Off The Wall: American Art to Wear

Hardcover, 2019

216 pages

Yale University Press


The Off The Wall show at the Philadelphia Art Museum is a rare and extensive exhibit on fiber, so when I heard a book version was released, I was excited to have a piece of the show at home. (It also took the pressure off to take mediocre phone pics during the walk-through and instead just enjoy and absorb the IRL magic.) The book arrived on my doorstep a month after seeing the show and I wasn't disappointed; it covers all the basics you want from an art book: plentiful color images, accessible narration, and a nice heavy weight size and format.


Contrary to what you may expect picking up a book on an art movement, Off the Wall isn’t told in a linear fashion but is very thoughtfully, creatively organized into sections around these five themes: Collisions, Connections, Vibrations, Articulations, and Reverberations. Collisions introduces the complexly overlapping nature of artwear joining and bending categories of fine art, craft, fashion, sculpture, and costume. Connections demonstrates artwear as a link between art, body, and culture. Vibrations is largely material focused, detailing how the artists utilized and blended materials and techniques in unique ways that had an entirely new feel. Articulations portray the often fantastical elements of artwear that overlap with costuming in that they convey character, storytelling, journeys and archetypes. Reverberations marks the shift that took place in the late 1990s when the influence of the artwear movement had been somewhat assimilated by the fashion industry and reached a global scale of influence. 

This book is a beautifully assembled book that spans rare images, refreshing outtakes from photoshoots I recognize from other books covering the movement, and most of the pieces in the eponymous Philadelphia Museum of Art show. Its a perfect coffee table book for its size, eye-popping images, and content but also a book you can sink your teeth in and read over the course of a few weeks. A very small thing I also enjoy about it are the matte pages in contrast to the high gloss pages of coffee table books of the 90s and 00’s that left the telltale finger prints on every page. My gripe with so many art books with beautiful covers relates to the disappoint I face when I crack it open to see very few color plates and instead, mostly dry academic content that offers no insight or interest for a lay person; This is not the case with Off the Wall- the text is accessible for all levels of familiarity to the art wear movement, from ‘never heard of it’ to expert, and packed with high quality images on nearly every single page. It certainly offers a different analysis from any of the other books on the artwear movement and encompasses incredible images not seen in other books. 


As I study and review books, I consider them within their time period and cultural context. Often narratives from the past do not delve into the critical elements of race, ethnicity, and class that, to leave unaddressed in art discussion today, feels like a glaring omission. I understand the lack of critical perspective from books of the past era, but the art establishment is now well aware of the need for inclusive, holistic perspectives that challenge the wealthy white perspective that has dominated the art world. I will be writing more extensively soon on the disconnect between fiber art and the artists of color who have deeply influenced and participated in innovations but remain unacknowledged, but here I will keep it brief: Off the Wall mentions the deep influence of indigenous and African artists on the predominately white artists of the artwear movement but it is unfortunate that it does not specifically show and credit the artwork that was so impactful on the artwear movement. A deep level of discussion into the ignored artwear that was, and continues to be, created by Native American and African people would set the book apart from fiber books of the past. People of color tire of seeing ancestral community art works always cast as a backdrop for white artists' discoveries. As extensive and impressive as Off the Wall is, it contains this hole that leads me to feel that an ultimate book on wearable art still has not been written. 

Having added that critique, I still feel that Off the Wall is an extensive and necessary book for any fan of wearable art. It doesn't depart much from traditional narratives but it is an extensive coverage of the members of the movement and the work they created.