Skip to content

Jan Groth and the Constructed Line

Jan Groth was born in 1938 in Stavanger on the west coast of Norway and moved to Denmark in 1955. Although his permanent residence is in Denmark, he frequently returns to a small hay farm in Norway to draw and rest. Throughout his tapestries and drawings he has retained a sense of the scale of the rugged Norwegian landscape and mountains. Moving from figurative to abstract work, he evolved images from nature which became synthesized into highly personal seismographic notations. “I am fascinated by the line. Painting line with wet pigment is too fast for me. I need to do it more slowly. I need to build my line—to construct. Constructing the line with yarn through the tapestry technique was the solution for me as a painter.”

Groth executed his first tapestries in 1961. By 1963, his use of paint as a medium was replaced completely by the use of wool; however, he continues to draw with black crayon.

Earth colors prevalent in his early work have extended to his tapestries which evolved from black lines on a light field, akin to his drawings, into highly expressive white lines of varying density on a black field. He remembers being told that restraint should be exercised in the incorporation of black, as it was not considered to be a color an artist used; for some it was the absence of all color, for others the presence of all color. Fortunately, truly innovative artists have passed beyond the rigid restraints of their art education or the expectations placed upon them by various art institutions.

Groth vitalizes and warms his black field by combining black wool threads with brown. Sign Standing (1970–71) and Sign (1971–72), both shown in his solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York (May 2–20), are monumental and mysterious. His work was also shown at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut (June 27–July 30).

As an artist, Groth has been able to use weaving as a tool, at the same time retaining his intentions as a painter. In Norway tapestries are accepted as an art form beyond decoration and the limitations of its craft. The acceptance of the tapestry as art perhaps provided for Groth the impetus to seek training in the craft with the knowledge that it was possible to go beyond it. In 1960, he volunteered for six months to work in Amsterdam at the tapestry studio called de Uil. There he met Benedikte, a Dane, who had been trained at Aubusson and was for five years a technical leader of the de Uil workshop. In 1961, he and his wife, Benedikte, left for Denmark, where they settled in a small village school built in 1780, approximately 90 km (56 miles) from Copenhagen. The Danish government gave them two enormous hundred-year-old upright tapestry looms, which were once used to repair tapestries damaged by fire in Frederiksborg Castle.

The Groths, aided by an assistant, work at the looms, which are set up in a barn on their property. Working from the reverse side of the tapestry, the Groths weave using various combinations of black, brown, and white wool (two black and one brown, three white, two white and one black, two black and one white). The line develops in tension and density as the work progresses. Although the idea for the placement of the line is taken from a drawing, the drawing itself serves only as a code which the artist alters, being aware of the amount of color, its weight, and texture.

Groth lives and works away from the mainstream of art activity. Such detachment provides the isolation necessary for reflection and concentration. He is aware, however, of the necessity for refreshing his ideas through dialogue with other artists’ work, a necessary activity for freeing oneself from a kind of visual provincialism.

In 1965 Groth exhibited in the International Tapestry Biennial at Lausanne. In 1968 his complete production of tapestries was shown at the Museum of Decorative Art in Copenhagen. In 1969 he participated again in the International Tapestry Biennale, as well as at Aarhus Museum of Fine Arts, Denmark, and a work at the Manufacture des Gobelins in Paris, along with the tapestries by artists such as Sonia Delaunay, Le Corbusier, and Henri Matisse. He has received grants and commissions: a grant from the Danish state, a commission to do a tapestry for Nationale Nederlanden in The Hague, and a commission to do a large tapestry for the Dutch government’s new town hall in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, a building devoted to the art of modern tapestry. He and ten other artists, including Magdalena Abakanowicz, Michel Tourliere, Mario Prassinos, and Krijn Giezen, created works for specific spaces in the building. In 1970 he was the Scandinavian representative in the exhibition Tapestries 14th–20th Century, held in Grenoble, France, which included work by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jagoda Buić, Sheila Hicks, Herman Scholten, and Aurèlia Muñoz.

Drawing is an important part of Groth’s work. Although he was making drawings before he made tapestries, he feels that his relationship to his drawings was changed by the making of tapestries, providing new insight. Although visiting Norway affects his work, his first trip to New York in 1970 changed the scale of his drawings. His new work became loaded with the experience of an extreme confrontation, New York having a confined monumental scale of man-made “nature” as opposed to the infinite scale of nature.

Groth’s work has provided for Americans a wholly different facet of seeing, which is at once familiar and yet very dissimilar to our visual experience. His work, in its all-over quality of surface and the tension and thickness of each line, is somewhat reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross (1958–66) or the dynamic energy of Franz Kline’s work.

Excerpted from Craft Horizons (August 1972): 12–15, 63.