Anni Albers at K20 Grabbeplatz
In a 1985 interview, Anni Albers remarked, "I find that, when the work is made with threads, it's considered a craft; when it's on paper, it's considered art." This was her somewhat oblique explanation of why she hadn't received "the longed-for pat on the shoulder," i.e., recognition as an artist, until after she gave up weaving and immersed herself in printmaking—a transition that occurred when she was in her sixties. It's hard to judge whether Albers's tone was wry or rueful or (as one critic alleged) "some-what bitter," and therefore it's unclear what her comment might indicate about the belatedness of this acknowledgment relative to her own sense of her achievement. After all, she had been making "pictorial weavings"—textiles designed expressly as art—since the late 1940s. Though the question might now seem moot, it isn't, given the enduring debates about the hierarchical distinctions that separate fine art from craft, and given the still contested status of self-identified fiber artists who followed in Albers's footsteps and claimed their woven forms as fine art, tout court.
What distinguished this show at K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen was that curators Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck, who organized the exhibition in Düsseldorf (in partnership with Tate Modern), sidestepped these stale polemics in favor of a radical rereading of Albers's art and contribution. Rejecting any attempt to right past wrongs, they situated her squarely within the context of international modernism. Thus, whereas previous Albers retrospectives tended to confine themselves to circumscribed narratives of textile or fiber art, this survey, titled simply "Anni Albers," defined its ambitions very differently. Far from positioning weaving within an "expanded" field of painting or sculpture, Albers strove, in Fer's words, to "make weaving modern" and to place it "at the heart of the modern project." In so doing, she defied routine assumptions "about what 'the modern' should look and feel like."* Comprehensive in scope, this survey highlights her germinal writing in relation to her studio work as well as her teaching, collecting, and collaborative production spanning the fields of interior design, architecture, and printmaking. At K20, On Weaving, Albers's magisterial 1965 meditation on the principles, ontology, and philosophical implications for other fields of the titular craft, was displayed in a vitrine, as were related reference illustrations and historic textiles. As the vitrines were installed adjacent to the show's central axis—its spine—these materials consequently provided a kind of conceptual scaffolding for the objects on view, advancing Albers's governing argument: that weaving is not a "Luddite" technique, but one always of the present, for its fundamentals and "main devices"—above all, the loom—have never become obsolete.
Unable to study painting, her first choice, when she enrolled at the Bauhaus in 1922, Albers committed to weaving as the means by which she would make her contribution to the modernist project. Opening with a selection of textiles and studies that she made shortly after entering the school's weaving workshop, the show unfolded chronologically with fine-tuned constellations of exhibits that elucidated different phases of the artist's career and linked experimental work (e.g., jewelry) to the major currents of her practice. In addition, it introduced examples of works by peers such as Hans Arp and Paul Klee and by her husband, Josef, at strategic points along the circuit. Also on view was a selection of items produced by Albers's students at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she and Josef relocated in 1933 to escape Fascism in Europe. But most illuminating were the myriad artifacts and explanatory materials related to the great cultures of Mesoamerica and South America, in particular their weaving and their architecture, which the intrepid couple encountered on their travels. The nuanced curatorial strategy was typified at K20 by the grouping of two works from 1947—Las Cruces I (The Crosses I), a rare gouache, and La Luz (The Light), one of her first pictorial weavings—with a Mexican serape from the early twentieth century, fragments of precontact textiles featuring geometric designs, and snapshots taken by Josef during trips to Monte Albán, Mexico, between 1936 and 1939. Despite their very different mediums and formal languages, Las Cruces and La Luz attest both to Albers's responsiveness to vernacular legacies and to the transformative impact of her study of the archaeological sites and material remains of these ancient societies. Precontact Peruvian textiles, for Albers, were unsurpassed, and from the late 1940s on, the formal and technical accomplishments of Andean civilizations would increasingly permeate her weavings and subsequently her printmaking. The use of fiber as a communication technology also fascinated Albers, spurring her investigations of the formal properties of glyphs and calligraphy and the affiliations between text and textile; later, in one of several commissions for synagogues, she developed forms she called "thread hieroglyphs."
Yet the pre-Columbian world for Albers was not an idealized alternative to the here and now; it offered an archive of techniques and ways of seeing that, if reactivated, could be as modern as any from the industrial era. Thus, her ambitions, honed during her formative years at the Bauhaus, remained firmly rooted in a belief that art and design should shape the present. In a letter written in 1936 to his old friend Wassily Kandinsky, Josef contended that "Mexico is truly the promised land of abstract art." Arguably, few foreign artists responded more richly and persistently to that dynamic matrix than did his wife. Her repeated journeys south introduced her to the flourishing Mexican art and architectural scenes, whose luminaries included Luis Barragán, Clara Porset, and Diego Rivera. These experiences fostered an understanding, as Fer astutely argues in her catalogue essay, of a "different order of relationship of modernity to the ancient past." And this understanding, in turn, set her at a distance not only from her counterparts in Europe, whose reductive primitivizing amounted to colonialist appropriation, but also from postwar modernists whose desideratum was rupture with the past—a tabula rasa. In the 1960s, when she was commissioned to design a large tapestry for the lobby bar of Ricardo Legorreta's stylish Hotel Camino Real in Mexico City, she produced a resoundingly contemporary work notable for its scintillating chromatic spatial vibration. A complex, layered structure of pink, red, and crimson ziggurats, zigzags, and stepped triangles, it deftly fused the ethos of an emerging generation of abstract artists, such as Bridget Riley, with Central America's indigenous heritage.
Albers's ambitions, honed during her formative years at the Bauhaus, remained firmly rooted in a belief that art and design should shape the present.
It was in the mid-1940s—a period in which she began to develop productive relations with leading architects, notably Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, and a younger American cohort for whom she would design fabrics to serve as room dividers, curtains, and furnishings—that Albers arrived at her singular concept of the pictorial weaving. Meant simply to be looked at, like a painting by Klee, the artist she most revered, the pictorial weaving took the form of a modestly sized abstract textile designed to be framed and hung on the wall. Produced on a hand-loom, its structural grid composed of interlacing warp and weft threads, each of these works depended for its distinction on the subtlety and richness of its formal and technical invention, as seen in such memorable examples as Development in Rose II, 1952, and Thickly Settled, 1957.
In addition, the show included tantalizing suggestions of paths not taken. For instance, first in the late 1940s and again in the mid-1960s, Albers made prints and drawings that featured looping knots of the kind found in such single-strand technologies as knitting, lace making, and crochet. Included among the many examples of small woven swatches were two wholly unexpected, undated fabric samples that had been made on a knitting machine. Swatches—or "speculative weaves"—served for Albers as forms of experimental manual research that enhanced sensitivity to texture and materiality, and so, in her view, were as crucial to the design process in industrial production as in handicraft. She had acquired the knitting machine in 1956. Was she contemplating a momentous turning away from the grid structure integral to forms woven on a loom in favor of other structural forms, such as the looped net, which was to prove so vital for diverse 1960s artists?
In the penultimate chapter of On Weaving, Albers assessed the achievements in her chosen fields of art and design. Her conclusion was unsparing: "We are still groping." Barely qualifying this stark assessment, she added: "The efforts of weavers in the direction of pictorial work have only in isolated instances reached the point necessary to hold our interest in the persuasive manner of art." In the realm of architecture and interior design, similarly, much remained to be done: The time had not yet come when "textiles, so often no more than an afterthought in planning, might take a place again as a contributing thought."
In the book's final pages, Albers included an image of the recent work of Lenore Tawney, an emerging star among younger weavers. But it's unlikely Albers would have given such notice to the fiber work of the younger American's peers who came increasingly to the fore as the 1960s unfurled. The rising generation favored monumental and volumetric forms, often created off-loom and installed independent of the wall. Rejecting the label of craft to gain acceptance in the realm of fine art, where it aligned itself more with sculptural idioms, the burgeoning fiber-art movement made the concept of pictorial weaving, as Albers had defined it, obsolete. In retrospect, it's clear that (her later commissions aside) in their scale, format, and relational compositional structures, her pictorial weavings are closer to the paradigms of interwar vanguard painters than to those that dominated 1960s modernism. Half a century later, neither Albers's pictorial weavings nor 1960s fiber art has yet found an assured place on the walls of most museums of modern and contemporary art.
Today, Albers is regarded as unquestionably one of the great weavers of the past century, and threads have become the material of choice for many contemporary artists working across a range of practices. In parallel, there's been a resurgence of interest in her art and her writing from other artists whose work does not focus on textiles per se, from Leonor Antunes to Zoe Leonard to Nick Mauss, to name but a few. Obviously timely, Anni Albers not only is but feels groundbreaking. This is due in large part to its governing thesis. But equally crucial is its curatorial methodology: a checklist that limns a genealogy for her manifold vision, and an installation conceived as a sensitive spatializing of the underlying argument. In prioritizing the experiential over the didactic, we come to see how, as Fer writes in the catalogue, Albers "reconfigured the art of weaving as the meeting of pictorial abstraction, technology and architecture."
*In so doing, it builds on recent scholarship on the Bauhaus by a number of historians, T'ai Smith in particular.