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American, designed in 1935; reprinted 1940s

Ruth Reeves (1892–1966) figures among the most important American textile designers of the twentieth century. While some of her best known work is strongly associated with New York, including Reeves’s designs for Radio City Music Hall and her 1930 textile, Manhattan, her work also frequently referenced many sources including motifs and patterns seen on textiles and costumes from around the world. Reeves wrote in 1935:

…the sensitive eye of the artist must perforce recreate from every valid source, whether it be modern machinery, nature, or primitive symbolism on a Peruvian poncho or a woman’s blouse from Guatemala. These forms as they pass through the spirit and the hand of the artist of today, can, in their recreated form…become vigorous expressions of our own era. (“On Designing Textiles,” Archives of American Art)

Guatemalan Document illustrates both Reeves’s ongoing interest in studying the artistic traditions of other cultures, as well as the commercial market for innovative textiles during the 1930s and 1940s.

Reeves’s use of ethnographic materials for inspiration began early in her career when she participated in Women’s Wear Daily design competitions that promoted the use of non-Western museum materials as starting points for American textile patterns. In 1934 she was sent to Guatemala under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution to study the country’s indigenous weaving and textile traditions. Following her return to New York in 1935, Reeves’s designs based on her travels in Guatemala, called “adaptations,” were exhibited in New York along with the Guatemalan clothing and fabrics which inspired her. M. D. C. Crawford noted in his introduction to the catalogue of this exhibition: “Ruth Reeves is peculiarly fitted to interpret the arts of Guatemala in modern times. For years she has been familiar with these arts and the arts of related people among our South American neighbors through the collections in our museums which she has interpreted from time to time in fabrics and apparel of today.” Some of Reeves’s designs from this project were produced by R. H. Macy & Co. Of this group of textiles she wrote, “I have in the main created my fabric adaptations in the spirit rather than the letter of the various specimens which inspired me.”

In Guatemalan Document, Reeves’s pattern features bands of stylized geometric motifs interspersed with birds, crouching stags, and small figures; the motifs borrowed from the vocabulary of Guatemalan folk dress become emboldened by the enlarged scale and nontraditional placements of motifs. Reeves’s design was produced in an apparel-weight linen, as documented by a 1930s belted day dress fashioned with the stag and bird prominently placed center front. The example seen here, identified on the selvedge as “Guatemalan Document by Ruth Reeves/Peruvian Linen,” was produced in the 1940s, probably by the firm of Morley-Fletcher, on heavy linen appropriate for curtains or upholstery.

Guatemalan Document was displayed in “Decorative Arts Today,” a 1948 exhibition at the Newark Museum, New Jersey, and was also shown in 1950 at the Munson Williams Proctor Institute, Utica, New York.

141” H x 52.25” W

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Ruth Reeves Printed Linen, Guatemalan Document

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