapestry techniques layered with the Hebrew language she has been able to successfully present contemporary images that strattle the limitation of the non representational within the specific identification of their tapestry art while maintaining the special requirements of religious contemplation. We can note this marriage within works such as “Torah Vestment for Westchester Temple” (LL37) where language alphabet and decorative tapestry alphabet combine to form patterns and rhythms that mesmerize and give pleasure, peace and harmony.
The works the Larochettes produce have always maintained a personal connection with their way of life, whether traveling afar, raising a family or working in their garden. They have a great respect for nature and all its bounty and its children. We can see these themes reoccur over their history from beautiful plants to waterfalls and animals in both speculative and commissioned works. Special series works like “Memories of a Journey” (LL31) give us a personal narrative of their life on the road and their ability to revel in new unknown locations. The cactus and bird images in “Rock and Cactus” (LL12) and “Moon Light Bird” (LL13) reflect Yael’s early experiences in Argentina and Mexico. “The Raven and the Eagle”(LL14) appear from trips to Alaska, waterfalls from the national parks they frequent. There are portraits of children and relatives as well. Their tapestries are a diary of their life and loves in visual form.
And perhaps, besides all these special attributes of their poetic work, we should not forget the special philosophy of living that they have brought to all they have touched. Their gentle, supportive way of sharing knowledge is combined with strong passions of art and life. They are the best example of living your art in everything you do and share. They are the consummate artists’ dream.
This limited retrospective gives us just a taste of their accomplishments in the field and a brief overview of the development of their unique style. The exhibition is being presented in chronological order in each of the five categories (Main exhibit, Religious, Series, Small Format and Small Format designed and woven by Jean Pierre) to better understand and relate to the evolution of their work. There is a listing of where you can see some works that are in public collections as well as a short bio. There is also a small beautifully illustrated and written book of their thoughts and process for their most recent series (see bio under “Water Songs Tapestries” for information). Enjoy this feast for the eyes and make an effort to see some works in person if you can. Thank you Yael and Jean Pierre for your huge contributions to American Tapestry. You are national treasures and we honor you.
About Susan Martin Maffei
Susan Martin Maffei is an internationally known tapestry artist whose background includes art studies at “The Art Students League” in NYC, tapestry training at Les Gobelins in Paris, apprenticeship and studio work at the Scheuer Tapestry Studio, NYC and conservation of antique textiles at Artweave Gallery, NYC. She has been weaving her work professionally since 1985. She has taught, lectured and exhibited in the U.S. and abroad and has work in both public and private collections.