Anni Albers

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Selected Press

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Anni Albers’s Thoughts on Textiles Loom Large

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.

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Sunday Read: Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980

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.

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Anni Albers: Picking Up the Thread

"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."

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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.
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What You Need to Know about Bauhaus Master Anni Albers

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.

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