In 1979, Ann Lane Hedlund, now the respected curator for tapestry at the Arizona State Museum, was working on the Navajo Nation.
A grad student doing field work, she was studying Navajo blankets and rugs, and the weavers who made them. On the remote reservation, she was about as far from the East Coast art world as it was possible to get.
One day in August, though, she had an unusual assignment: She was to go to the bus station in Gallup, N.M., to pick up two artworks by the noted abstract painter Kenneth Noland.
"He was already way famous," she says, and yet two of his pieces—one an acrylic, the other a handmade paper piece—were to arrive by Greyhound in the dusty town.
The reason these pricey paintings had turned up in Navajo country? A New York art patron by the name of Gloria F. Ross was planning to commission local weavers to translate Noland's bold geometries into tapestries, and to convert his flat paint designs into textured woven wool.
Ross had been facilitating such translations for years already, hiring weavers to take modernist art and make tapestries that were "new and unique works of art, not just reproductions," Hedlund says.
The young grad student helped connect Ross to Indian weavers in the Southwest, and along the way developed a lifelong friendship and working relationship with the older woman. (The textile center at the Arizona State Museum bears Ross' name.)
"She was like a film producer or a musical conductor," Hedlund says, orchestrating the collaborations between artists and weavers. "It's a magical transformation."
In a gorgeously illustrated new book, Gloria F. Ross and Modern Tapestry (Yale University Press, $65)—a 378-page volume that took five years to write—Hedlund recounts Ross' career as an éditeur, as tapestry facilitators are known in France, where their work is a respected profession. This Friday, Hedlund will give a slide lecture at the museum focusing on Ross' work with Noland.
"She ended up working with him the longest," Hedlund says.
By the time Ross turned her attention to Navajo land, she had already worked with some of the world's best weavers, in France, Scotland and elsewhere in the United States. And through her efforts, over 34 years, from the 1960s to the 1990s, these weavers collaborated with some of the leading artists of the day. They included Ross' own sister, Helen Frankenthaler, and Frankenthaler's husband, Robert Motherwell, both abstract expressionists, as well as Louise Nevelson, Milton Avery and Frank Stella.
In all, Ross worked with some 28 artists and several dozen weavers; their collaborations yielded some 100 tapestry designs and almost 250 individual tapestries. Ross' working methods varied.
"Sometimes, she selected existing painted images; at other points, she would persuade or encourage artists to make entirely new works for the medium," art critic Grace Glueck writes in the book's foreword.
One of three daughters of the wealthy Frankenthaler family in New York (her father was a state Supreme Court justice), Ross was born in 1923. She studied economics at Mount Holyoke College, but her roommate, Hedlund recounts, was an art major. Ross pored over the art-history slides that her friend brought back to the dorm. And Ross' well-known sister and her husband connected her to the New York art world.
Tapestry has a long and exalted history, Hedlund writes. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, "tapestry was not secondary to painting and sculpture," but an art form respected in its own right. Even painters as renowned as Raphael made "cartoons" intended "to be translated into tapestries for the homes of the aristocracy."
That tradition survived into 20th century France, Hedlund says, where in some quarters, "painting, printmaking and sculpture were seen as models for tapestry," rather than as ends in themselves.
Ross married young and quickly had three children, but after an early divorce, she turned her attention to what would become her life's work. She herself made some hooked rugs of designs by her sister Helen and brother-in-law Robert, and exhibited them, becoming part of the craft's resurgence.
As a tapestry orchestrator, through, her particular contribution was to realize that the "strengths of American modernist painting and traditional European textile techniques could be fruitfully combined," as Hedlund writes. The conversion to tapestry could change "scale, texture, depth and color." A small painting, translated to handmade tapestry, could be enlarged as much as 10 times.
The woven works reproduced in the book's color plates are remarkable. A watercolor by Paul Jenkins, "Phenomena Peal of Bells Cross," 1972, is a brilliant abstraction with reds bleeding into yellows, and oranges into purples. The tapestry version is astonishingly faithful to the original, with the threads uncannily capturing the merging of the colors.
Happy as Ross was with the weavers she found in other parts of the world—the Jenkins tapestries were made in Turkey and France—Ross knew, as she once wrote, that "some of the world's greatest weavers" were in the American Southwest. And the way she found them was through Hedlund.
In 1979, Ross "contacted the Denver Art Museum and asked, 'Who are the great Southwest weavers?'" Hedlund says. "I was working on a dissertation on Navajo weavers. The Denver museum put us in touch."
The wealthy New Yorker arrived by bus in New Mexico, just as the Noland artworks had. (After that first visit in 1979, she returned every year to the Southwest, until just a few years before her death in 1998.) And the Noland collaborations were among Ross' most fruitful. The five Navajo women Ross commissioned made 19 different tapestries from Noland's paintings. A Pueblo weaver, Ramona Sakiestewa, made six.
Known as an inventive colorist, Noland was already a collector of Navajo blankets when he began his collaborations with the Indian weavers. In the mid-'70s, Noland had started creating works with all-over horizontal bands, a style that resonated with Navajo blanket designs.
The artworks Hedlund picked up at the Gallup bus station got his first two Navajo collaborations underway. The first, with weaver Martha Terry, was based on his "Painted Desert," a 1979 handmade paper work with bands of color in ochre, gray, black and brown. The second, "Rainbow's Blanket," woven by Mary Lee Begay, is a series of brightly colored horizontal stripes.
Ross pronounced herself well-pleased with the start of what would be her longest project. In January 1980, she wrote to Noland, "Now that we have one successful weaving in hand (the other one is due for completion within the week), I anticipate developing a series perhaps of 10-12 hangings which I hope will evoke responses similar to this one."
Then she commented excitedly on the strange and unique relationship of artwork to tapestry.
"It's a Noland—but it's a Navajo!? I want our audience to feel this dual recognition."