Anni Albers’s Art Combines Magic and Math

Six Prayers, 1966-1967
. Anni Albers. Cotton/linen, bast/silver, Lurex
. (
The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of the Albert A. List Family, JM)
The Bauhaus-trained artist, less famous than her husband during her life, finally gets the show she deserves.

Tate Modern’s fascinating show on the work of Bauhaus-trained fiber artist, designer, and writer Anni Albers (1899–1994) is timely and overdue. She was a great artist, but some dings unjustly diminished her stature. She worked in the medium of textiles, and in an art hierarchy that privileges painting, and then sculpture, photography, drawing, and even video — these seem to jostle — textile is still at the bottom.

This is so unfair. Something like Dotted, from 1959, is a work of great formal power. Its tangles, knots, braids, and loops make for a crossroads of magic and mathematics. It’s rigorous and sensual, too. None of Jackson Pollock’s dancing around a canvas pouring a bucket of paint willy-nilly.

Partly this is the silly division between craft and what snobs call “high art.” As a practical matter, most museum directors and chief curators started as paintings people. Many don’t understand textiles. What they don’t understand, they often don’t like.

Albers worked in the shadows of a famous husband, too. Josef Albers, whose bloodless painting I’ve never liked, might be intellectually bracing, but Anni was the better artist. He had the big titles, collectors, and academic cachet. And she was a woman. Textiles and weaving have always been considered women’s work, so it was devalued. A last ding is the most outrageous. Many museums, art historians, and critics never took her too seriously, and this is a laugh, in part because she worked off and on for Knoll, where she even had fabric lines named after her. It’s as if commerce never, ever, not in a million years, not even the smell of it, pierced the sanctuaries of high art.

Albers was born in Berlin and started studying at the radical Bauhaus school in Weimar in Germany in 1922. By 1931, she was running its weaving section. She developed her basic style then, emphasizing the vertical and horizontal intersections of a textile’s warp and weft through strict geometric designs. The first part of the show smartly guides us through the Bauhaus ideology. The spirit was egalitarian, teachers and students collaborated, and the simple, honest, austere, and practical embraced. Paul Klee was her favorite teacher. Works such as Black, White, Yellow, from 1925, in cotton and silk, are economical juxtapositions of colors and shapes against one another. Weavings started as watercolors.

The pedagogy is well presented and essential to the show. It also reflects the overall thrust of Albers’s writing. Her books from the 1950s on weaving are for serious artists but also for amateurs. This is more to the point of the universality of weaving rather than any effort to present “weaving for dummies.”

Albers’s genius came in many areas, but three are important. She united a textile’s surface contrasts, between rough and smooth, dull and shiny, hard and soft, to the Bauhaus obsession with grids to create richly appealing and elegant objects. She also took this cutting-edge style and developed words for it that weaving, a practice as old as humanity, could express in its own unique way. Finally, Albers had no aesthetic problem with mass-produced textiles. She liked the on-the-spot experimentation that handweaving offered but saw it as an art guided by the process and regularity a machine delivered.

In 1933, one of the first things the Nazis did was close the Bauhaus school. It was the young architect Philip Johnson who facilitated the couple’s appointment to the faculty of Black Mountain College, the avant-garde school in Asheville, N.C. They taught there until 1950, when Josef Albers took over Yale’s design department. Albers herself taught at Yale, weaved her own work, wrote seminal how-to and history books on weaving, and worked on design projects not only for Knoll but also for Harvard (where she designed some very high-end dormitory interiors) and many architects. Handweaving is tough physical work. By the 1970s, she’d parted with her looms and was making prints. In accordance with the old art hierarchies, the medium of prints, she felt, finally made her famous. It was a fame to which she acquiesced, with more than a wince.

Left: Dotted, 1959. Anni Albers. Wool.
(Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Daphne Farago Collection. © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London)

Right: Black White Yellow, 1926/1965. Anni Albers. Cotton and silk.
(© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Everfast Fabrics Inc. and Edward C. Moore Jr. Gift, 1969)

Albers was a truly multicultural artist in that she studied and absorbed Peruvian textiles — in her opinion the best in the world — as well as Coptic weaving from North Africa, Mexican work, especially lace and architecture, and Native American weaving, without slobbering one-worldism. She focused on aesthetics rather than cultural empathy. She visited Mexico many times, starting right after the excavations at Oaxaca made Mesoamerican art and architecture an international story.

Ancient Writing, from 1936, is what she considered a pictorial weaving and a departure from the purely abstract designs she’d made earlier. She sought to picture the layout of pyramids and temples in the most schematic way. La Luz, from 1947, goes a step further. She depicted in a weaving the look of Mexican light, not as a painter would but in a way faithful to her materials. At that point Albers was incorporating metallic thread to give the surface a touch of glint and reflective power. Pasture, in 1958, goes a step further. It expresses what could well have been the cultivated, green terrain of Bethany in Connecticut, where she lived for close to 50 years.

Left: Ancient Writing, 1936. Anni Albers. 
Cotton and rayon
(Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of John Young
© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London
Photo: Princeton University Art Museum/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence)

Pasture, 1958. Anni Albers. Cotton
(Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Edward C. Moore Jr. Gift, 1969
© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London)

La Luz I, 1947. Anni Albers. Sateen weave with discontinuous brocade; linen and metal.
(© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London. Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art)

I thought the section on her commissions for synagogues and for the Jewish museum was very strong. Albers was Jewish, as she said, “only in the Hitler sense,” was christened in a Protestant church, and had never been in a synagogue until she designed a lustrous Torah ark covering for a Dallas temple in 1957. She was hired by the synagogue architect, who taught at MIT. The six sliding panels got her a spread in Life magazine. Its zigzag elements and plush texture suggest words, or the Word, part calligraphic, part hieroglyph, and even part Braille. The mix of gold, blue, green, and silver underscore the vibrancy of the Torah’s message.

Six Prayers, ten years later, is her Holocaust memorial done for the Jewish Museum in New York. The panels, each 6′ x 20″, are spaced. They’re somber things. They evoke the mechanization and control essential to making the Holocaust happen. The palette is muted, creating both sadness and a sepia, old-time feel. The lines look like severed links. There are no regular patterns. It’s moving but subtle. There’s nothing in-your-face about it, and it’s not sensual. It makes the viewer think.

“Making the viewer think” is probably what dates her. This isn’t a criticism. Styles and schools came and went — Six Prayers came at the height of the pop-art movement — but her basic approach stayed the same, growing only richer and more complex. More than anyone, she made textile art mainstream. Today, artists such as Sheila Hicks, Sarah Sze, and Nick Cave are doing great textiles, now called fiber art, in the styles of now.

In walking through the Albers show, I thought about some of the fad museum shows on women artists. There’s a sloppy rush to do them, and many aren’t very good. I saw a show on women artists working in Paris during the late 19th century at the Clark Art Institute this summer. I walked through it with a distinguished art historian — a woman — whose succinct review of the show was, “You can see why Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot became famous and the others, well, just didn’t.” She was right. Most were mediocrities. It was a huge show, too, and big shows are often like long Supreme Court opinions: The longer they are, the flimsier and more contrived.

Last fall, I saw a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi that the Wadsworth Atheneum bought with much fanfare and probably at a very high price given that she is the rare Old Master who was a woman. It’s a decidedly unattractive picture and looks modest indeed in a gallery filled with great things by Ribera, Strozzi, Zurburán, and Caravaggio.

There are so many women artists who are superb and working today. It’s much more useful for our most distinguished museums to advance their work. They need and deserve the exposure on the museum level. On historic art, more American museums need to look at women who truly made remarkably good art rather than try to shoehorn mediocrities into a canon that’s still, by and large, governed by widely and long-shared judgments of quality. An Anni Albers show at either of the Clark or the Wadsworth Atheneum would be a step in the right direction and more in accord with both museums’ history of incisive shows and acquisitions. The outstanding show I saw in London has no American venue.


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