The 1960s, a time of great cultural upheaval, also brought major changes in tapestry throughout the world. The Tapestry Biennials in Lausanne, Switzerland began in 1962 and ended in 1995. While they lasted, they evolved as an important showcase for international tapestry. The first one, instigated by Jean Lurçat was dominated by painter-designed tapestries, but subsequent Biennials rapidly began to show a strong interest in experimentation, as artists from Eastern Europe, the United States and Japan dominated the exhibitions with textiles departing dramatically from pictorial and narrative traditions. These artists utilized a wide range of textile techniques, upgraded the scale of the work tremendously, and began to bring it off the wall into a more sculptural format. Beyond Craft: the Art Fabric (1972) and The Art Fabric: Mainstream (1981), co-authored by Jack Lenor Larson and Mildred Constantine, embraced the new work of the Biennials, and introduced the term “art fabric” to define these textiles which were so different from traditional tapestry.
The artistic revolution responsible for the “art fabric” was in part a reaction against traditional Gobelin and Aubusson tapestry. The textiles of this new movement were very much in the spirit of European Modernism and Abstract Expressionism, as espoused by art critic Clement Greenberg, in that the work appeared to be largely self-referential and focused upon an exploration of materials and form rather than a representation of subject matter in a pictorial way.
Since the 1980s the impetus driving post-secondary fibers education in U.S. colleges and universities has increasingly stressed theoretical models from the fine arts, and as a result fiber work has become more and more concept driven. One of the most significant art trends to influence textiles was Postmodernism, an art movement which rejected the inwardly focused, self-involvement of Modernism to espouse a philosophy that art should become engaged with the major cultural issues of our times. For fibers practitioners this meant that to the long-standing experimentation with materials and techniques, was added a new focus on creating work which confronted cultural issues such as: gender feminism; domesticity and the repetitive tasks related to women’s work; politics; the social and behavioral sciences; material specific concepts related to fiber’s softness, permeability, drapability, and so on. (Wilson, 53)
This switch did not, however, mean a return to pictorial formats, since Postmodernism emphasized the wide-open strategies of appropriation, irony, eclecticism, multiculturalism, and an interdisciplinary approach, which meant anything but a return to tradition.
The transformation of familiar fiber articles became a frequently used strategy in both textiles and the Fine Arts, and because of the utilitarian and culturally rich history of cloth, ready made fabric articles continue to be used associatively with great success in both fiber and fine art work.
In recent years there has been an increased use of fiber as metaphor, particularly as it relates to the body. Ann Wilson expressed it well in her 1994 Fiberarts article “A Plea for Broader Dialogue”:
In its likeness to the body, the materiality of fiber as a textural, pliable and absorbent physical substance has tremendous ability to speak to issues of our own humanness – our human vulnerability and fragility in an age of increasing alienation, and an age of biological and ecological threat. (Wilson, 55)
And finally, the use of digital technology and jacquard programs have allowed pictorial images to be produced much more efficiently than through the energy intensive technique of tapestry.