Echoes of Industrialization in a Work on Paper

Ironing (2003), by Amy Cutler, is an artwork devoid of context. Two women, rendered in meticulous detail, work in tandem to iron a third woman into flattened oblivion. Other figures, already pressed, are discarded on the ground. What stands out most conspicuously, beyond the phantasmagorical element, is the sheer presence of clothing. The victims of the ironing duo more closely resemble tidy piles of anachronistic textiles than people.

Women’s History Month, observed in March, affords an excellent opportunity to explore the surreal universe of Cutler’s piece by interpreting its imagery by way of a garment-related tragedy from over a century ago in the real world.

On March 25, 1911, the Asch Building in New York City burst into flames. Of the 146 people who perished, the majority were young women, most of them recent immigrants. In the moments before the pandemonium, they were laboring in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which occupied the top three floors of the doomed structure. Toiling 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week, the workers churned out an endless supply of mass-produced clothing for the country’s burgeoning middle-class consumers.

The unrelenting pace and physically demanding work at the factory took a grave toll on its young employees. And while we can only observe Cutler’s characters as they partake in their bizarre ritual, there is little doubt that their chore carries a similar burden. The artist concedes, “I think they are definitely fatigued and exhausted.” Both women look demoralized, and there is scant evidence to suggest their task is anything but drudgery.

According to Cutler, Ironing owes its origins to the idea of “repetitive labor, the Industrial Revolution and individual thoughts in collective environments. Where does the mind go when our bodies are engaged in mindless repetition? These two women are not communicating but they are working together as a reflex.” Although we take many of the Industrial Revolution’s benefits for granted, these advances came at a high cost. The commodification of human exertion reduced millions of people, many of whom were already marginalized, to mere flesh and blood machines. To the immigrant women who comprised the backbone of the textile industry, hazardous, monotonous working conditions were inextricable parts of daily life. With an aesthetic reminiscent of a richly illustrated fable, Cutler offers a compelling, yet beautiful, rendition of the alienating and dehumanizing emotional consequences of early 20th-century industrial labor.

Another important aspect of the piece is the absence of an environment, which evokes the conformity and sterility inherent in mass production. Just like the employees at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Cutler’s women perform their deeds sequestered from the outside world. In lieu of a discernible setting, clothing again offers a sense of place. As the artists explains, “Crowded houses and beach balls. They act as footnotes to their demeanor, a bit ironic, one suggests domesticity and the other play. This scene takes place in neither space. I don’t want them to be on trend with the latest fashions. They are busy, they need to be practical and comfortable, so they can perform whatever task is at hand.”

What makes the Triangle Shirtwaist fire so notorious in the annals of American carnage was the extent to which it was preventable. In the twilight of the Gilded Age, the incestuous marriage between business and government was at its most potent and destructive (perhaps rivaled only by their love affair today). The owners of the factory could exploit their workforce unencumbered by meaningful safety regulations or oversight.

There were no functioning fire extinguishers in the factory, and the fire escape was inadequate. There was no sprinkler system. One of the exit doors was locked from the outside — to prevent employees from stealing textile scraps or taking unauthorized breaks. The only means of fleeing the conflagration were via an elevator that could hold 12 passengers at a time or leaping from ninth-story windows. In desperation, some of the workers chose the latter; 58 people died from falls. Passers-by who were enjoying a spring weekend in Manhattan witnessed the gruesome spectacle firsthand.

Ironing captures the essence of this horrifying destruction in a remarkable way. Just as the fire was a consummation of industrialization’s savage appetite for bodies, the artwork evinces a similarly ruthless process. There is no sense of when the women will finish, nor does the scene afford any reassurance that the human ironing is consensual or even that it has a purpose.

The women in Ironing will remain trapped forever in their predicament, but they can serve a noble purpose in the real world. By reminding viewers of the sacrifices and injustices women have endured in this country, the artwork can spark a sobering and meaningful dialogue on the importance and continued relevance of Women’s History.

–By Matt Thompson, Assistant Registrar, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art; Adjunct Professor of History, Johnson County Community College

Above: Amy Cutler, Ironing, 2003, 16 x 22” Gouache on paper, Collection Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS (photo by E.G. Schempf)

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