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.