Saul Borisov Archive

August 22 - September 5, 2011

Reception: Thursday September 1, 6-9 pm

Roski MFA Gallery
Graduate Fine Arts Building
3001 S. Flower
Los Angeles, CA 90007

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Saul Borisov (1912 – 1991, born Saul Pupkin) spent his early childhood in a town that he would eventually take as his namesake: Borisov, Russia, near Minsk in present-day Belarus. In 1923 his family immigrated to New York City, where he studied painting at the Cooper Union School of Art. Upon graduating, Borisov worked in the Federal Art Project arm of the W.P.A. before fighting with the U.S. Army in WWII, and in 1948 Borisov moved to Mexico City, where he discovered weaving—a medium that would be his focus for the rest of his life.

Borisov mastered local practices of traditional weaving quickly, and launched a series of experiments in technique. Unlike contemporary weavers like Gunta Stolzl and Annie Albers, whose work relied on a harmonious, somewhat rigid relationship to form and material, Borisov was passionately improvisational. He fought the loom, pushing it to create tapestries that it didn’t want to make—pieces with curves, odd-shaped gaps and slits with asymmetrical compositions. He dyed all of the material himself, using striking colors to create unique forms that range from densely detailed representational work to solid abstract color fields. Sometimes drawing on Mesoamerican iconography and Modernist abstraction, Borisov engaged the contemporary aesthetic conversation with a long-view history of his medium. This connection to the roots of his work is revealed in his casual attitude toward the context of its reception:

Many of my tapestries are one of a kind, but whether they are judged by art critics or industrial designers is of no importance, and if they end up on the floor instead of the wall, all the better. I have found tapestry interesting as a form of expression and I hope that I can contribute something to a medium almost forgotten, and one of the oldest in existence.

Borisov’s work was indeed considered by both art critics and industrial designers, presented in a range of places from the Museum of Modern Art to the interior design spreads of Better Homes and Gardens. While his loose relation to the context of reception was a part of the force and interest of his work, it may also be the reason that his weavings have faded in the art historical memory. In his time, he worked parallel to a sphere of artists, writers and thinkers that resided in the San Angel district of Mexico D.F., many of whom have come to be known as the most important innovators of the Mexican avant-garde. Borisov’s own house (known as Palmas 81) was designed by his friend, the celebrated artist and architect Juan O’Gorman, and is considered the first functionalist house in the country. The house was O'Gorman's prototype design for this early brand of modernist architecture, examples of which include a number of schools in the city and a studio for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo which sits next door to Palmas 81.

This exhibition is an extension of work done at Palmas 81 in October of 2010 to consolidate an archive of materials held by the estate of Saul Borisov. The material is presented within a exhibition design framework that borrows elements from the location of the artwork's creation, making both material and visual references to the context of Borisov's former home and studio. While this layered project is rooted in my own research and sculptural practice, this presentation is ultimately a platform for further inquiry into Borisov's work, one which simply disregards the implied neutrality of traditional historical exhibitions. Re-introducing Borisov's work to artists and art historians for further research, the show is intended to expand the conversation about his position in history but also the particular relevance of his work to contemporary aesthetic tendencies.

A large portion of artwork and ephemera documented for the archive has been collected in a limited pressing of the first book dedicated to the artist, which will be on view and available for lending to qualified researchers. While none of Borisov’s actual work will be presented in this exhibition, renderings for a proposed future exhibition as well as a slideshow of his original 35mm slides will also be on display.

-Cayetano Ferrer

This project was made possible by funding from the Kathleen Neely Macomber Travel Award and Anthony Greaney Gallery, and with the generous help of Tonya Borisov and Natasha Ghosn.