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Ed Rossbach: Quiet Revolutionary

In Context
By Nancy A. Corwin and
Rebecca A.T. Stevens


Pre-Columbian #2, 1986
jaquard woven
painted tape appliqué
40 x 30

The world of the textile artist in 2004 is far different than it was when Ed Rossbach graduated from Cranbrook with an MFA in ceramics and weaving in 1947. At that time, the predominant aesthetic was Scandinavian Modern, textiles were for use, and most fiber artists designed for industry. Since that time textiles, as part of the post World War II crafts revival, have become an experimental, nonfunctional, artistic medium and Ed Rossbach is one of the key figures to have shaped these changes. His “understanding of creativity and its relationship to craft has helped bring about the merging of art and craft.”1

Rossbach was a rebel, a quiet revolutionary with a passionate curiosity and a wonderfully wry sense of humor. The breadth of his interests was extraordinary. He was one of a small number of artists who began in the 1950s to explore fibers as raw material for self-expression. Through his teaching, his research and writing, and his art, he opened new avenues of expression and new ways of thinking that have changed forever the ways in which textiles are considered. He opened minds with his work and caused us to see textiles in a new way. Often that new way of seeing was accomplished through startling changes in scale or context, or ironic juxtapositions of materials and forms. In his use of changes in context and ironic contrast, Rossbach was the Marcel Duchamp of the textile world.

Rossbach led the way in the exploration of textile structures, new materials and imagery, basketry as an expressive art form, and, along with his wife, Katherine Westphal, photo processes in textile art. Rossbach’s explorations were remarkably parallel to the free experimentation of Abstract Expressionism, the irony of Pop and Funk Art, and the cerebral qualities of abstraction, Op Art and late 60s minimalist systems art.

El Salvador, 1984
muslin, camouflage netting, sticks,
plastic tape, wire, tied, dyed,
linoleum block printed, constructed
15.5 x 15.5 x 13

He took fiber off the wall and made objects before object making became a popular trend. He made “art about art” when that was a potent new form. He was interested in folk art in the early 1960s before its later popularity. In each of these explorations Rossbach was not concerned with following the latest trend in modern art. To the contrary, he was consistently on the leading edge of art in his time following his own vision.

Adapted from Rossbach in Context, by Nancy A. Corwin and Rebecca A.T. Stevens, in Ed Rossbach: 40 Years of Exploration and Innovation in Fiber Art, Edited by Ann Pollard Rowe and Rebecca A.T. Stevens (The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C. and Lark Books, Asheville, NC 1990) pp. 116-117.

On Baskets and Art By Ed Rossbach

It seems to me that contemporary artists who undertake the making of baskets become involved (whether intentionally or not) in extraordinary evocations and resonances, in problems of commonness, foreignness, distance, nearness, persistence, impermanence, as well as the conventional problems of materials and construction techniques.

All the meanings and associations that have accrued to the concept “baskets” are to be acknowledged and dealt with. Throughout the basketmaking process the artists keep defining and redefining, inventing and reinventing. In making baskets, contemporary artists relate themselves to artisans of the past and to the constructional/aesthetic problems that concerned them. Beyond that, they relate themselves to all of today’s other artists— painters, sculptors, and the rest—who are reacting to the modern world and creating that world.

Dealing simultaneously with tradition and innovation, basketmakers produce works that are often paradoxical and seemingly anachronistic. Yet, I suppose, all of today’s art can be so interpreted.


After Miro, 1970
jute, horsehair
65 x 44

Indian Baskets

Anyone who thinks about baskets as art must sooner or later consider Native American baskets. They are ones that appear most frequently in American museums, secure in relation to other works of art, acknowledged to be the finest art expressions of entire cultures.

Without our being aware of it, Indian baskets have established standards for contemporary basketmakers. They define all baskets. Regardless of how free a person wants to be in thinking about baskets—what they are, and what they can be—the Indian baskets are somewhere in his or her mind, to be dealt with. They are irresistible antecedents of anything a maker of baskets will do. They infuse today’s art baskets with a resonance, a sort of reechoing of meaning that is ancient, obscure and mysterious.

I believe that images in baskets occur out of responses to shapes and materials and construction techniques, and also out of intentions brought to the basketmaking, and out of preoccupations that might seem to have nothing to do with basketmaking. Something happens in the conjoining of images and physical matter. Baskets acquire new meanings and so do the images.

An artist using the same images over and over creates his or her own traditions. Such images function as potently on a personal level as tribal images function on a group level.

I have a couple of Indian baskets from the Puget Sound area that keep speaking to me. They’re around all the time. I never get tired of them. I also have some little plaited things from Indonesia made for tourists. I never get tired of them either. All these baskets seem so remarkable. I’m amazed that everyone isn’t astonished—struck dumb—by their wonder.

Baskets Without Utility

Non-utilitarian baskets are not something new. Yet, always before now they existed in conjunction with the utilitarian baskets of a culture. They were similar to the utilitarian baskets, but more refined, more highly decorated. The most skilled basketmakers were selected to make the most prestigious works. Probably a clear distinction between utilitarian and non-utilitarian was not recognized. The meaning of one was intimately related to the meaning of the other. There were the sumptuous non-utilitarian gift baskets of feathers and beads, just as there were the useful baskets with only a few feathers and a few beads. Both kinds of baskets carried spiritual meaning. There were presentation baskets impeccably worked to satisfy a society’s most rigorous aesthetic demands while exhibiting features that evolve from utility. At the same time there were useful baskets of vegetal materials scarcely at all transformed by the manipulations of basketmaking.

Today’s art baskets can be perceived as existing in conjunction with the constructions of cardboard and plastic that are replacing baskets. The art can be thought of as arising from baskets remembered and also from all the utilitarian packaging and crating which characterize our society. They can be seen as raising the cardboard/plastic substitutes to expressive levels, with meanings and associations growing out of contemporary life.

They can also be interpreted as essential reactions to the disappearance of baskets; as such they are expressions of deeply felt loss. They can be regarded as the products of a familiarity (for the first time in history) with all the baskets and other art objects made throughout the world and throughout time—creating new conditions in which art basketmakers work.

Baskets that are not intended to satisfy any utilitar ian purposes may yet perpetuate utilitar ian features. They show handles, supports, legs, closures, eccentric forms borrowed from some long-forgotten time when such features were devised for utility. These features appear in contemporary baskets— as Proust says about literary style—to strengthen “by a tradition that lies concealed behind them.”2 Such survivals, vague and uncertain as they may be, allude to vanished ways of living. They operate with peculiar, undeniable force. According to Proust such survivals evoke feelings, “pensive and secret.” Such vague references to past times determine and intensify the non-utilitarian basket. This is a curious phenomenon.


For the first time the world of basketry, which has been notably insular, is seen whole. Artists have before them the whole world’s baskets, in museums and books. And they have access to the world’s traditional materials— raffia from Madagascar, pandanus from Oceania, rattan from Southeast Asia, splints from North Carolina, as well as all the new materials that come on the market . And they have the documentation of the anthropologists, transcribing what basketmakers from other cultures have said about their baskets, their spiritual and symbolic meanings, their standards of judging quality, etc.

Artists have the option—indeed they are encouraged—to explore, discover, invent their own shapes, techniques, materials and motifs. The new awareness of all baskets, and the new options, inform contemporary baskets. If they are to be significant and meaningful, baskets must reflect today’s uniqueness. They have to be different from baskets ever before. Artists are on their own, expressing themselves, but of course, they are reflecting the place and time, the circumstances in which they exist. They are challenged by the meanings of baskets— their implications, associations, connotations. As artists, these basketmakers contemplate the idea of a basket. They explore how this object which has been commonplace in lives throughout centuries, can become a vehicle for expressing not only their sense of order, structural logic, sensuous response to materials —but also their playfulness, wit, ingenuity, emotional states, anxieties, concerns.

Museum Baskets

Today the making of baskets has become a bold search for something fresh and individual, quite opposite to the endless repetition that so often occurred in the history of baskets, and opposite, too, modest modifications that were successful in societies where life patterns were relatively stable and slow to change. The new baskets arise, not from the classic conventions but from the uncertainties of a rapidly changing technological society in which the role of baskets is, to say the least, equivocal. The viewer is confronted with forms that speak of a moment, a place, an artist. The results speak of a time different from that in which the artisan knew that he or she was making a basket, and knew pretty well what it would look like without making a sketch, and what it would be used for, and how it would fit into the culture of the society. The basketmaker was not concerned with defining or redefining the basket.


From the beginning, my baskets have had an element of play. I began to make baskets to content myself, and I have continued to do so.

To a large extent the play in my baskets is in incorporating and combining elements without previous plan. Something lying around on the table is handy. I use it. It does unpredictable things. It is a surprise. I always wonder afterwards how I happened to think of that. I don’t take all the credit. I acknowledge the elements of chance and convenience.

As I grow older I like, more and more, a relative quickness of the basketmaking process. I try to have the finished basket show spontaneity and a certain speed—not slapdashness, but not the sense of an arduous, labored-over project. Many baskets that I admire, historical and contemporary, look labor intensive. That is part of their wonder. But I want my own works to look easy. It seems important to mention (though I am not sure why) that often my baskets that look most spontaneous and inconsequential have taken days to make. I get so far, and then have to put them aside. Next morning, maybe, I’ll be able to go on with pleasure and assurance. Time seems a most important element, not the time at work on the basket, but time doing other things, thinking about other things, not thinking about baskets at all.

Adapted from Some Random Thoughts About Baskets and Ed Rossbach, by Ed Rossbach in Baskets: Redefining Volume and Meaning, (University of Hawaii Art Gallery, Honolulu, HI 1993), pp. 27-39, 68 and from other writings authored by Ed Rossbach in the 1980s.

1 Tradition and Change: The New American Craftsman, Julie Hall (E.P. Dutton, New York, NY 1977), p. 98.

2 Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust (Random House, New York 1982), pp.666-667.

Ed Rossbach (1914-2002) received a B.A. in painting and design from the University of Washington at Seattle in 1940, an M.A. in art education from Columbia in 1941, and an MFA in ceramics and weaving from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1947. He married artist Katherine Westphal in 1950 and joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley in that same year. He retired in 1979 with the rank of Professor Emeritus having included among his students accomplished artists Lia Cook and Gyöngy Laky. He wrote extensively about textiles and basketry, including Baskets as Textile Act (1973); The New Basketry (1976); and The Art of Paisley (1980). His artworks are found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Stedelijk Museum and the Museum of Art and Design. He is the recipient of a Gold Medal from the American Craft Council, an honor that recognizes highest achievement in craftsmanship.

Publ ished in conjunct ion wi th the special exhibi t Ed Rossbach – Quiet Revolutionary presented at SOFA CHICAGO 2004 by browngrotta arts, LongHouse Reserve and SOFA.

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