Anni Albers


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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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