This article is based on an interview with a Texas carpet collector friend at his ranch outside Austin. Our discussion included some of his opinions about carpet aesthetics, as well as an examination of some of his collection. In the interest of available space I have taken the liberty of editing some our dialogue. I think you will find our conversation fascinating.
BNS: What is it that you look for in evaluating a rug?
Collector: I respond to rugs that display a deep affinity with life. I am interested in the essential essence of significant carpets that connect with us on a visceral level. That is, how do good rugs express the most immediate and basic experiences of life with an intensity that is almost frightening. This life affirmation is found in the sum of its beautiful patterns. Those patterns need to display the life content. It is the drawing and the centers they create that describes this existential encounter with good carpets and actually all meaningful art.
BNS: You say that pattern is the foundation for creating coherent aesthetic statements in carpets. Could you expand on that thought?
Collector: Look, I’m a scientist and by training I am interested in seeing the underlying structures of things. By extension I have thought about what structures make a truly beautiful carpet. And I use the word beautiful in its most complex sense. This doesn’t mean beautiful cannot be simple. I mean that beautiful is not pretty. There are rules for creating beautiful things. Fundamentally these rules are based on the idea that inanimate objects have the subconscious feeling of living things, without necessarily looking like a living thing at all. We are creatures of the natural world and the inanimate objects that we encounter and experience profound feeling for, have the subconscious feeling of living things without looking like a living thing at all.
BNS: What are specifically these fundamental rules you talk about and what do they actually look like?
Collector: My thoughts and allow me to say that here I borrow from Christopher Alexander whom I regard as one of the most important thinkers about carpets and art of the 20th century, are that there are a set of visual “tools” that enhance our appreciation of art and its relation to life in general. These are universal rules which link design and the visual environment on one hand with beautiful and living forms on the other. Pattern is the agent that creates this bond and the basic building block of any pattern is, what Alexander calls, its center. The center is a perceptible region of coherent space where a design defines empty space and physical forms. While at first glance, this idea may seem elusive, it is obvious to all of us that make an effort to see. On a simplistic level the wide borders surrounding a carpet, the details in a carpet’s design, its interlocking forms all serve to create relationship, internal cohesion, and unity of artistic purpose.
BNS: Let’s look at some of the carpets in your collection and discuss how they work within your ideas. I see that your collection consists mainly of Central Asian and Caucasian material. Why?
Collector: Let me say first that throughout millennia all weaving cultures from Europe to China have made extraordinary carpets. My interest in old Turkoman rugs stems from what I see as their purity of expression. The best examples are part of their memory of an archaic weaving tradition.
My Caucasian examples overwhelm me with how the finess of their weave consistently throughout their patterns, establish multiple centers and ultimately unity of expression. I have looked at these rugs many times over the years and still discover new things. I walk away still interested and renewed.
BNS: I like to begin talking about this Ersari bag front. At first glance it reads as simply a worn Afghan rug. What did you see in this piece that “drew you in?”
Collector: First of all, I thought it was very old, far older than the dealer said. Secondly its prototype patterns revealed real power for me and consequently an incredible visual experience. I think the beauty of this piece begins with the weaver designing a generous open space within a relatively small area. This allows the rather large guls to float within it while detached from each other, but unambiguously connected. The result is a pleasing proportioned spacing between guls, visual harmony and balance. The bag front has that rawness of feeling I spoke about earlier.
BNS: I believe it’s time to discuss one of your Tekke main carpets which is arguably the jewel of your collection. Tell us what you see.
Collector: Yes. This Tekke is an extraordinary carpet. Importantly it is a very early example of Tekke weaving. I estimate the carpet dates from the mid-19th century or before. I value age as an important feature in my carpet collection. Old rugs reveal the weaver as an artist, working independently within a family or clan tradition to create with absolute conviction a rug that records a common past, shared beliefs, and family history. The weaver is engaged in a dialogue with her experience as a member of a cultural group and strives to record that experience weaving her rug in a meaningful way.
In this carpet all its pieces fit. By this I mean this carpet has many multiple centers all connected with each other and with the space they exist within. One sees this clearly in this carpet’s borders, its details within its guls, scale of its guls in the field, the diagonal arrangement of its guls, and its superimposed grid balancing all the carpet’s elements. Really look at this Tekke’s guls. These are not blocks. Rather they are drawn with delicate and sinuous appendages that interact with the rest of the quartered gul to create another new design out of the interaction of positive and negative space. . I know this may be difficult to understand but these design details are what separates the really old Tekke carpets from newer types. So subtle but it changes the entire feeling of the carpet. Look at the guls and you will see what I mean.
This carpet’s secondary designs floating between the guls also exhibit that detail. They are just right, perfectly connecting with the designs around it.
The rug’s borders exist as miniature rugs, whole and original without any design conventions.
To me this carpet has absolute stasis. This humble weaving becomes Buddha like. Its profound silence dominates my room.
BNS: The last rug of yours I’d like you to discuss today is your Caucasian Shirvan. I’ve never seen anything like this rug. Caucasian weavers often produce variations of design types, Karachoph. Eagles etc. This Shirvan appears to me as an original unique example.
Collector: I regard this Shirvan as a visual feast. It is very difficult to push myself away from this table. I want to see more and more. There is not a space within this entire rug that leaves me with an empty feeling. The design complexity is compressed but the piece never reads as crowded. Again and again I discover something new in the rug but it never exists as an isolated form but rather leads me to encounter more visual riches. There is never a design misstep. It holds together in complete and perfect unity. This rug is obviously the work of a highly talented and creative workshop weaver. I think this example is late 19th century.
BNS: I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to you talk about rug aesthetics and your rug collection. I only regret that we don’t have the space to continue our conversation. . You own some magnificent Turkoman carpets as well as a group of Baluchi that are quite nice which we were not able to discuss. They deserve our attention. Hopefully we can meet again in the near future to present these rugs and continue our discussions. Again thank you so much for sharing your insights and your rug collection.