DECEMBER 12 Working From Where We Are: Anni Albers's and Alex Reed's Jewelry Collection Brenda Danilowitz, Bauhaus Imaginista

NOVEMBER 1 Life's Rich Tapestry Frances Hedges, Harper's Bazaar

OCTOBER 9 Anni Albers review, ravishing textiles that beg to be touched Adrian Searle, The Guardian

OCTOBER 8 At Tate Modern, an Anni Albers Retrospective Farah Nayeri, New York Times

OCTOBER 1 Anni Albers at K20 Grabbeplatz Lynne Cooke, Artforum

SEPTEMBER 20 Anni Albers, a gifted artist finally getting her due Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post

SEPTEMBER 20 Anni Albers and the forgotten women of the Bauhaus Dominic Lutyens, BBC Designed

AUGUST 3 When Touching Is Believing Ellie O'Byrne, Irish Examiner

MAY 22 Material Culture Teach-in Explores the Power of Making Mike Cummings, Yale News

FEBRUARY 21 Anni Albers's Thoughts on Textiles Loom Large Becky Peterson, Hyperallergic

FEBRUARY 7 Josef Albers in Mexico Benjamin Clifford, Brooklyn Rail

Anni Albers and Alexander Reed
Necklaces, ca. 1940
Bottle caps, beads, and metal chain (left), Pencil-top erasers, beads, and wire (right).
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Working From Where We Are: Anni Albers's and Alex Reed's Jewelry Collection

Not by nature acquisitive and certainly not art collectors, Josef and Anni Albers began in 1936 to collect Mexican figurines and other artifacts unearthed from that land's memory. They described the country, which they first visited in 1935, as "the promised land of abstract art." Returning to Black Mountain College Anni Albers and Alexander Reed began experimenting with everyday articles to create a strange and beautiful collection of objects of personal adornment inspired by their visit to Mexico.

"Walter Benjamin, compared 'memory . . . the medium of past experience . . .' to 'the ground (which) is the medium in which dead cities lie interred.'"(1)

Not by nature acquisitive and certainly not art collectors, Josef and Anni Albers began in 1936 to collect Mexican figurines and other artifacts unearthed from that land's memory. They described the country, which they first visited in 1935, as "the promised land of abstract art."(2) By collecting these buried remains of an ancient abstract art they transported the past into their own present. Their encounter with the ancient Zapotec jewelry discovered in Tomb 7 of the Monte Albán complex was a defining moment in what became a lifelong obsession. Now renowned as an example of Zapotec architecture, in the 1930s this archaeological site on the outskirts of Oaxaca was still being excavated.

Made using gold, silver, rock crystal, stones, shells and simple beads arranged in striking juxtapositions, the artifacts recovered from Tomb 7 were on display in the local museum (now the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca) when Josef Albers photographed them in July 1939. The Alberses were traveling with their friend and student Alexander "Bill" Reed. Anni's parents had arrived in Veracruz as refugees from Nazi Germany just a few weeks before. They were among the fortunate ones who had managed, with significant difficulty and hardship, to escape Germany barely three months before the war began. Now they were safe in Mexico, where Josef and Anni Albers had found a contemplative space that nourished their art.

Returning to Black Mountain College that August, and inspired by the Monte Albán "trésor," (as Anni's named it) Albers and Reed began experimenting with everyday articles to create a strange and beautiful collection of objects of personal adornment. Their jewelry refused precious materials, relying instead on objects of utility—paperclips, bottle tops, hair pins, pencil erasers, cotton reels and washers—disassociated from their useful duties to create evocative forms and contrasts. Albers and Reed came to understand jewelry not as ornaments made valuable by the presence of rare gems and precious metals but by what the makers infused them with. They estimated the process of making, its "surprise and inventiveness," bestowed their jewelry with a spiritual rather than material value, giving it meaning and clearing the path for "a new way of seeing." In May 1941, a selection of their jewelry pieces was exhibited at the Willard Gallery in New York City.

In December 1941, the United States entered the Second World War. The previous year, as the US began to draft men into military service, the US Congress enacted laws allowing conscientious objectors to apply for alternative service. Bill Reed, a Quaker, registered as a conscientious objector and by 1941 had left BMC for a Quaker work camp in Pennsylvania. Anni Albers giving a talk at Black Mountain College in May 1942 was asked to refer in some way to defense work—work that, as Albers put it, "in the minds of so many of us [is] the most urgent work of the moment." Most likely with Reed in mind, she chose to talk about their work together:

"Though our work has nothing to do with defense work, there was something right in asking [us] to connect it with it ... [since] for many of us our work cannot be that of going into a munitions factory or of helping those who suffer in this war in a direct way. ... To give our actions the meaning we want them to have implies questioning them anew ... we felt our experiments perhaps could help to point out the merely transient value we attach to things ... we tried to show that spiritual values are truly dominant ... our work suggested that jewels no longer were the reserved privilege of the few, but property of everyone who cared to look about and was open to the beauty of the simple things around us."

It was characteristic of Anni Albers to take the long and contemplative view. The Bauhaus, which she joined soon after the First World War, was in 1922 a refuge from a world beset by a "confusion of upset beliefs."(3) After 1933, as she and Josef discovered a new haven in Mexico, her deep empathy with the long buried and often forgotten ancient cultures of the Americas was always present in her daily thinking, informing her responses to the world. From this other "old" world she drew the courage and insight that, facing a new catastrophic world event, allowed her to affirm to her audience of May 1942 that:

"If we can more and more free ourselves from values other than spiritual, I believe we are going in the right direction. Every general movement is carried by small parts, by single people forming their way of believing and subordinating everything to this belief. We have to work from where we are. But just as you can go everywhere from any given point, so too the idea of any work, however small, can flow into an idea of true momentum."(4)

(1) Peter Demetz: "Introduction," in: Walter Benjamin: Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Peter Demetz (ed.). Schocken Books, New York 1986, p. 26.

(2) Josef Albers in a joint letter from Josef and Anni Albers to Wassily and Nina Kandinsky, August 22, 1936, in Nicholas Fox Weber & Jessica Boissel: Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky. Friends in Exile. A Decade of Correspondence, 1929–1940, VT: Hudson Hills Press, Manchester 2010. Original French ed., Kandinsky-Albers: Une correspondance des années trente. Cahiers du Musée national d'art modern, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1998, Rev. ed., Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2015, p. 89.

(3) Anni Albers: "Weaving at the Bauhaus," in: Brenda Danilowitz (ed.): Anni Albers: Selected Writings on Design, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown 2000, pp. 3–5.

(4) All other quotations are from Anni Albers: "On Jewelry" a talk given at Black Mountain College, May 1942, Typescript in the archives of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Published in: Anni Albers: Selected Writings on Design. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown 2000, pp. 22–24; also accessible at:


Anni Albers
Study for DO I, 1973
gouache on paper
19 x 15 1/8 in. (48.26 x 43.5 cm)

Life's Rich Tapestry

A new exhibition at Tate Modern celebrates Anni Albers's woven masterpieces, which elevate textile design to the status of fine art

When asked to name the greatest artists of the 20th century, Anni Albers made an unexpected choice.

She might, perhaps, have been expected to cite Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky—both leading Bauhaus figures she knew and revered—but it was Coco Chanel to whom she gave the honor, praising the designer's liberating influence on women's fashion. It's an appropriately open-minded response from a creator whose work broke down the traditional boundaries between art and craft, seamlessly crossing disciplines and leaving a legacy that extends far beyond the world of textiles.

Not recorded in any official biographies, the Chanel anecdote comes directly from the personal notebooks of Nicholas Fox Weber, a close acquaintance of Albers prior to her death in 1994 and now the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Weber has collaborated with Tate Modern on its forthcoming retrospective of Albers's oeuvre—an exhibition he has been hoping to stage for the best part of two decades. "Towards the end of Anni's life, when she was in Connecticut and I was living in a remote Irish cottage where I only put in a phone so that I could stay in contact with her, we used to talk about the future of her work," he reminisces. "She felt that she wouldn't live to see it fully recognized, but she was never bitter."

Weber remembers his friend as a born rebel whose determination to forge her own creative path was clear from the start of her career. Brought up in comfortable family home, the young Annelise Fleischmann nursed bohemian ambitions of becoming an artist and, in 1921, left Berlin to attend Weimar's radical Bauhaus school, with its holistic approach to design education. ("What do you mean, a new style of art?" her father apparently protested when told about the institutions's unorthodox teaching methods. "There are only two styles: Renaissance and Baroque!") While forward-thinking in its pedagogical outlook, however, Walter Gropius's establishment was still not entirely progressive in its attitude towards women, and it was through obligation rather than preference that Anni found herself entering the weaving workshop, instead of studying glass like her beloved Josef Albers, whom she would marry in 1925. "I went into weaving unenthusiastically, as merely the least objectionable choice," she later recalled. But the threads she initially spurned were soon to capture her imagination.

"However art history may have overshadowed it, her project was always as ambitious as that of her peers," says Briony Fer, a professor of art history at University College London and the co-curator of Tate Modern's exhibition. In the rigorous discipline of weaving, with its strict grid ("the modernist form par excellence," according to Fer), Albers found an extraordinary freedom and fluidity that could only be achieved through technical mastery coupled with an artist's sensitivity. "Great freedom can be a hindrance because of the bewildering choice it leaves to us, while limitations, when approached open-mindedly, can spur the imagination to make the best use of them and possibly even to overcome them," wrote Albers. Her creative instinct is manifest from her earliest projects: the wallcovering for which she earned her Bauhaus diploma in 1930 was not only visually splendid but also pushed design boundaries, using chenille to muffle sound and transparent cellophane to create iridescence.

Those early experiments with light and texture prefigure the ingenuity of her first pictorial weavings, which she produced while teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the arts-led institution where she and Josef took posts in 1933 (following the closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazis). The metallic threads used to trace out the shape of a cross in La Luz I, for example, emanate an almost sacred radiance, while Ancient Writing exploits the floating-weft technique (a method of superimposing additional threads onto the weave) to make abstract forms reminiscent of linguistic characters appear to hover over the fabric. The couple's travels to Mexico were influential in the development of these works: Albers was fascinated by the traditional Latin American weavings she came across and would often unpick the pieces she collected in order to study the methods of their creators. Equally, her jewelry designs from this era, made from everyday objects such as corks and paperclips, recall the marvels she discovered during her visits to the archaeological site at Monte Albán. Albers subsequently paid tribute to the talents of these anonymous makers in her seminal text On Weaving (1965), in which she sought to expand the study of art history beyond the narrow limits of the Western world.

Indeed, the need for breadth of vision, whether across geographies or disciplines, was Albers's clarion call throughout her life. In an essay written as early as 1937, she urged readers to adopt a more neutral attitude towards the medium in which she worked, arguing that "weaving is an example of a craft which is many-sided [...] Like any craft it may end in producing useful objects, or it may rise to the level of art." It must have frustrated her, then, to find that when she eventually gave up weaving in favor of printmaking in the 1960s, by which time she and her husband were living in Connecticut and the physical demands of working at a loom were becoming too great, her output met with increased acclaim. "I find that, when the work is made with threads, it's considered a craft; when it's on paper, it's considered art," she said in a 1985 interview. In fact, the qualities that mark out Albers as a true artist—the textural effects she achieved through a clever use of materials; her playful choice of asymmetrical patterns to surprise the viewer; the love of color and geometry she inherited from her Bauhaus teachers—are consistent across her entire oeuvre.

No wonder Albers's influence, far from being limited to the craft sector, has been felt in spheres ranging from architecture (Tate Modern's exhibition will highlight her lesser-known textile commissions for hotels, museums and synagogues) to interiors and fashion. Hugo Boss and Paul Smith are among the designers unveiling Albers-inspired collections this year, while Roksanda Ilincic describes the artist as an important influence who always has a presence on her moodboards. "I love the femininity and the strong graphic sense in her work, as well as the unexpected color combinations," she says. "The tactile aspect appeals to me, too—like Anni, I often have a slight rawness in my designs. Although her pieces were very tightly planned, they always have a certain warmth—she really bridged the gap between painting and something more textural."

Bridging the gap is what Albers did best: in her work, form meets function, simplicity breeds multiplicity, and a maker's mindset is allied with a lasting devotion to the pursuit of what she called "visual refreshment"—the constant human need for art in all its forms. "What's important is that she be recognized not as a textile artist, not as a woman artist, not for anything to do with her background but simply because of the sheer wonder of her work," says Fox Weber. That, surely, is reason enough.


Anni Albers
TR II, 1970
sheet: 19 7/8 x 21 7/8 in. (50.5 x 55.6 cm)

Anni Albers review, ravishing textiles that beg to be touched

It is rare to come from an exhibition so buoyed up, so ravished and so covetous as I did after seeing Anni Albers at Tate Modern. Her art gives pleasure to the eye and to the mind and to the touch, if only one were allowed to touch. One wants to feel the braid and nub, to finger the frays and proud threads, the tightness and looseness and differences between soft and wiry, metallic and plastics in her weavings. Smell, too, might play its part, but mostly all this is in the imagination. Sensuality—bordering on the sexual—and geometric rigour, variety and similarity (pleasures that demand being repeated) infuse the work of a lifetime in Albers's show.

I almost inhaled this exhibition, that takes us from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain College and to Yale—along with her husband, the painter Josef Albers—and from a very particular European modernism to postwar America. Berlin-born in 1899, Anni Albers began her studies at the Bauhaus in 1922. For all its aspirations to equality, like other female students Albers was discouraged from joining painting classes and was directed towards the weaving workshop. However, disciplines are porous and interconnected, and few more so than textiles. And as Julia Bryan-Wilson points out in her marvellous recent book Fray: Art and Textile Politics, "Just as textiles have stretched between art, craft and industry, they have also oscillated between being defined as leisure and as labour." There are textiles everywhere in our lives, our history, our cultures, our politics.

At the Bauhaus, Albers found her medium. Who is to say that she would not have been similarly competent and creative had she entered the painting school, or any other? Here, as well as meeting Josef Albers, she came into contact with Paul Klee, whose influence remained strong throughout her career and particularly influenced what she called her "pictorial" weavings. Everything is a picture, even if it is only a conjunction of stripes, lozenges or rectangles. Even at its most pictorial, her art is abstract. Even at its most geometric it feels human and alive, less the product of the mechanics of the loom—the construction of a matrix of threads, and fibres, warp and weft—than of the hand and the mind.

Anni Albers's textile art gives pleasure to a room, to a wall, a bed, a floor, to the spaces in between. Things are framed on walls, hang freely in space, are lain flat. The Tate exhibition goes from room to room, and in spaces created using walls of stretched translucent scrim, to outline not just her development but also her processes.

There are grilles and grids of woven colour, close-toned patterns and wandering webs, flexing chevrons and teaming bands, oddly reminiscent of the untuned pixelated glitches that bedevil the images when we're streaming a movie. But here the jumbling visual noise resolves in clusters of pattern, tiny rows of pictograms and mysterious signs.

She drew knots and tangles, like madcap versions of those animated diagrams that help fishermen and sailors learn the mechanics of arcane knots, except here the pleasure is in following the twists and loops and over- and under-passes for nothing more than the pleasure of losing oneself in their inextricable entanglements.

This is all as good as any abstract art. Albers made textiles not as a substitute for painting, but on its own terms. Even so, whole careers could be made (and probably have been) from the dozens of different forays she made in her weavings, and later in her prints. She made drawings from pinpricks through paper and prints from nothing more than the embossment of abstract shapes on heavy white paper. As you move around these prints, light catches the ridges and depressions, first this way, then that, gleaming against whiteness.

Albers's hand-woven art is a lesson in colour and geometry, method and singularity; tactile and optical, spatial and utilitarian; most of all, her work gives pleasure, and this exhibition (organised in conjunction with K20 in Dusseldorf) is a revelation and a delight.

Going from room to room, I thought of poet Wallace Stevens's three statements presaging the parts of his Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction: it must be abstract. It must change. It must give pleasure, he wrote. Albers's art did all these things, as this retrospective demonstrates. Although light levels are often low, to protect the works with their sometimes fugitive dyes and fragile materials, her art sings and vibrates and keeps you looking, following patterns and meandering lines, maze-like structures, grids and colourways. The only demand is that you look, getting up close and stepping away, going from the overall to the detail, sensing materiality as well as the optical. What a joy.


Anni Albers
Rug, 1959
nylon hand woven by Gloria Finn
48 × 65 in. (122 × 165 cm)
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art Cornell University

At Tate Modern, an Anni Albers Retrospective

LONDON—When Anni Albers was 91, she received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art here in 1990. A ceremony was held nearby at The Royal Albert Hall, so solemn that a friend of hers joked that the venue deserved to be renamed "The 'Royal Albers Hall."

Ms. Albers attended the festivities in a wheelchair and accompanied by a nurse, but the textile artist stayed through the three-hour ceremony and collected her award for a lifetime of achievement.

As she was being wheeled out of the hall after the ceremony, Nicholas Fox Weber—the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Conn., and who recounted the episode—asked her how she felt.

"Those were the most boring three hours I ever spent," came Ms. Albers's deadpan reply.

"Anni shot straight about everything," Mr. Weber said in an interview. "She was focused, independent—a brilliant artist and totally funny."

Twenty-four years after Ms. Albers's death, Tate Modern is putting on a major retrospective of her work. More than 350 objects will be on display, ranging from mass-produced textiles and jewelry crafted from everyday objects, to sketches, studies and wall hangings.

It's an opportunity for Tate to recognize a female artist whose name is still missing from many art history textbooks, who remains forever associated with her husband Josef (one of the founders of the revolutionary Bauhaus school), and whose discipline, textile, is still being sidelined by the world's major museums.

That's something that Tate Modern is looking to correct. The exhibition, which starts on Thursday and runs through January, is part of a sequence of big shows that the museum is now devoting to female artists, past and present—from Agnes Martin, Sonia Delaunay and Georgia O'Keeffe to Yayoi Kusama and Mona Hatoum.

"As we approach the Bauhaus centenary year, it is a good moment to show the full career of one of the school's most exemplary, yet somewhat overlooked, students," said Ann Coxon, curator of displays and international art at Tate Modern. "This exhibition will put Anni Albers in the spotlight, but it will also put weaving in the spotlight."

Ms. Albers's "work has often been exhibited or collected under the area of 'design,'" Ms. Coxon added. "This major retrospective within a museum of modern art will reassess and celebrate the possibilities of textiles, and weaving in particular, as a fine art medium."

The Tate show will include many examples of her "pictorial weavings," inspired by her travels in Mexico, Chile and Peru, and by the Central and South American textiles that she looked at and studied.

The exhibition will have a different look and feel than most retrospectives.

The designers Plaid London have created walls in fabric and built special showcases for the work. Because textiles are extremely sensitive to light, the galleries have been dimmed, though not darkened. And in the last room, visitors can actually touch yarns and textile samples, and see how it's all done in a video of an expert weaver at work inside the Albers Foundation.

Ms. Albers was born in 1899 in Berlin, as Annelise Fleischmann. Her family was wealthy—her mother was heir to the Ullstein publishing fortune, and her father was a furniture salesman. She grew up in a household where money was never an issue, and she received private art and drawing lessons at home. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, she would go on to favor simplicity and a certain austerity in her life and in her art.

When she was 22, she moved out of her comfortable family quarters and into a small rented room. She also started studying applied arts—textiles and needlework—before ever setting foot in the Bauhaus. On her first attempt to join the austere, male-dominated institution, she was turned down. So she tried again, and by then she had fallen in love with Josef Albers, who was 11 years older.

Though he was from a poor Catholic family and she from a rich Jewish one, the couple would go on to form what Mr. Weber described as a "two-person religious sect," each showing infinite dedication to the other, and neither pursuing fame and fortune.

She reapplied to the Bauhaus, requesting to be admitted to several departments: stained glass, then carpentry, then wall painting, then metalwork. She was turned away from all of them, so she took up weaving, and enrolled in the school in 1922. In the process, as the Tate exhibition poster puts it, she became "an artist who changed weaving," and "a weaver who changed art."


Anni Albers
With Verticals, 1946
cotton and linen
61 × 46.5 in. (154.9 × 118.1 cm)

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.


Anni Albers, ca. 1960. Photo: Josef Albers

Anni Albers, a gifted artist finally getting her due

It seems that if you were an important modern artist in the last century—and you were a woman—the best thing you could do to gain rightful recognition was to die.

While Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo were acknowledged in their lifetimes, their reputations as great artists and female role models have grown exponentially since they died, O'Keeffe in 1986 and Kahlo, tragically young, in 1954.

Both moved out of the shadow of an artist husband, perhaps with more facility than Lee Krasner, who stymied her career trying to get the seriously alcoholic Jackson Pollock to do more dripping than sipping.

Anni Albers, the Bauhaus artist married to the more famous color theorist and painter Josef Albers, had a third strike against her. Her chosen medium was handweaving, which has struggled to gain the same status as oil on canvas, which led her to abandon fiber art later in life in favor of printmaking.

As she once told an interviewer, "I find that, when the work is made with threads, it's considered a craft; when it's on paper, it's considered art.

An exhibition of her work and an accompanying book seek to demonstrate that thread is as strong a medium as any other and that Albers was a pioneering figure in modernism who took an ancient craft and elevated it to fine art.

The show, which ran for three months at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany, will be at the Tate Modern in London from Oct. 11 to Jan. 27.

In the companion book, Anni Albers, ten art historians and writers make the compelling argument that Albers is a major artist whose time has come.

The volume itself is beautifully designed and printed. The essays and, especially, the images of weavings, show Albers as a masterful technician, as well as an artist who could turn her designs into rich and tactile works. She wrote that her "dominating element" was texture, but in such cotton and silk masterpieces as "Black White Yellow" and "Orange, Black and White," Albers brought a pattern and color aesthetic every bit as inventive and moving as the work of Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Ellsworth Kelly and Sean Scully.

Without diminishing the color square paintings of Josef Albers, which have their own extraordinary potency, the textile compositions of Anni Albers are arguably richer in content and more interesting.

In 1922, Anni Albers began her studies at the Bauhaus, then in Weimar, Germany, where Josef Albers was already a teacher. They married in 1925, and their lifelong union seemed devoid of the high drama of contemporary artistic couples, which in the perverse world of artistic fame may have counted against Anni Albers's recognition.

At the Bauhaus, she wanted to study painting but was directed to the weaving workshop, which "became known as the women's class," Ann Coxon and Maria Müller-Schareck write in the book's introduction. There Albers mastered the considerable challenges of the loom and, consistent with the Bauhaus ethos of melding fine and applied arts, Albers found a way to make weavings that worked as elements of interior design and weavings that were meant to be viewed much like a painting.

The Nazis put an end to the progressive and liberal Bauhaus in 1933. The Alberses got out and immigrated to the United States to take up positions at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

They soon made the first of many visits to Mexico, where they were transfixed by the colors and moods of its landscape, the beauty and artistry of everyday objects, and the architecture and artifacts of pre-Columbian excavations.

In 1936, Anni Albers created a wallhanging of silk, linen and wool inspired by and named for the excavations at Monte Albán, in Oaxaca. She adapted a traditional weaving technique that added layers to the horizontal threads to create pictorial effects. The weaving is a somber work in beige, black and gray, with ghostly traces that recall architectural forms of the ancient civilization. The work was "a turning point in her conception of weaving as an art form," Maria Minera writes in a chapter titled "Discovering Monte Albán."

With the help of Philip Johnson, then head of the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art, Albers was given a solo show in 1949. But she was ahead of her time, and it would take until the 1960s and later for the art world to fully embraced fiber art as a legitimate medium for contemporary art. Ironically, that's when she shifted to printmaking. (She died in her 90s in 1994.)

Today, Albers has influenced a new generation of artists who may be battling their own creative monsters but are not having to defend the fundamental value of their medium. Albers blazed that trail a long time ago. As Nicholas Fox Weber writes in the book's penultimate chapter, "Her will to realize liberty and contribute beauty to the world is triumphant for us all."


Anni Albers
Design for a 1926 unexecuted wallhanging, n.d.
gouache with pencil on photo offset paper
15 x 9 3/4 in. (38.1 x 24.7 cm)

Anni Albers and the forgotten women of the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus, the interwar German design school that profoundly influenced later developments in art, architecture, product design and typography, was a complex, contradictory crucible of ideas.

Founded by architect Walter Gropius in 1919 on the principle of the Gesamtkunstwerk—a total work of art that fused art, architecture and design—the school theoretically treated these disciplines in a non-hierarchical way. In practice, however, the Bauhaus viewed architecture as the apogee of these fields, even though its architecture department didn't open until 1927.

Influenced by modernism and its rejection of artistic tradition and commitment to a socially democratic future facilitated by good, functional design, the Bauhaus was aesthetically forward-looking. Yet in practice the school, which closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime, was far from socially progressive.

Its manifesto of 1919 welcomed "everyone without regard to age or sex" and that year more women than men applied to it. Tellingly, Gropius insisted that it would not discriminate between "the beautiful and the strong sex". And while the Bauhaus gave women unprecedented access to art education, at its first location in Weimar only six out of its 45 teaching staff were women.

"For all its rhetoric, the Bauhaus was never the haven of equality that Gropius initially espoused," says Libby Sellers, design curator and author of the book Women Design (Frances Lincoln). "Fearful of the impact women might have on the school's professional reputation with industry, not only did Gropius subsequently place restrictions on the number of women permitted entry, but the increasingly reduced few were directed towards what were deemed more suitably feminine subjects, such as fine art, ceramics and weaving.

"Historians and commentators of the era, eager to emphasise modernism's love affair with architecture and industrial design, often did so at the expense of other disciplines," she adds. "Consequently, many designers working in textiles, ceramics, set design and interiors were often overlooked."

Aside from Sellers, German academic Ulrike Müller laid bare this rarely acknowledged inequality between the sexes in her 2009 book Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design (Flammarion). While many men at the Bauhaus – among them architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who led the school from 1930 to 1933, artist Paul Klee, painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy, and furniture designer Marcel Breuer – are considered design titans today, their female counterparts are relatively unknown.

Glass Ceiling

The most famous is Gunta Stölzl, head of the weaving workshop from 1926 to 1931. Another name is Anni Albers, who became head of the weaving department in 1931. Albers (née Fleischmann), born in Berlin and of Jewish descent, was typical of the school's alumnae; for this independent, ambitious artist and designer, studying there was an act of rebellion against her conventional, affluent family. But at the Bauhaus she found herself barred from the glass workshop she hoped to join. Although she took up weaving reluctantly, she went on to become a pioneering textile designer.

Meanwhile, the androgynous Marianne Brandt, the first woman to be admitted into the Bauhaus's metalwork department, found fame when she created her commercially successful, iconic 1920s Kandem bedside lamp and Constructivist-inspired coffee sets.

In 1933, Albers escaped Nazi Germany, moving with her painter husband Josef Albers to the US, where architect Philip Johnson invited them to teach at the avant-garde art school, Black Mountain College, North Carolina, attended by such luminaries as artist Robert Rauschenberg and architect Buckminster Fuller. In 1949, she gained further recognition as the first designer to have a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and she produced textiles for such companies as Knoll and Rosenthal.

Albers, who died in 1994, was also a passionate advocate of weaving, as articulated in her books, On Weaving and On Designing. Now Tate Modern is holding a major exhibition of her work, which also includes her experimental prints and drawings.

For all the Bauhaus's shortcomings, its radically cutting-edge teaching appealed to Albers, who was greatly influenced by Klee, famous for his description of drawing as "an active line on a walk, moving freely without goal". Her own, similarly freewheeling approach oscillated between fine art and ambitiously monumental, functional pieces used in an architectural context.

"Albers had a strong interest in architecture and its relationship with textiles," says the show's curator Ann Coxon. "In 1928, she began working on a massive, soundproof, light-reflecting fabric incorporating cellophane and chenille for the auditorium of the Bundesschule des Allgemeinen Deutschen Gewerkschaftsbundes, the ADGB Trade Union School, designed by Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer. A piece of this textile will be displayed in the exhibition. Years later, in her 1957 essay, The Pliable Plane, Albers argued that all primitive forms of architecture, such as tents and yurts, were based on textiles."

The exhibition also includes examples of Albers' 'pictorial weavings', made from the 1930s to the 1960s, many of which were influenced by trips she and her husband made to Mexico, Peru and Chile. Her aim with these, she said, was "to let threads... find a form themselves to no other end than their own orchestration, not to be sat on, walked on, only to be looked at".

In 1971, the couple set up the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, which has long collaborated with British rug-and-fabrics company Christopher Farr Cloth, reinterpreting textiles from her archive. One of these, Orchestra, reissued to coincide with the exhibition, typifies Anni's playful approach: its print, inspired by childhood trips to the Berlin Opera, was created by cutting stripes painted onto fabric into lozenge shapes that were repositioned to form an apparently random pattern.

"Brilliant young women were drawn to the Gropius-led Bauhaus with dreams of becoming architects, only to be informed, falsely, that weaving was the only appropriate discipline for women," says Farr, whose company has also reproduced rugs by Gunta Stölzl since 1997. "However, architecture's loss was textiles' gain, and this as it turned out was a tremendous gift to 20th-Century textiles and put Anni Albers firmly into the premier ranks of celebrated modernists."


Installation view, Voyage Inside a Blind Experience, Glucksman Gallery, Cork, Ireland, 2018. Photo: Jed Niezgoda

When Touching Is Believing

An ambitious new project is using the work of Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers to make the visual arts accessible to blind and visually impaired people. In doing so, it's shedding light on perception and how people use their senses to explore artworks for its sighed audience too. But how can visually impaired people "see" art?

In the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in the grounds of UCC, gallery director Fiona Kearney takes a walk through their latest exhibition, Josef and Anni Albers: Voyage Inside a Blind Experience.

Josef and Anni Albers were pioneers of modernism, central figures in the Bauhaus movement in 1920s Germany, experimental artists and educators. Their work is regularly exhibited and a retrospective of Anni Albers's work is due at the Tate Modern in October.

But this exhibition is different. "Everything here has been developed to allow visually impaired people to have some kind of experience of the work," Kearney says.

Josef Albers was fascinated with how the eye perceives color differently depending on what other colors it is set against, and his renowned Homage to the Square series is the culmination of his color experiments.

In one area of the Glucksman, three tanks of water of different temperatures are set underneath some Bauhaus color experiments. Gallery guests are invited to immerse their hands in tanks containing hot and cold water, before simultaneously plunging both into a central tank of lukewarm water. The result? The hand that was immersed in hot water will perceive the lukewarm temperature as cold, while the hand that was immersed in cold will perceive the lukewarm water as hot: a physical equivalent of how the eye perceives the colors in the painting as different.

A leading European institute for the blind in Milan, l'Instituto dei Ciechi di Milano, has devised this and other ingenious ways of providing tactile analogues for visual experiences. In other areas of the exhibition, tactile models are set underneath Josef Albers's paintings and Anni Albers's weavings, on loan from the Albers Foundation in Connecticut.

"In Josef's paintings, sometimes a color will seem to come out at you while some seem to be receding, so with the tactile models, this is exactly what we've done," Kearney says. "The proportions are replicated exactly and there are different textures to represent the different colors."

Music is, of course, one of the most accessible artforms for visually impaired people and sound is represented in the exhibition too: an audio tour with motion-sensing wristband is available, and one room is dedicated to a series of album covers Josef Albers designed for experimental jazz records in the early 1960s: the music is played over speakers, and the album covers are displayed as well as tactile models of the geometric artworks.

The Glucksman has several partners for this project, including Arts and Disability Ireland, ChildVision, Fighting Blindness and Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, and will offer tours and workshops for the visually impaired.

The exhibition is rewarding and thought provoking for sighted audiences too; one area invites the gallery-goer into a blacked-out room, where several materials including leaves and hessian are arranged on benches.

"I'll be fascinated to see what everyone takes away from this," Kearney says. "If the public comes away with a little more awareness of the issues facing the visually impaired, that will be fantastic. But it can be little things too: I've started to notice textures more. The eye is so dominant, but you become alert to the presence of things in a different way through touch."

Events and tours to coincide with the exhibition include a touch tour of UCC's many sculptures and artworks for Heritage Week, and a blacked-out gallery tour of the Glucksman for Culture Night. Kearney says the exhibition has enriched the understanding of how we perceive visual art for the gallery's curatorial team too.

"I hope the show will argue for the sense of being in a museum as a public space, for everyone," she says.

"When you're in a museum, you're here physically, standing in the space. You move, feel and explore in a three-dimensional space. You're not just using your eyes, even though vision is so dominant."


Fritz Horstman of the Albers Foundation experiments with a charkha, a portable, hand-cranked spinning wheel that can be set on the floor or a table, at the new low-tech maker space at Yale’s West Campus. Photo: Jon Atherton

Material Culture Teach-in Explores the Power of Making

At Monte Albán, a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Oaxaca, Mexico, the artist Anni Albers encountered ancient jewelry composed of stones and shells. The artifacts inspired Albers to make jewelry out of ordinary materials. She believed the process of making, not the presence of gold and gems, imbued the jewelry with meaning, said Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator at The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

"Jewelry was ornament, but it was not necessarily precious. What was precious became so by what the maker infused into it," said Danilowitz, speaking at the Loria Center as part of a material culture teach-in held at Yale from May 14 through 16.

The teach-in, based on the theme "Resilience and Reconciliation," convened Yale faculty, staff, and graduate students with scholars, curators, and artists from other institutions to consider the way objects can inspire or embody resilience and how the act of making can foster healing and reflection. The event was organized by Ned Cooke, the Charles F Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts, and Glenn Adamson and Martina Droth of the Yale Center for British Art, with support from the Chipstone Foundation.

The three-day teach-in took a three-pronged approach to its theme, examining resilience and reconciliation through the collection and interpretation of objects, making, and artistic practices.

It opened with a panel discussion on collecting and exhibiting objects. Erin Gredell, repatriation coordinator at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History, was a member of the panel and discussed the recent transfer of hundreds of Mohegan artifacts to the tribe's Tantaquidgeon Museum. Matthew Welch, deputy director and chief curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, described a forthcoming exhibition addressing the death of Philando Castile, who was shot to death by a police officer during a traffic stop in a suburb of Saint Paul.

The second day was devoted to exploring various making processes. Participants visited Yale's West Campus for a daylong session featuring workshops on spinning fibers and weaving, raised beadwork, natural dying, and sewing and mending.

Andrew Hamilton '05 B.A., a postdoctoral lecturer at Princeton University, led the workshops on spinning and weaving in Yale's new low-tech maker space—a laboratory at West Campus where students can learn to work with wood, metal, clay, and other materials within the context of classes or workshops.

Hamilton, who has studied making textiles with highland weavers in Peru's Cuzco region, began the workshop by asking the participants to consider the processes involved in making the clothes they were wearing.

"When we see textiles, we see the finished product," he said. "We see fibers and the cloth functioning as they are supposed to, and it's hard to look at it and estimate what the points of difficulty were. You see something that is static and inert as a textile, but it is the product of all sorts of kinetic processes that are difficult to imagine unless you've done them yourself."

Participants took turns handling various fibers in their unprocessed state, such as cotton bolls and a fleece of sheep's wool that was greasy with lanolin, the waxy substance that makes a sheep's coat water resistant and is washed out before the wool is spun.

Hamilton prefaced the spinning exercise by reminding participants that the workshop's point was not to produce expert spinners or weavers.

"We want you to have the chance to engage tactilely with these different materials and learn how fibers are worked into threads and how threads are worked into cloth," he said.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, participants attempted to spin wool into yarn using hand spindles. With varying degrees of success, the rookie spinners worked diligently drawing out fibers and twisting them into strong and workable yarn.

"It's very humbling," said Fritz Horstman, artist residency and education coordinator at The Albers Foundation. "The extraordinary irregularity that I produced was the far end of the extreme of amateur spinning. The point where you could spin a regular and strong fiber is hundreds of hours of experience beyond where I am right now."

Cooke, the driving force behind the creation of the low-tech maker space, said hands-on learning helps students gain a better appreciation for the skill and labor involved in making textiles, ceramics, furniture, and other handmade objects.

"My own explorations into these processes are not about becoming a maker myself, but about gaining a sense of humility toward materials and making," he said.

Hamilton demonstrated spinning fiber on a treadle wheel and a charkha, a portable, hand-cranked spinning wheel that can be set on the floor or a table. Later in the day, participants tried weaving on frame, tapestry, and back strap looms.

While some participants experimented with the charkha, others gathered around a table in a separate room and got a lesson in the healing quality of beadwork.

Bead artist Sam Thomas, a member of the Lower Cayuga Band of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Nation, has spent forty years reviving Iroquois raised beadwork styles from the 19th and 18th centuries.

He led Opening the Doors to Dialogue, a project aimed at cultivating reconciliation from the legacy of Canada's Indian residential school system—a network of state-sponsored schools run by Christian churches intended to assimilate indigenous children into the country's Western-style culture. From 1832 to 1986, when the last residential schools closed, children were taken from their families and stripped of their indigenous culture, many suffering physical and sexual abuse in the process.

Thomas led workshops with survivors of the schools and clergy and staff from the schools in which they would talk about the survivors' experiences while learning beadwork techniques and making projects. The collaborative beading provided a platform for dialogue and healing, Thomas said.

"I've found that a natural dialogue takes place when people come together to create," said Thomas, who also has used beading workshops to foster reconciliation among rival tribes in Kenya.

Participants applied glass beads to two raised beadwork pieces that will be given to the university. Both feature strawberries, which are sacred to the Haudenosaunee as the first fruit and a powerful healing medicine.

"I was impressed with Sam's notion of the meditative process of beading and talking about a cultural practice while being absorbed in that very process; how it freed your mind to discuss things in a way that was deep, but not emotionally fraught, so that it produces a more reflective kind of energy," said Cooke.

The teach-in's last day included Danilowitz's talk as well as talks by current and former artists-in-residence at the Albers Foundation. Fashion designer Christina Kim, who the previous day had led the sewing workshop, spoke about her collaborative work with the Arhuaco people of Colombia.


Cover of the new, expanded edition of Anni Albers's On Weaving (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Anni Albers's Thoughts on Textiles Loom Large

On Weaving offers a model for how to write in a way that incorporates theoretical examination alongside practical content; in it Anni Albers provides valuable—and often overlooked—thoughts on art and creative work.

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 1950s. 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.


Josef Albers
To Mitla, 1940
oil on masonite
21 × 28 in. (53.3 × 71.1 cm)

Josef Albers in Mexico

The Guggenheim's concisely titled Josef Albers in Mexico explores Albers's experience of the eponymous Latin American nation, focusing on his frequent visits to pre-Columbian monuments and archeological sites. Between 1935 and his death in 1976, Josef Albers and his wife Anni, like her husband a veteran of both the Bauhaus and North Carolina's experimental Black Mountain College, traveled to Mexico many times. The pair returned again and again to six key locations: Teotihuacán and Tenayuca near Mexico City, Monte Albán and Mitla in Oaxaca, and Uxmal and Chichén Itzá at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the Guggenheim's exhibition is divided into sections that showcase each location through Albers's photographs of the sites and various related paintings and prints.

The exhibition argues that Albers's geometric abstractions reproduce motifs and formal structures originating in indigenous Mexican art and architecture, and it finds its most explicit evidence in several works whose titles refer directly to one or another site. For example, the interlocking rectangular forms of To Mitla (1940) are described as adapting a repetitious stepped motif known as "xicalcoliuhqui" that Albers highlights in his photographs of the Mitla site. Tenayuca I (1943) and three related studies from the late 1930s are likewise characterized as schematic representations of both Tenayuca's two-tiered pyramid complex and the many serpent sculptures for which the site is known.

However, most of the paintings and prints on display here do not make such clear reference to pre-Columbian art and architecture. This includes several works drawn from Albers's signature Homage to the Square series (1950–76). These austere geometric abstractions pare painting down to a simple formal structure—three or four squares, one inside the next—that allows Albers to freely explore relationships of color. Despite their iconic status, here the Homages are largely kept on the sidelines: all but one are sequestered in a corner of the exhibition space, displayed along a semicircular balcony that doesn't communicate well with the rest of the gallery.

The likely rationale for this decision is clear. Although texts provided by the Guggenheim connect the palette of the Homages to the Mexican landscape, paintings so formally reductive ultimately contribute little to the exhibition's emphasis on pre-Columbian aesthetic sensibility. This is especially obvious when the Homages are compared with works that make direct appeal to their sources or otherwise invite architectural associations. Take, for example, Albers's Variant/Adobe series (1946–66), which also makes exclusive use of simple quadrilateral forms. The compositions, however, are more elaborate, allowing a greater generosity of reference and analogy. Albers has referred to these works as "walls" or "windows," while the name of the series invokes the vernacular architecture of Mexico and the American Southwest. And, in further contrast to the Homages, the section of the gallery reserved for this series is integrated with the rest of the exhibition space.

Other works throughout the exhibition use layered forms and oblique linear projections to suggest spaces governed by an architectural logic of construction as much as by abstract formal principles. The composition of Biconjugate (1943), for example, suggests the superimposed transparent planes typical of buildings in the International Style. Although obviously distant from an indigenous Mesoamerican context, Biconjugate and similar works nonetheless highlight Albers's sustained attention to the built environment, an inheritance of Bauhaus ideology. They also help clarify the importance of his photographs of pre-Columbian monuments, many of which are composed according to the same refined, geometric principles as his paintings. When these bodies of work are displayed side by side, it's easy to imagine Albers processing his experience of architectural space through photography before translating the resulting formal solutions onto canvas.

Albers's interest in pre-Columbian art and architecture is, of course, a single episode in the long story of modernist fascination with non-European cultures. Albers, like "primitivists" such as Pablo Picasso or the artists of Die Brücke, had little knowledge of the conditions and intentions that shaped what he treated as decontextualized formal resources. What distinguishes Albers from earlier European enthusiasts for the indigenous is a bit of synchronicity that, although it falls beyond the purview of the Guggenheim's exhibition, should nonetheless be noted. While Albers was travelling in Mexico, an emerging generation of Latin American artists—including figures as diverse as Tomás Maldonado, Lygia Clark, and Carlos Cruz-Diez—used his work as a prototype for languages of abstraction that to them represented the promise of modernity. These artists, often working from reproductions and without reference to the stated intentions of their European forebears, were thus equally able to project their own aesthetic desires and political aspirations onto relics of an older world.