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Hanging Coat No. 1 (from the "A Flower for Ethyl Eichelberger" series), 1993

Oliver Herring

Look closely at this knitted textile from MAD’s permanent collection, which plays on and challenges constructions of gender identity. Discover its healing power in this object lesson for learners in grades 7 and up. 

look

Oliver Herring handknit this textile as a homage to playwright and drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger. The work is a reflection on both the downtown theater legend’s gender-bending persona and the healing power of knitting as a meditative practice. Imagine walking through the Museum and noticing this object, hung on the gallery wall by a simple hook.

  • Share 3-5 adjectives that describe your first impression of the piece.
  • What do you notice about its color and texture?
  • In what way is it similar to objects you might have in your own home?
  • How is it different?
  • What material is the coat made of?
  • How do you think the fact that the work is life-size would affect viewers encountering this work in real life?

explore

Oliver Herring created Hanging Coat No. 1 in 1993 as part of his series “A Flower for Ethyl Eichelberger.” The legendary drag performer, who died in 1990, was a powerful force in New York’s experimental theater scene throughout the 1970s and 80s, Eichelberger’s work as a playwright, director, performance artist, and actor playing both male and female characters often turned theatrical conventions on their head. 

  • Think about the action of hanging up a coat as a theatrical or even poetic gesture. Can you act out this gesture in three different ways? What emotions are channeled by each?
  • How could hanging your coat on a hook express something about the wearer or their relationship to the people and places around them?
  • Think of the coat as a symbolic object. What might it signify?

discuss

Like many traditional craft processes, knitting has long been associated with femininity and the domestic realm. This is in sharp contrast to works of “fine art” created by male artists that are frequently viewed as heroic and historically significant. Oliver Herring worked on the series “A Flower for Ethyl Eichelberger” on and off from 1991 to 2001. In a statement about the series, the artist explained how his knitting was at once meditative and tangible, and became a way to process Eichelberger’s death by suicide after being diagnosed as HIV positive at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City. Herring explained:

"...Knitting was meaningful with regards to Ethyl's gender- bending persona but also slow and incremental. And it happens by hand which frees up the mind to think and by the end of the day I could see how much I accomplished. In addition to being very practical it was also a poetic way to deal with my feelings and thoughts. I started with a complicated personal set of issues and, without really being too aware of it, channeled them through the filters of Eichelberger, AIDS, gender, and identity into something larger. Meanwhile, the longer I knit, the more it transcended into a genuine, spiritual, and existential meditation on the passage of time, with my time being the principal capital..."

  • Can you relate to this notion of using art as a way to process emotions? Please explain.
  • In what way does Herring’s piece reflect on “the passage of time”?

Herring made Hanging Coat No. 1 out of transparent tape, an ephemeral material that yellows and become brittle over time.

  • Why do you think the artist chose this material and how does it add to the story he is telling?

make

Ethyl Eichelberger impersonated countless historical and mythological figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Nefertiti, and was known for punctuating his performances with fire-eating, cartwheels, and impromptu accordion concerts, as well as flamboyant hand-made wigs. Create your own spectacular wig or headdress using materials found around the house, from Q-tips to toilet paper roles, aluminum foil to yarn or tape.

Oliver Herring (Germany, b. 1964)
Hanging Coat Nr 1 (from the "A Flower for Ethyl Eichelberger" series), 1993
Life sized
Hand-knitted transparent tape
Museum of Arts and Design, New York; gift of Eileen and Richard Ekstract, 2016

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