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Mary Walker Phillips, at 83; give art of knitting new life

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Margalit Fox
New York Times News Service / November 21, 2007

NEW YORK - Mary Walker Phillips, a prominent textile artist who took the utilitarian craft of knitting and gave it bold new life as a modern art form to be displayed on the walls of museums around the world, died Nov. 3 at her home in Fresno, Calif. She was 83. A longtime resident of Greenwich Village, Ms. Phillips had lived in Fresno in recent years.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease, said her brother, W. David Phillips, also of Fresno and her only immediate survivor.

For centuries, knitting was a homey pastime, ideal for making sweaters, socks, and hats. It was less a creative art than a recreative one: women, for it was nearly always a woman who wielded the needles, typically worked from printed patterns, following a set of instructions to produce a finished garment of predetermined design and dimensions.

By the mid-20th century, other textile traditions, such as weaving, had crept into the realm of fine art, hung in galleries and reviewed seriously by critics. But knitting, consigned to the hearth, lagged far behind.

What Ms. Phillips did, starting in the early 1960s, was to liberate knitting from the yoke of the sweater. Where traditional knitters were classical artists, faithfully reproducing a score, Ms. Phillips knit jazz. In her hands, knitting became a free-form, improvisational art, with no rules, no patterns, and no utilitarian end in sight.

Traditional materials also went out the window: where garment knitting generally involves wool or cotton, Ms. Phillips' huge, abstract, diaphanous hangings might also use linen, silk, paper tape, or fine metal wire. They sometimes incorporated materials like bells, seeds, and bits of mica.

Considered one of the two or three most influential knitters of the second half of the 20th century, Ms. Phillips was a fellow of the American Craft Council, an honor bestowed on only the most distinguished artisans. Exhibited worldwide, her work (which also includes avant-garde macramé) is in the permanent collections of major museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mary Walker Phillips was born in Fresno on Nov. 23, 1923, to a prominent family descended from California pioneers. A traditional knitter in childhood, Ms. Phillips began her artistic career as a weaver. After studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, she worked in San Francisco and Switzerland, weaving fabric for clothing, upholstery, and table linens. She later opened her own studio in Fresno.

Just how accomplished Ms. Phillips was at the loom can been judged from a telegram she received in April 1948: "kindly bring cotton material for weaving thirty five yards drapes natural deep rose lavender and dark brown. also gold metallics."

It was signed "Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright." Ms. Phillips spent three weeks at Taliesin West, the Wrights' home in Scottsdale, Ariz., weaving the family's drapes and tablecloths.

In 1960, Ms. Phillips returned to Cranbrook, completing her bachelor's degree and, in 1963, earning a master of fine arts, concentrating in experimental textiles. Around this time, a friend, the noted fabric designer Jack Lenor Larsen, suggested she experiment with knitting as a medium for contemporary art.

Ms. Phillips, who settled in New York in a yarn-filled apartment on Horatio Street, took up her needles once more. But what sprang from them was like no knitting ever seen. Using techniques that went beyond traditional knit and purl stitches, she created pieces that looked like delicate tapestries or vast expanses of lace, with transparent latticework, open areas, and whorled textural patterns. Hung away from the wall and lighted well, her work threw off a dramatic counterpoint of shadows.

Ms. Phillips, who was also widely known as a writer and teacher, taught for many years at the New School for Social Research. Her books include "Creative Knitting: A New Art Form" (Van Nostrand Reinhold), considered groundbreaking when it was published in 1971; "Knitting Counterpanes: Traditional Coverlet Patterns for Contemporary Knitters" (Taunton Press, 1989); and "Step-by-Step Macrame," (Golden Press, 1970), regarded as rehabilitating a much-maligned art form.

Despite decades of acclaim as a maker of high art, Ms. Phillips was known to have knit the occasional wearable object. She made fine argyle socks for her brother, for instance, as he recalled in a telephone interview last week. She had made him a pair, he said, as recently as the 1950s.

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