Free Form

Anni Albers: Intersecting, 1962, cotton and rayon, 15 3/4 by 16 1/2 inches. Josef Albers Museum, Bottrop, Germany. © Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Conn./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London.

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THE REVIEWS ARE in, and they are rapturous. The retrospective exhibition of the weaver Anni Albers that began at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, and then traveled to Tate Modern in London, has been greeted from all sides as a revelation. Preeminent craft historian Tanya Harrod, writing in Apollo, argued that Albers’s rigorous application to the structural logic of her medium “gave the art world space to make links with other forms of abstraction,”1 and this observation has been borne out by many critics writing on the show. They have generally understood Albers through comparison to painters of her generation, yet also on her own terms, and have unstintingly recognized her contributions to the modernist project. Lynne Cooke praised the exhibition’s curators—Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck—for conceiving an exhibition that “not only is but feels groundbreaking.”2 “Geometry is everywhere,” Ben Luke commented in a five-star review in the Evening Standard, “but always infused with liveliness and movement.”3 The Times of London’s Nancy Durant, after frankly professing her amazement that anyone could master something as complicated-looking as a loom, pronounced Albers a “powerhouse of modernism.”4 Most exuberant of all was Adrian Searle, who wrote in the Guardian that he had “almost inhaled this exhibition,” finding in it not only “geometric rigour” but also “sensuality bordering on the sexual.”5

Apart from the exhibition venues’ own authority, what accounts for this embrace of Albers (1899–1994) by the critical fold—extending even to her estate’s representation, as of 2016, by David Zwirner, one of the world’s most powerful art dealers? Part of the answer lies in Albers’s intriguing biography. She studied and later taught at the Bauhaus—in the weaving workshop, one of the few roles open to women at the school—and in 1933 joined the exodus of Jewish people to America, going first to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The early stage of her career, then, positioned her at two of the best-known centers of the modernist avant-garde. (The cultural difference between the schools is conveyed by two photographs reproduced in the exhibition; one shows eleven earnest Weimar-era faces peeking through a big Bauhaus loom, the other, students clad in bathing suits, using simple backstrap looms on Black Mountain’s sun-splashed roof.) Partly thanks to her institutional connections, Albers was given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1949. Her books On Weaving (1965, recently reissued in an expanded edition) and On Designing (1959) made her thinking available to anyone who wished to understand it.

Yet for decades, like many other women artists of her generation and earlier, Albers seemed overshadowed by the men around her, most of all her husband, Josef, he of the concentric squares. Even in the very positive coverage of this new retrospective, the marginal status of weaving is ritually asserted, and indeed overstated. The medium is still “sidelined by the world’s major museums,” according to the New York Times, which must have surprised curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, and particularly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met alone has staged three blockbuster textile shows in recent years; if there is an ongoing prejudice against the medium, it exists only within the relatively narrow confines of modern art.6 In 2006 Tate Modern itself presented an exhibition on Josef Albers, in tandem with fellow Bauhausler László Moholy-Nagy, a polymathic genius. The comparison unfortunately made Josef seem rather fussy and inhibited, overwhelming the dry and subtle wit of his experiments, and made scant mention of Anni at all (or, for that matter, of Lucia Moholy). With the important exception of textile specialists Sigrid Wortmann Weltge and T’ai Smith, the Bauhaus weavers—not just Albers, but her teacher and colleague Gunta Stölzl, and fellow students like Léna Meyer-Bergner—were largely ignored by art historians.7

Over the past decade, however, this comparative neglect has steadily been remedied. An influential project in this respect was “Modernism: Designing a New World” (2006), curated by Christopher Wilk at the V&A. This international survey included many figures who infused craft disciplines with modernist aesthetics, Anni Albers among them. Then came “Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity” (2009) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which stressed the school’s previously overlooked roots in craft and folk art. The so-called African chair (1921), a rediscovered collaboration between Stölzl and Marcel Breuer, was one of the revelations of that exhibition. Despite its name, this throne-like object is forged from traditional European elements: a high Gothic arch executed through simple joinery, with a bright blocked color scheme on the oak frame and in the upholstery. Anni Albers was splendidly represented in the MoMA exhibition by three major wall hangings, among other works. And she was again prominent in “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957,” curated by Helen Molesworth at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, in 2015—a show that reinstated crafts to their rightful centrality in the college’s story.8

Meanwhile, other twentieth-century textile narratives have been reaching wide audiences, beginning with the hugely successful exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” a revelatory look at the creations of a community of Alabama craftswomen, which began its triumphant tour of American museums in 2002. Among curators and artists alike, there has also been a reevaluation of postwar fiber art—for decades unfairly parodied as hippie macramé writ large. Here, the bellwether show was “Fiber: Sculpture 1960–Present,” curated by Jenelle Porter at the ICA Boston in 2014. If the disciplinary playing fields have not quite been leveled, they’ve certainly become intramural.

 

IT’S AGAINST THIS backdrop that the positive reception for Anni Albers should be understood. Though critics have tended to treat her as a unique case—an attitude perhaps encouraged by the Tate’s reductive tagline “an artist who changed weaving, a weaver who changed art”—in fact her work evolved within a much broader set of developments in the textile discipline. Albers, no egotist, recognized this. Fortunately, so did the retrospective curators. As Cooke noted, the Albers show successfully “limns a genealogy for her manifold vision,” contextualizing her through the inclusion of several other modernist textile artists. Stölzl in particular emerged as an artistic personality of great interest. Her palette was as adventurous as Paul Klee’s, her compositional sensibility an anticipation of Piet Mondrian’s “Boogie Woogie” paintings of the early 1940s. It was also Stölzl who, in 1964, collaborated with Albers to re-create several of her lost Bauhaus wall hangings, and made fascinating alternate variations on their themes.

At the exhibition’s heart was a section inspired by Albers’s On Weaving. This included not only her notes, diagrams, and photos for the book, but also works by other major fiber artists she featured in its pages, like Lenore Tawney and Sheila Hicks (who had briefly studied with Albers at Yale), as well as a selection of historic textiles, some of which Albers collected on her travels, that informed her own designs. A serape from Querétaro, Mexico, with the visual knockout punch of a Bridget Riley painting, was one of several artifacts on view that demonstrate how textiles can illuminate our aesthetic universe. In fact, the most salutary aspect of the show was not so much that it incorporated a weaver into the modernist canon—as welcome as that may be—but rather that it unveiled a side of modernism that was intrinsically syncretic. Oppositions that now seem obviously simplistic and misleading—art/craft, autonomous/applied, form/decoration, tradition/progress—never had any traction for Albers in the first place. As Fer notes in the exhibition catalogue, On Weaving is “a visual atlas” premised on an anti-linear view, “demonstrated through a wide range of technical and aesthetic virtuosity from a global textile culture.”9

 

WHEN TEACHING at Black Mountain, Albers would often ask her students to imagine arriving in the Americas thousands of years ago, via the Bering Strait. Without any developed tools or technology at their disposal, what might they be able to make? She would then leap from this thought experiment to discussion of the mind-bending achievement of ancient Peruvian textiles, which she always held as the supreme expression of the medium, for their combination of technical intricacy and coherence of design. These artifacts inspired some of her own greatest works. Ancient Writing (1936), created shortly after the first of her many visits to Mexico with Josef, features floating supplementary weft threads that meander through the weave, rather than shuttling side-to-side in the usual manner. The effect is that of a free drawing against a textured ground. This was an intuitive reaction to the communicative function of ancient textiles, rather than a direct adaptation of their structures. More firmly grounded in Peruvian precedent were her later “pictorial weavings,” like Open Letter (1958), which feature passages of intricate leno weaving. In this technique, the warps are twisted together, as in a braid. Each twist binds one or more wefts fast, and allows for additional space to be left between them while holding them in place. Albers’s handling of the process is tightly regulated yet extraordinarily various. Up close, these works feel like universal lexicons, manifesting every conceivable interlocking configuration of threads. 

Albers’s masterpiece is arguably Six Prayers (1965–66), commissioned by the Jewish Museum in New York, when that institution was at the height of its engagement with Minimalism and other contemporary art movements. The project again shows Albers’s imaginative response to historic textiles. The vertical panels have a clear resemblance to prayer shawls, and thanks to the use of silver thread, seem imbued with spiritual luminescence. Supplementary wefts—black and white yarns—maneuver stepwise up the compositions. These could be taken as writerly, perhaps a reference to Talmudic practices in which encoded messages are pulled from scripture. Yet, as Coxon notes, Albers was a secular person who approached religious commissions like this one with “characteristically ambivalent play between the courting and resisting of symbolism.”10 The display of Six Prayers, in which the panels were shown alongside a woven study and a variation with more exaggerated vectors within the grid, called Epitaph (1968), was one of the glories of the show. Together, these works offered a reminder that textiles are ideally suited for the exploration of a central modernist tactic, that of using the grid as an armature for expressive aesthetic gestures.

In later years, partly due to waning physical strength, Albers did less weaving and increasingly turned her attention to printmaking and embossing. This brought her closer to her husband Josef’s manner—cool and assured, but somewhat mechanical. (Not so the preparatory drawings she made, which have her familiar intensity.) She also found ongoing success as a designer for industry. This had been a primary intention ever since her years at the Bauhaus, but one she realized regularly only in the context of America’s postwar prosperity. Another highlight of the exhibition was a presentation of the scheme she devised in 1949 for the Harvard Graduate Center dormitory, at the invitation of her old colleague Walter Gropius. The curators wittily reversed the common presentation of architecture, in which one sees the building but not its furnishing fabrics; here, the room itself was indicated with a bare frame, just enough to suggest the functionality of a bed cover and room divider. (In a later filmed interview, Albers explained her pragmatic approach to this all-male environment: she developed fabrics that would not show a cigar hole.) From the 1950s onward, Albers continued to apply herself to designs for Knoll and other companies, often incorporating new synthetics like Lurex and cellophane. When seen in proximity to her pictorial weavings, these manufactured yard goods do tip toward blandness; on the other hand, alongside furniture by Breuer and Mies van der Rohe, they helped make the Bauhaus dream of domestic modernism a reality.

There were many other well-judged moments in this thoughtful and beautifully executed exhibition. There were little asides, like the inventive jewelry Albers made with a Black Mountain colleague out of ribbon, bobby pins, eye hooks, corks, and an aluminum strainer—child’s play elevated. There was the bold choice to bookend the show with two looms, an unapologetic assertion of Albers’s artisanal foundations. The one in the first gallery was set up with red, white, and black threads—as if the artist had just stepped away from her work for a moment. The loom in the last gallery, Albers’s own, happened to be of a brand called Structo Artcraft, as if in summary of her career. There was, too, the inclusion of a film showing artist Ismini Samanidou working on that very loom, shot at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut, which has done so much to sustain both artists’ legacies. Such were the numerous satisfactions of this show; every artist of Albers’s quality deserves an exhibition so finely wrought. She was one of many craftspeople who made signal contributions to the artistic currents of their day. Most are still underappreciated. This is not (quite) the first show to recognize that fact; let’s hope there will be many more to come.