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Françoise Grossen on Working With Rope

In the 1960s, Françoise Grossen rejected the rectilinear loom that constrained contemporary weaving for an intuitive approach to fiber that resulted in the creation of large-scale, suspended rope forms constructed of knots, loops, braids, and twists. At the time, fiber was still associated with utility or ornament rather than fine art, and Grossen’s freehand, three-dimensional handling of the medium was considered a revolutionary gesture that upset the traditional hierarchy subordinating craft to art. For the 2017 exhibition Françoise Grossen Selects, Chief Curator Elissa Auther interviewed the artist about the process of pioneering a new material for art-making.  

1. What turned you on to rope as a medium? Is there a story behind your abiding interest in this material?

Maybe there was an element of rebellion? After working with beautiful, precious materials (linen, silk, mohair) as a student for my diploma project , I was looking for something else. The opportunity presented itself when I traveled to West Africa in the early 1960s. Wooly yarns were not available, but rope coils and sisals were displayed in every hardware store (my favorite kind of store!). I was hooked. Conte Clair des Nuits Noires (1968) is the first example of my use of rope; Signe (1968) came shortly after.

2. In your mind, is there an advantage to repeatedly turning to rope as opposed to working in a less medium-specific way?

Yes, for me, there was an advantage: It takes a long time to become so intimate with a material that you discover a new language for it. The same is true of a painter working in acrylic, or a sculptor working in marble.

Also—and many have said it better—limitations are conducive to creativity, although in showing only very early works, this exhibition may reinforce the restrictive aspect of working this way. Later, in my Metamorphosis series I through III, more materials contributed to the works: paint, wire mesh, papier-mâché, plant material, fabric, et cetera. My dialogue with architectural settings also enlarged my perspective, my vocabulary, so that you might see the same work (Inchworm II) exhibited climbing a wall (indoors or out), completely on the floor, or floating on a pond in Oregon.

3. You’ve described your working process as improvisational. Could you say a bit more about that?

From the beginning, I was looking for alternatives to the rectangular shape historically carried down from rugs (floor pieces) and medieval tapestries (wall decoration). The problem with rope was where and when to cut the seemingly unending material: Have it end when it reached the floor? Cut it before it reached the floor? Transform it into pompons? Choices could be made at every moment: add an element to the left or right of the composition, repeat, show the back or the front of the knot, introduce another color, add more rope or subtract some . . . It’s like writing in another, perhaps secret, alphabet, creating another language. A dialogue takes place between my idea and the material. The act of making is what brings me closer to what I am trying to say. The challenge lies in the competition between the seduction of the material and the nascent form. I wish the form could precede the material.

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