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."