Visionary Textiles: How Anni Albers Staked a Claim for Herself as a Key Modernist
At the storied Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Anni Albers often instructed her students to return to what she called "point zero." Imagine, she said, that you have traveled to the Americas in the 10th century, via the Bering strait. You have no available tools, technology, or clothing. You're hungry and it's hot and windy. The waters are plentiful with fish. Branches, shells, seaweed and skeletons have washed up on shore. What will you use to weave a net? How will you survive?
It was a thought experiment meant to imbue the basic stuff of design with importance. An artist and survivalist were not entirely separate entities in Albers's view. Both have to collect, stretch, braid, and manipulate materials into beautiful and functional forms. In Albers's classes, first one created unexpected juxtapositions of synthetic and organic, then one wove them with purpose.
She and her husband Josef arrived at the pioneering college in 1933, having fled the Nazi party that was rising to power in Europe. The influential Bauhaus school was closed indefinitely, and its members, who had spent the past decade merging painting, sculpture, and design, were scattered across the world. "In a world as chaotic as the European world after World War I, any exploratory artistic work had to be experimental in a very comprehensive sense," she wrote. "What had existed had proved to be wrong; everything leading up to it seemed to be wrong, too." Total chaos, she maintained, was "not human."
Her practice, which included wall hangings, architectural innovations, jewelry, and tapestries, was influenced by a desire to actively take part in contemporary life through objects. Among her architectural commissions was a wall-covering for a Trade Union School established by Walter Gropius. She used cellophane, a new material at the time, in addition to plain cotton to create both soundproofing and light-filtering walls. Its deep solid color, she thought, would not distract the students.
Albers is today accepted as a seminal figure within the history of modernism, despite the long shadow of her husband and her close friends Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. It's safe to say the gendered sidelining of her medium is over. A traveling retrospective of her work that began in 2018 at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf was met with rapturous reception, and a major show this September at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris aims to place the Alberses on equal playing field, with both artists surveyed in depth. Given that the Josef and Albers Foundation is marking its 50th anniversary this year, the moment is ripe for renewed attention to her art.
Below, a look at some of Anni Albers's greatest achievements.
At the Bauhaus
Born into a wealthy family, Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischmann rebelled early against the expectations of upper-class women. She joined the Bauhaus school of design in 1922, but she was unable to study painting, which was instructed mainly to male artists. Instead, she explored craft. The gender divisions continued even in that discipline, however. (Sometimes those boundaries were even literal—she first saw Josef, who was foremost a painter, through a window into a stained-glass workshop where he was working.) Women were restricted to weaving, which she considered a "rather sissy" craft. The particulars of textiles—the utility of their material, the medium's inauspicious status—soon provided her with a breakthrough, however.
The Bauhaus of the 1920s was a time of exploration, and only more so was that the case once Gropius departed the school he founded in 1928. In his wake, the idea of industry as art gained popularity among its students. Under the tutelage of experimental weaver Gunta Stölzl, Albers tested the technical limits of textiles, eschewing pictorial representation for abstraction. Her earliest works depict vertical panels of color woven from traditional yarn as well as more unusual materials—horsehair, cellophane, and silver thread. A work such as Unexecuted Wallhanging (1926), in which vertical panels of solid color are overlaid on a grid, reflects the logic of Klee and Kandinsky, both of whom were teachers at the school.
Experiments in Form
In 1933, after the Nazi party closed the Bauhaus, the Alberses fled Europe of U.S. alongside many others in the art world, among them Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and László Moholy-Nagy. The couple was invited to help form the art and design curriculum at Black Mountain College. There, Anni translated the aesthetic philosophy she formed as a student and instructor in Berlin into a workshop which emphasized theory and materiality.
Albers began to take up automatic weaving, which involves the use of a machine that can work faster than the human hand. She sometimes lamented having to rely on the technology, believing that it curbed the spontaneity and immediacy of working with raw materials. "Creating means reacting to material rather than the execution of a dream, as the layman conceives it," she wrote in her landmark text On Weaving. "The first vision of something to be done gives more the mood of the work than its final form. The form emerges as the work progresses." She illustrated this point with the textiles of the Andean people, which she praised as the purest fusion of technique and design.
Albers taught at Black Mountain College until 1948, a period when her own work underwent significant developments in form. Knot (1926), a gauche drawing, captures an early interest in twisted threads that would culminate in later masterworks like Open Letter (1958). In that piece, she utilized leno weaving, a technique in which two threads are braided tightly around a weft, allowing for empty decorative space left between. Albers's modernist aesthetic had a clear influence on students of the college, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Ruth Asawa, who were influenced by her use of interwoven textiles, which placed a greater emphasis on the process of their making than the final product.
Lessons in Latin America
Between 1935 and 1967, the Alberses made some 13 visits to Mexico, encountering traditional weaving styles that exerted strong influence on both artists' use of design and color. Anni amassed a collection of hand-scaled fragments of pre-Columbian textiles, which have since been acquired by museums including the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. In Oaxaca, weavers taught her how to use a backstrap loom, a simple device consisting of sticks, rope, and a strap that is tied around the weaver's waist. She was enamored with it, and brought a loom back to her students at Black Mountain College. She told the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, "The Peruvian backstrap loom has embedded in it everything that a high power machine loom today has."
Many of Albers's textiles created after her initial visit honor the Mexican artists she admired, whose techniques rhymed with—and predated—modernist abstractions coming out of Europe. Her textile Monte Albán (1936) references a spiritual archaeological site she visited and its Zapotec architecture, while the wall-hung weaving Ancient Writing (1936) nods at the pre-Columbian weavers' technique of encoding their belief systems within a series of knots. In Albers's work, intricate configurations of threads float atop her woven fibers. It was one of the first pieces she dubbed a "pictorial weaving"—a textile that transcends the hierarchical distinction between craft and fine art.
'A Whole Out of Single Elements'
In 1949, Albers was given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. At the time, only rarely had art making use of craft techniques been given such a showcase. For the show, she created a group of free-hanging room dividers woven from disparate materials like cellophane, cotton, yarn, and jute. They were an unexpected pairing of soft and coarse materials that tempted the viewer to run their hands along their surfaces. She developed the room dividers in response to developments in modernist architecture of the era, which privileged open-floor plans and loft apartments framed by tall glass windows. Light and air moved subtly through her dividers.
Albers considered architecture the closest creative field to weaving, once saying, "It is building up out of a single element, to building a whole out of single elements." The Albers were given teaching positions at Yale University, and though she never held a formal post in its architecture department, she often gave lectures to its students. At that time she developed the idea of the "pliable plane," which described the duality of textile: a source of stability and a material to manipulate in response to its environment. The grid of great cities, she maintained, had much in common with the contents of a loom.
Albers was a secular person (she claimed to be Jewish only "in the Hitler sense"), but undertook a series of religious commissions in the late 1950's and the '60s, including the design for an ark covering for a Jewish temple in Dallas, Texas. Six Prayers (1966–67), one of her masterworks and the largest of her "pictorial weavings," was commissioned by New York's Jewish Museum as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Reminiscent of funeral shawls, the elegy is composed of six vertical panels woven from beige, white, black, and silver thread that lend a subtle, unearthly luminescence to the work. Keeping in line with her religious ambivalence, the work avoids overt references to the Torah or Jewish iconography, instead focusing on form and function. Each color dominates its own panel, while black and white yarn meanders upward with irregularity, a nod to the individual spirit that endures amid uniformity. Albers later said of the work: "I used the threads themselves as a sculptor or painter uses his medium to produce a scriptural effect which would bring to mind sacred texts."