The women of the Bauhaus who rethought the world—and were forgotten
The Bauhaus believed that design, art, and architecture were all interconnected, and that it would form a community of creatives who fueled one another in the spirit of collaboration and an exchange of ideas with the common desire to better society. When the Bauhaus was founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919, its founder and inaugural director, Walter Gropius, claimed in the school’s manifesto that it welcomed “any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex.” It’s a little known fact that more women applied to the Bauhaus than men for its inaugural year. Although the females who were granted admission were often relegated to more “feminine” course tracks such as weaving or ceramics, the move was groundbreaking at the time because women weren’t allowed to formally study art. While the men who came out of the school—like Mies van der Rohe, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marcel Breuer—went on to become legends in their fields, their accolades often overshadowed those of the females of the Bauhaus. Margaretha Reichardt actually developed the iron yarn used in Breuer’s iconic chairs; Anni Albers was just as good of an abstractionist as her husband Josef Albers, but she specialized in weaving; and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was an extremely talented industrial designer, artist, graphic designer, and fashion designer who died at Auschwitz. Oftentimes, the men’s wives would play a big part in their husbands’ design process. It was the age of Modernism, and the women of the Bauhaus defined the embodiment of the modern woman: self confident, independent, and full of her own ideas.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. Founded at the dawn of the golden age of the Weimar Republic, the famed art school stayed in Weimar from 1919 until 1925, when it was forced to move to Dessau, Germany due to rising political pressure from the National Socialist Party in Thuringia, which faced pressure from the state’s more conservative cities to put a leash on the school’s experimental exhibitions. After the Bauhaus decamped from Weimar to Dessau, Gropius erected the iconic minimal Bauhaus building that went against the neoclassical aesthetic of the day. It was in Dessau that the Bauhaus achieved its most fruitful period, until 1932, when the Nazi party took control of Dessau’s city council, and forced the school to relocate to Berlin. The school operated for 10 months, until the Gestapo, the Nazis’ secret police, shut it down. They later allowed it to reopen, but Mies van der Rohe and its faculty made the decision to close the school three months after Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.
I once bought a rug in the grand bazaar in Istanbul; many people do. I didn’t set out that day to buy anything, but as soon as I wandered into their little shop, and the glass door shut, I knew how this would end. I let my hand touch the fabrics, and a man in a cap came lumbering from the alcove, smiling. He whisked the rug from under my fingertips, and threw it to the floor: “Like it?” I’m not sure I said anything as he found another rug, bellyflopping it on to the previous. “Or this?”
An assistant was now involved, and a pageant of reds, yellows and blacks spilled across the laminate flooring like a knocked drink. “What a mess,” I thought. Getting to my knees, I dug into the pile midway, so close I could smell the age of the threads; I found one and thought: “That will do.”
I imagined that same ancient smell as I peered in close to the weavings of Anni Albers, currently exhibited in a retrospective of her work at Tate Modern. Imagined, because their scent and feel are denied to the viewer, the textiles rigid behind glass. Some are what Albers called “pictorial weavings”, woven modern artworks, as opposed to her textiles intended for architecture or interiors. Albers joined the Bauhaus as a student in 1922; in the textile room (derisively known by other students as the women’s workshop) she was influenced by Gunta Stölzl, who taught her how to apply the concepts of modern art to weaving. The school famously focused on how arts, craft, architecture could be transferred into domestic or industrial contexts. Two conceptions of what weaving is – on one hand, an ancient, traditional craft, and on the other, a medium attuned to modernist preoccupations with colour and pattern – provide the context for a career, and an exhibition, which blurs the lines between practical utility and fine art.
Anni Albers review – ravishing textiles that beg to be touched
It is rare to come from an exhibition so buoyed up, so ravished and so covetous as I did after seeing Anni Albers at Tate Modern. Her art gives pleasure to the eye and to the mind and to the touch, if only one were allowed to touch. One wants to feel the braid and nub, to finger the frays and proud threads, the tightness and looseness and differences between soft and wiry, metallic and plastics in her weavings. Smell, too, might play its part, but mostly all this is in the imagination. Sensuality – bordering on the sexual – and geometric rigour, variety and similarity (pleasures that demand being repeated) infuse the work of a lifetime in Albers’ show.
I almost inhaled this exhibition, that takes us from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain College and to Yale – along with her husband, the painter Josef Albers – and from a very particular European modernism to postwar America. Berlin-born in 1899, Anni Albers began her studies at the Bauhaus in 1922. For all its aspirations to equality, like other female students Albers was discouraged from joining painting classes and was directed towards the weaving workshop. However, disciplines are porous and interconnected, and few more so than textiles. And as Julia Bryan-Wilson points out in her marvellous recent book Fray: Art and Textile Politics, “Just as textiles have stretched between art, craft and industry, they have also oscillated between being defined as leisure and as labour.” There are textiles everywhere in our lives, our history, our cultures, our politics.
At the Bauhaus, Albers found her medium. Who is to say that she would not have been similarly competent and creative had she entered the painting school, or any other? Here, as well as meeting Josef Albers, she came into contact with Paul Klee, whose influence remained strong throughout her career and particularly influenced what she called her “pictorial” weavings. Everything is a picture, even if it is only a conjunction of stripes, lozenges or rectangles. Even at its most pictorial, her art is abstract. Even at its most geometric it feels human and alive, less the product of the mechanics of the loom – the construction of a matrix of threads, and fibres, warp and weft – than of the hand and the mind.
Anni Albers’ textile art gives pleasure to a room, to a wall, a bed, a floor, to the spaces in between. Things are framed on walls, hang freely in space, are lain flat. The Tate exhibition goes from room to room, and in spaces created using walls of stretched translucent scrim, to outline not just her development but also her processes.
There are grilles and grids of woven colour, close-toned patterns and wandering webs, flexing chevrons and teaming bands, oddly reminiscent of the untuned pixelated glitches that bedevil the images when we’re streaming a movie. But here the jumbling visual noise resolves in clusters of pattern, tiny rows of pictograms and mysterious signs.
She drew knots and tangles, like madcap versions of those animated diagrams that help fishermen and sailors learn the mechanics of arcane knots, except here the pleasure is in following the twists and loops and over- and under-passes for nothing more than the pleasure of losing oneself in their inextricable entanglements.
This is all as good as any abstract art. Albers made textiles not as a substitute for painting, but on its own terms. Even so, whole careers could be made (and probably have been) from the dozens of different forays she made in her weavings, and later in her prints. She made drawings from pinpricks through paper and prints from nothing more than the embossment of abstract shapes on heavy white paper. As you move around these prints, light catches the ridges and depressions, first this way, then that, gleaming against whiteness.
Albers’ hand-woven art is a lesson in colour and geometry, method and singularity; tactile and optical, spatial and utilitarian; most of all, her work gives pleasure, and this exhibition (organised in conjunction with K20 in Dusseldorf) is a revelation and a delight.
Going from room to room, I thought of poet Wallace Stevens’ three statements presaging the parts of his Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction: it must be abstract. It must change. It must give pleasure, he wrote. Albers’ art did all these things, as this retrospective demonstrates. Although light levels are often low, to protect the works with their sometimes fugitive dyes and fragile materials, her art sings and vibrates and keeps you looking, following patterns and meandering lines, maze-like structures, grids and colourways. The only demand is that you look, getting up close and stepping away, going from the overall to the detail, sensing materiality as well as the optical. What a joy.
When Anni Albers was 91, she received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art here in 1990. A ceremony was held nearby at The Royal Albert Hall, so solemn that a friend of hers joked that the venue deserved to be renamed “The ‘Royal Albers Hall.”
Ms. Albers attended the festivities in a wheelchair and accompanied by a nurse, but the textile artist stayed through the three-hour ceremony and collected her award for a lifetime of achievement.
As she was being wheeled out of the hall after the ceremony, Nicholas Fox Weber — the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Conn., and who recounted the episode — asked her how she felt.
“Those were the most boring three hours I ever spent,” came Ms. Albers’s deadpan reply.
“Anni shot straight about everything,” Mr. Weber said in an interview. “She was focused, independent — a brilliant artist and totally funny.”
Twenty-four years after Ms. Albers’s death, Tate Modern is putting on a major retrospective of her work. More than 350 objects will be on display, ranging from mass-produced textiles and jewelry crafted from everyday objects, to sketches, studies and wall hangings.
It’s an opportunity for Tate to recognize a female artist whose name is still missing from many art history textbooks, who remains forever associated with her husband Josef (one of the founders of the revolutionary Bauhaus school), and whose discipline, textile, is still being sidelined by the world’s major museums.
In a 1985 interview, Anni Albers remarked, “I find that, when the work is made with threads, it’s considered a craft; when it’s on paper, it’s considered art.” This was her somewhat oblique explanation of why she hadn’t received “the longed-for pat on the shoulder,” i.e., recognition as an artist, until after she gave up weaving and immersed herself in printmaking—a transition that occurred when she was in her sixties. It’s hard to judge whether Albers’s tone was wry or rueful or (as one critic alleged) “some-what bitter,” and therefore it’s unclear what her comment might indicate about the belatedness of this acknowledgment relative to her own sense of her achievement. After all, she had been making “pictorial weavings”—textiles designed expressly as art—since the late 1940s. Though the question might now seem moot, it isn’t, given the enduring debates about the hierarchical distinctions that separate fine art from craft, and given the still contested status of self-identified fiber artists who followed in Albers’s footsteps and claimed their woven forms as fine art, tout court.
What distinguished this show at K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen was that curators Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck, who organized the exhibition in Düsseldorf (in partnership with Tate Modern), sidestepped these stale polemics in favor of a radical rereading of Albers’s art and contribution. Rejecting any attempt to right past wrongs, they situated her squarely within the context of international modernism. Thus, whereas previous Albers retrospectives tended to confine themselves to circumscribed narratives of textile or fiber art, this survey, titled simply “Anni Albers,” defined its ambitions very differently. Far from positioning weaving within an “expanded” field of painting or sculpture, Albers strove, in Fer’s words, to “make weaving modern” and to place it “at the heart of the modern project.” In so doing, she defied routine assumptions “about what ‘the modern’ should look and feel like.”* Comprehensive in scope, this survey highlights her germinal writing in relation to her studio work as well as her teaching, collecting, and collaborative production spanning the fields of interior design, architecture, and printmaking. At K20, "On Weaving," Albers’s magisterial 1965 meditation on the principles, ontology, and philosophical implications for other fields of the titular craft, was displayed in a vitrine, as were related reference illustrations and historic textiles. As the vitrines were installed adjacent to the show’s central axis—its spine—these materials consequently provided a kind of conceptual scaffolding for the objects on view, advancing Albers’s governing argument: that weaving is not a “Luddite” technique, but one always of the present, for its fundamentals and “main devices”—above all, the loom—have never become obsolete.
Unable to study painting, her first choice, when she enrolled at the Bauhaus in 1922, Albers committed to weaving as the means by which she would make her contribution to the modernist project. Opening with a selection of textiles and studies that she made shortly after entering the school’s weaving workshop, the show unfolded chronologically with fine-tuned constellations of exhibits that elucidated different phases of the artist’s career and linked experimental work (e.g., jewelry) to the major currents of her practice. In addition, it introduced examples of works by peers such as Hans Arp and Paul Klee and by her husband, Josef, at strategic points along the circuit. Also on view was a selection of items produced by Albers’s students at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she and Josef relocated in 1933 to escape Fascism in Europe. But most illuminating were the myriad artifacts and explanatory materials related to the great cultures of Mesoamerica and South America, in particular their weaving and their architecture, which the intrepid couple encountered on their travels. The nuanced curatorial strategy was typified at K20 by the grouping of two works from 1947—"Las Cruces I" (The Crosses I), a rare gouache, and "La Luz" (The Light), one of her first pictorial weavings—with a Mexican serape from the early twentieth century, fragments of precontact textiles featuring geometric designs, and snapshots taken by Josef during trips to Monte Albán, Mexico, between 1936 and 1939. Despite their very different mediums and formal languages, "Las Cruces" and "La Luz" attest both to Albers’s responsiveness to vernacular legacies and to the transformative impact of her study of the archaeological sites and material remains of these ancient societies. Precontact Peruvian textiles, for Albers, were unsurpassed, and from the late ’40s on, the formal and technical accomplishments of Andean civilizations would increasingly permeate her weavings and subsequently her printmaking. The use of fiber as a communication technology also fascinated Albers, spurring her investigations of the formal properties of glyphs and calligraphy and the affiliations between text and textile; later, in one of several commissions for synagogues, she developed forms she called “thread hieroglyphs.”
Yet the pre-Columbian world for Albers was not an idealized alternative to the here and now; it offered an archive of techniques and ways of seeing that, if reactivated, could be as modern as any from the industrial era. Thus, her ambitions, honed during her formative years at the Bauhaus, remained firmly rooted in a belief that art and design should shape the present. In a letter written in 1936 to his old friend Wassily Kandinsky, Josef contended that “Mexico is truly the promised land of abstract art.” Arguably, few foreign artists responded more richly and persistently to that dynamic matrix than did his wife. Her repeated journeys south introduced her to the flourishing Mexican art and architectural scenes, whose luminaries included Luis Barragán, Clara Porset, and Diego Rivera. These experiences fostered an understanding, as Fer astutely argues in her catalogue essay, of a “different order of relationship of modernity to the ancient past.” And this understanding, in turn, set her at a distance not only from her counterparts in Europe, whose reductive primitivizing amounted to colonialist appropriation, but also from postwar modernists whose desideratum was rupture with the past—a tabula rasa. In the ’60s, when she was com-missioned to design a large tapestry for the lobby bar of Ricardo Legorreta’s stylish Hotel Camino Real in Mexico City, she produced a resoundingly contemporary work notable for its scintillating chromatic spatial vibration. A complex, layered structure of pink, red, and crimson ziggurats, zigzags, and stepped triangles, it deftly fused the ethos of an emerging generation of abstract artists, such as Bridget Riley, with Central America’s indigenous heritage.
It was in the mid-’40s—a period in which she began to develop productive relations with leading architects, notably Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, and a younger American cohort for whom she would design fabrics to serve as room dividers, curtains, and furnishings—that Albers arrived at her singular concept of the pictorial weaving. Meant simply to be looked at, like a painting by Klee, the artist she most revered, the pictorial weaving took the form of a modestly sized abstract textile designed to be framed and hung on the wall. Produced on a hand-loom, its structural grid composed of interlacing warp and weft threads, each of these works depended for its distinction on the subtlety and richness of its formal and technical invention, as seen in such memorable examples as "Development in Rose II," 1952, and "Thickly Settled," 1957.
In addition, the show included tantalizing suggestions of paths not taken. For instance, first in the late ’40s and again in the mid-’60s, Albers made prints and drawings that featured looping knots of the kind found in such single-strand technologies as knitting, lace making, and crochet. Included among the many examples of small woven swatches were two wholly unexpected, undated fabric samples that had been made on a knitting machine. Swatches—or “speculative weaves”—served for Albers as forms of experimental manual research that enhanced sensitivity to texture and materiality, and so, in her view, were as crucial to the design process in industrial production as in handicraft. She had acquired the knitting machine in 1956. Was she contemplating a momentous turning away from the grid structure integral to forms woven on a loom in favor of other structural forms, such as the looped net, which was to prove so vital for diverse ’60s artists?
In the penultimate chapter of "On Weaving," Albers assessed the achievements in her chosen fields of art and design. Her conclusion was unsparing: “We are still groping.” Barely qualifying this stark assessment, she added: “The efforts of weavers in the direction of pictorial work have only in isolated instances reached the point necessary to hold our interest in the persuasive manner of art.” In the realm of architecture and interior design, similarly, much remained to be done: The time had not yet come when “textiles, so often no more than an afterthought in planning, might take a place again as a contributing thought.”
In the book’s final pages, Albers included an image of the recent work of Lenore Tawney, an emerging star among younger weavers. But it’s unlikely Albers would have given such notice to the fiber work of the younger American’s peers who came increasingly to the fore as the ’60s unfurled. The rising generation favored monumental and volumetric forms, often created off-loom and installed independent of the wall. Rejecting the label of craft to gain acceptance in the realm of fine art, where it aligned itself more with sculptural idioms, the burgeoning fiber-art movement made the concept of pictorial weaving, as Albers had defined it, obsolete. In retrospect, it’s clear that (her later commissions aside) in their scale, format, and relational compositional structures, her pictorial weavings are closer to the paradigms of interwar vanguard painters than to those that dominated ’60s modernism. Half a century later, neither Albers’s pictorial weavings nor ’60s fiber art has yet found an assured place on the walls of most museums of modern and contemporary art.
Today, Albers is regarded as unquestionably one of the great weavers of the past century, and threads have become the material of choice for many contemporary artists working across a range of practices. In parallel, there’s been a resurgence of interest in her art and her writing from other artists whose work does not focus on textiles per se, from Leonor Antunes to Zoe Leonard to Nick Mauss, to name but a few. Obviously timely, “Anni Albers” not only is but feels groundbreaking. This is due in large part to its governing thesis. But equally crucial is its curatorial methodology: a checklist that limns a genealogy for her mani-fold vision, and an installation conceived as a sensitive spatializing of the underlying argument. In prioritizing the experiential over the didactic, we come to see how, as Fer writes in the catalogue, Albers “reconfigured the art of weaving as the meeting of pictorial abstraction, technology and architecture.”
In her 1965 introductory note to On Weaving, Anni Albers explains that the book is "not a guide for weavers or would-be weavers," and that she hopes to "include in my audience not only weavers but also those whose work in other fields encompasses textile problems." What is a "textile problem"? The questions encountered in the study and Albers’s manipulation of textiles can inspire those working outside the medium—you do not need to work with the fiber arts in order to learn from them. Since its initial publication in 1965, Albers’s On Weaving has proved an important text for artists and scholars in architecture and design fields, as well as in arts education, but the book has yet to reach others who will find her textile-based investigations eloquent and challenging.
It is only relatively recently (in European and North American art institutions) that textiles have been considered an art form. This revised view of weaving and the fiber arts is due in large part to the efforts of Anni Albers. Albers, who attended the Bauhaus and later taught at Black Mountain College, is often cited as the foremost textile artist of the twentieth century. She was a crucial figure in introducing textiles to the art world. In fact, the 1949 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of her work was the first dedicated to a fiber artist.
Albers published two collections of her essays, On Designing, in 1959, and later, On Weaving. Many of these essays were first published in magazines and other venues in the 1940s and ‘50s. Princeton University Press has released an expanded edition of On Weaving around two major exhibitions of Albers’s work: the recently closed Anni Albers: Touching Vision at the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the upcoming Anni Albers at the Tate Modern.
I have consistently found Albers’s writings, in both On Weaving and the already re-released Selected Writings on Design (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), to be eye-opening on a range of topics. Materiality, tactility, nonverbal language, the histories of both handcraft and factory production—Albers provides clear and rigorous analysis of these and other issues throughout her books. Readers concerned with digital communication and design will appreciate Albers’s close attention to technology and style. Albers, in her writings and art, as well as in her life story, has helped me think about the labor of domestic and industrial textile workers, the politics of romantic involvement with an established artist, and the complexities of being a Jewish refugee living in mid-century America. And so, I am grateful for this re-issue of On Weaving, a book which has been increasingly difficult to locate since its initial publication.
Non-weavers may balk at On Weaving’s intricate descriptions of weaving technique. But even in the more technical sections of the text, Albers imbues her descriptions of practice with illuminating philosophical statements about creativity, art, and functionality. For example, in "The Loom," she writes, in reference to the historical development of weaving technologies:
"As need presses toward fulfillment, so does obtainable fulfillment excite need—a generative cycle, spiraling to dimensions of both need and productivity that must seem excessive to any generation earlier than the one participating in it."
Later, in "Modified and Composite Weaves," she notes: "where the functional aspect of the basic structure is moderated, aesthetic qualities frequently move to the foreground—in fact, they often are the very reason for the structural change."
On Weaving offers a model for how to write in a way that incorporates theoretical examination alongside practical content. Craft practitioners do not always record and publish their ideas; those who do write about craft, such as Albers, provide valuable—and often overlooked—thoughts on art and creative work.
The new edition of On Weaving features full-color plates. (Albers’s tapestries and wall-hangings are particularly stunning.) Supplementary essays at the end of the text give helpful biographical and historical contexts and contribute to a much-needed body of scholarship that examines Albers as a writer and theorist. This book as well as another new publication, Anni Albers: Notebook 1970-1980, showcase Albers’s artistic process and offer readers an intimate, immediate experience of her work. Anni Albers: Notebook reproduces a notebook containing rough "studies" discovered after Albers’s death, illustrating the draft notation technique Albers explains in On Weaving.
Though often undervalued and under-examined, textiles are central in art making and in everyday life. These new publications of Albers’s work offer insights usually left out of discussions of mid-century modernism—insights that now can and should be included.
Anni Albers’s introduction to weaving might have seemed inauspicious. Despite Walter Gropius publicly promoting an open admissions policy, when Albers arrived at the Bauhaus in 1922, she was shut out of the construction department: the only classes open to women were weaving workshops. After initial dissatisfaction she took to the discipline enthusiastically, beginning a lifelong artistic project of writing, weaving, drawing, design and research that took her away from Nazi-era Germany to the experimental hotbed of Black Mountain College in the thirties and then on to Yale and Connecticut in the seventies, where she stayed until her death in 1994.
Albers is having something of a revival at the moment––an excellent solo exhibition of her work at the Guggenheim Bilbao has just ended, she featured last year in a group show at MOMA and in a dual show at Yale and, finally, two books by her were published towards the end of last year: a monumental reprint of her essay On Weaving and this exquisitely produced set of around eighty sketches on graph paper, entitled Notebook 1970-80.
The Notebook is a facsimile of sketches Albers made in her seventies—designs and ideas for prints and textiles—in a standard, slightly ragged book of graph paper, held together by yellowing sticky tape. In the sixties Albers was turning away from textile production and beginning to explore printmaking and design; in 1970 she moved house to Orange, Connecticut, leaving her looms behind and applying herself fully to the graphic arts. These drawings represent the efforts of a septuagenarian, with a long and acclaimed career behind her, playfully pushing herself onwards into less well-explored territory.
It’s in this sense of play, in experimentation between and within different sketches in the Notebook, that these deceptively simple drawings begin to come alive, with a gradually building, almost psychedelic intensity. At first their rough simplicity makes them feel like doodles. For the most part Albers is working with a single basic unit—half a shaded square of graph paper—yet through her command of shading and rhythm she’s able to conjure up mind-bendingly weird effects; mountain ranges, cityscapes, mazes and knots all seem at different times to loom vertiginously out of her pages. Sometimes the visual language of topography or mathematics creeps in, at others it’s painting or fabrics, and in a run of six puzzle-like studies of interwoven string made in the late seventies, the drawings even take on a cartoonish vivacity.
This variety and willingness to toy with radically different grammars is no surprise: Albers, following her training at the Bauhaus, frequently sought to understand weaving in the context of the different disciplines that surrounded it––painting, writing, photography, sculpture and, principally, architecture. Indeed, for Albers weaving and architecture were identical disciplines operating on different scales, both intimately concerned with how “material surface” works with “material structure” to gain an effect, and how the “overlapping of outer and inner characteristics” could be manipulated and crafted. Through this sensibility she’s able in these sketches to produce the illusion of all sorts of tactile and structural effects, aided by the excellent reproduction of the pages—the designers and photographers at David Zwirner books have done a great job—preserving minute gradations of shading, along with blotting marks, aged tape and smudges all rendered in perfect detail.
It’s perhaps tempting, as a result of Albers’s “rediscovery”, to think that this is a case of today’s “progressive” era finally giving an underappreciated artist her due. Albers worked in a discipline traditionally viewed as feminine, she was a student and ardent admirer of South American weaving, thought of as a niche interest in the US (“I will be accused of crass one-sidedness in my feeling of awe for the textile arts of Peru”) and she was married to Josef Albers, who achieved great fame as a painter in the post-war era––all these things perhaps contributed to her relative neglect towards the end of the twentieth century. In one particularly painful example of idiocy I came across while researching this review, an article on Black Mountain College from the early seventies captions a photograph of Josef Albers “with his daughter Anni”. A sheepish correction in the next issue clarifies that the young woman in the picture is a student and that “Anni Albers is Josef’s wife”.
However, it’s worth remembering, as Andrew Dickson recently has, that Anni Albers achieved great renown in her time––in 1949 MoMA put on a solo retrospective show of her work, the first such show ever devoted to a textile artist. Throughout the rest of her life people published books about Albers and arranged exhibitions of her work; perhaps the sense that she’s been rediscovered now may say more about the questionable gender politics of the art world in recent decades, than about the times in which she lived and worked.
"We do not speak of designing a picture or a concerto, but of designing a house, a city, a bowl, a fabric. But surely these can all be, like a painting or music, works of art." The words are those of Anni Albers, who spent a long and intimidatingly productive life attempting to prove exactly this assertion—that houses and cities, bowls and fabric, can be as much works of art as pictures or concertos, sculptures or frescoes. A half-century on, few people would claim that architecture doesn’t qualify, and thanks to Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal, contemporary ceramics carry the gloss of art-world respectability.
But what about weaving, Albers's chosen discipline? We may think of video, graffiti, sound, and live performance all as art—even conceptual parades starring the general public—but textiles we instinctively tend to place on the other side of that Manichean divide: they’re design. Worse, they’re "craft."
These are, in any case, thoughts that occur as the glass elevator glides up through Frank Gehry's billowing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, toward a major solo exhibition devoted to Albers’s work, "Touching Vision." The show is an act of reclamation, even rediscovery. Much like the genre in which she operated, Albers has been shunted to the margins; it has been over a decade since she was exhibited at any scale in Europe, and nearly twenty years in the United States. Yet she appears to be edging her way back into vogue. In addition to the Guggenheim exhibition, a keystone of the Bilbao museum's twentieth anniversary this autumn, there was a combined show with her husband, Josef Albers, last spring at Yale, and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf and the Tate Modern in London will collaborate on a joint retrospective next year. Not to be outdone, MoMA has recently included her in a group exhibition about female artists and postwar abstraction, and her gallery, David Zwirner, has published a handsome facsimile edition of a late-period Notebook, eighty-odd pages of neatly penciled triangles and grids on green-tinted graph paper. Enigmatic and spare, these sketches underline the philosophy behind another Albers pronouncement: "Learning to form makes us understand all forming."
All about weave: a new show threads together Anni Albers’ artistic ambidexterity
Anni Albers' career spanned two continents, eight decades and half a dozen honorary doctorates. It negotiated personal commissions and worldwide mass-production; bridging the canvas, the loom and the printing press. To stack such a mountain of boundary-crossing achievements, takes a figure of 'remarkable tenacity and adaptability', says Manuel Cirauqui, the curator of the Albers retrospective recently opened at the Guggenheim Bilbao.
'When she arrived at the Bauhaus in 1922, Albers wanted to be a painter, but she was given a spot in the weaving workshop,' Cirauqui explains. 'She took it, and ran with it. Then, when forced to move to the US in 1933, she hit the big-time in America’s mass-produced design industry. At 60 years of age, when she had to stop weaving, she adapted again as a great theorist and philosopher.'
'Touching Vision' highlights Albers' lifelong artistic ambidexterity, through a catalogue of examples taken from each of her 'phases'. Linearly presented, and guided by Cirauqui's steady hand, we see the queen of weaving’s singular modernist vision unfold across discipline, decade and timezone. The first work we confront, her Bauhaus thesis subject, is laid on top of a glass vitrine, so its textural complexity can 'rise to the fore', says Cirauqui, his hand hovering over the threads. Woven in, lustrous cellophane warps across haggard horsehair.Read more
The great textile artist and abstractionist Anni Albers found her medium—weaving—by accident.
It was 1922, and Albers had just been accepted into the Bauhaus, the pioneering school in Weimar, Germany, whose lofty goal was to spread aesthetically rigorous, functional art and design across the globe and make it accessible to all, regardless of wealth or class. The Bauhaus offered courses in many different specialities, including woodworking, metal, wall painting, and glass. At the time, however, most women ended up in the weaving workshop.
While the school celebrated its commitment to gender equality in promotional pamphlets, the reality wasn’t as even-handed. In 1920, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius informed one female applicant that "it is not advisable, in our experience, that women work in the heavy craft areas such as carpentry and so forth." He continued: "For this reason, a women’s section has been formed at the Bauhaus which works particularly with textiles; bookbinding and pottery also accept women."
Though it was by no means Albers’s first choice—she'd have preferred glass—the ambitious young artist ended up at the loom. "Fate put into my hands limp threads!" she later recalled. "Threads to build a future?" Despite her reticence, though, she took to the medium. And through an experimental approach to material, and an inventive handling of undulating line and geometric pattern, she proceeded to advance not only textile art, but also the course of abstract art—a movement that her male contemporaries Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and her husband Josef Albers are sooner recognized for.