Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Anni Albers (1899-1994)

Shaking weaving free from its old associations, Albers mounted a systematic exploration of the materials qualities 

louie isaaman-jones  Anni Albers reputations weaving architectural review

louie isaaman-jones Anni Albers reputations weaving architectural review

Source: Louie Isaaman-Jones

Weaving was not Anni Albers’ first choice. ‘I thought weaving was sissy, just these threads’, she recalled in an interview in 1968. In 1922 Albers enrolled at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, as a 23-year-old student, after unsuccessfully applying to study painting with Oskar Kokoschka in Vienna. ‘But the only way of staying at that place was to join the workshop’, Albers continued. ‘And once I got started I became intrigued with the possibilities there.’ Despite the structural sexism (which is only too familiar), these women of the Bauhaus weaving workshop – who often had internalised the very prejudices that they were working against – mounted a systematic exploration of their material’s inherent qualities, effectively redefining the field of weaving by shaking it free of its 19th-century association with feminised crafts. 

Anni albers black mountain college 1937 architectural review

Anni albers black mountain college 1937 architectural review

Source: Helen M Post / WRA State Archives of North Carolina

Biography

Key works:

Black-White-Yellow, 1926
Ancient Writing, 1936
Monte Albán, 1936
With Verticals, 1946
La Luz I, 1947
City, 1949 
Open Letter, 1958
Variations on a Theme, 1958
Intersecting, 1962
Six Prayers, 1966
Epitaph, 1968
Camino Real, 1969

Key publications:

Essay ‘Design: Anonymous and Timeless’, 1947
On Designing, 1959
On Weaving, 1965

Quote

‘Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials’

Although the German school did not have an architecture department (and wouldn’t until 1927), her colleagues there – including textile pioneers Gunta Stölzl and Otti Berger – embraced thread’s ‘structural’ and ‘space-defining’ qualities over and against the medium’s pictorial capacities, which to them seemed like a mere (and inadequate) mimicry of painting. Architecture, in other words, defined Albers’ conception of the medium from the start. With the arrival of the architect Hannes Meyer that same year, these efforts found support in the form of several commissions, including one that led to Albers’ diploma: a wallcovering of cellophane, chenille and cotton, which provided both light-reflective and sound-absorbing qualities as compensation for limitations in Meyer’s design of the auditorium at the ADGB trade union school in Bernau. 

‘Her writings set out to theorise weaving as a Modernist endeavour, and to conceptualise the artist’s responsibility to an imaginary or future public’

Jewish by birth, though raised in a secular bourgeois family in Berlin, Albers and her husband, the painter Josef Albers, were among the earliest of Germany’s avant-garde to emigrate. In November 1933, they arrived at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a liberal arts school modelled in part on the Bauhaus. Albers led the weaving class, drawing on her early training and developing texture studies using such unorthodox materials as twisted paper, grass, corn kernels, metal shavings and typewriter print. She exploited everyday materials for new, surprising uses, such as jewellery designs derived from items that you could find at your local hardware shop. At the same time, she continued developing textiles for architectural interiors, including Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius’s Frank House, Philip Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House, and Gropius’s dormitories for the Harvard Graduate Center. She had already attracted Johnson’s attention with her samples of functional textiles, which took advantage of the inherent qualities of thread – especially synthetic threads new to the market.

Study for Unexecuted Wallhanging 1926 anni albers architectural review

Study for Unexecuted Wallhanging 1926 anni albers architectural review

Source: © Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS) / DACS

Study for Unexecuted Wallhanging, 1926

In the 1950s, Albers’ reputation in the fields of architecture and design grew, in large part due to the support of Philip Johnson. She enjoyed a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1949, the first in the institution’s history devoted to a textile artist (and notably 20 years before her husband’s first retrospective). She lectured widely at universities and museums, and became a leading voice in the country’s efforts to strengthen the relationship between the crafts and fine arts. Her writings during this period rival her accomplishments in the arts, for they set out the first sustained efforts to theorise weaving as a Modernist endeavour, and to conceptualise the artist’s responsibility to what Albers called, in her essay ‘Design: Anonymous and Timeless’ (1947), ‘an imaginary or future public’.

That public was addressed even more explicitly in texts elucidating Albers’ understanding of design’s role in a rapidly modernising world in confrontation with its archaic past. These texts culminated in two books, On Designing (1959) and On Weaving (1965), which were written in the late 1930s to 1950s, when she and her husband were travelling to Mexico and South America as often as their Black Mountain teaching duties allowed. Mexico especially was, in her words, ‘a country for art like no other’, she wrote to the Kandinskys in 1936, ‘temples, ancient sculpture, the whole country is full of it … and folk art, still very much alive and good’. Not able to bring her loom along on such journeys, Albers turned her attention to other dimensions of weaving – the ancient back-strap loom, the Peruvian quipu, the floating weft – as technologies demonstrating what she argued to be the unsurpassed innovation of pre-Hispanic textiles, at the time an unusual position to take for a Modernist artist. She began amassing a large collection of such textiles and small clay objects, publishing a book on the latter in 1970 (Pre-Columbian Mexican Miniatures). Architecture of the region also attracted her interest, and it was in this period that she began to incorporate aspects into her evolving textile practice. Monte Albán (1936), named after the temple site, was one of the first of such definitive works. 

monte Alban Anni Albers reputations architectural review

monte Alban Anni Albers reputations architectural review

Source: Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS) / DACS

Monte Albán,1936, the first work Albers signed and titled

Hannes Meyer Anni Albers reputations architectural review

Hannes Meyer Anni Albers reputations architectural review

Source: © Hannes Meyer-Archiv, Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt am Main

Hannes Meyer’s ADGB auditorium wallcovering of cellophane, chenille and cotton

weaving plate Anni Albers architectural review

weaving plate Anni Albers architectural review

Source: Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS) / DACS

Draft of notation of plain weave on weaving plate

This was the first time that she titled and signed her work, initiating a shift towards an assertion of its aesthetic value, which would come to define the rest of her career. Albers grouped her postwar weavings into two categories: those made with some functional purpose in mind, usually as part of an architectural interior, which she considered to be the product of the ideal ‘anonymous’ designer, and those ‘pictorial weavings’ made, as she described in Craft Horizons in 1965, as ‘a kind of portable mural’, meant to be displayed and viewed as works of art. Albers was aware of architect-painters turning to the mural form, and even wrote on Le Corbusier’s woven tapestries for Chandigarh as ‘integral architectural elements’ – though it can be argued that her own architectural textiles were far more structural than Le Corbusier’s compositions. 

The collision of architecture and painting became an overarching concern of hers and provided an avenue by which she could remake weaving as an art on a par with those – less feminised – fields. Some of her ‘pictorial weavings’ even include a woven ‘frame’ so that the work’s display registers as a painting, such as City (1949) and Variations on a Theme (1958), which also incorporated threads twisted around plastic tubing. The goal was not to return to the subordination of weaving to painting, as many of her male colleagues who turned to weaving had (Le Corbusier included), but to achieve equal footing in its reputation among the other arts. 

Rockefeller guest house Anni Albers architectural review

Rockefeller guest house Anni Albers architectural review

Source: Vespasian / Alamy

The curtains of Rockefeller Guest House, 1942-44

havard Anni Albers architectural review

havard Anni Albers architectural review

Source: Harvard Art Museums / Busch-Reisinger Museum / Ise Gropius

Bedspread designed for dormitories at Harvard Graduate Center, 1949

city Anni Albers architectural review

city Anni Albers architectural review

Source: Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS) / DACS

City, 1949, linen and cotton pictorial weaving

But in many ways, the ‘pictorial weavings’ go beyond contemporary architecture and painting, and take on the qualities of sculpture by exploiting light, space and other ambient qualities of the architectural interior. ‘By introducing materials suited to partitioning sections of interiors’, she theorised in her 1957 essay ‘The Pliable Plane’, ‘[textiles] have contributed specifically to impressions of spaciousness and lightness in our living areas, that is, to tranquillity.’ She argued that fabrics ‘could be incorporated into the interior planning far beyond an occasional partition’ and suggested that museums ‘could set up textile panels instead of rigid ones, to provide for the many subdivisions and backgrounds it needs. Such fabric walls could have varying degrees of transparency or be opaque, even light-reflecting’.

camino real Anni Albers architectural review

camino real Anni Albers architectural review

Source: Courtesy Fundación Armando Salas Portugal

Camino Real wallhanging at the lobby bar of the hotel,1968

typewriter Anni Albers architectural review

typewriter Anni Albers architectural review

Source: Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS) / DACS

Typewriter study to create textile effect

Albers employed Lurex, a relatively new metallic fibre on the market, allowing her to create surfaces whose appearances changed dramatically in relation to the viewer’s position. A good example is La Luz I (1947), whose central motif of two perpendicular bands emerges and dissipates as one moves from one end of the work to the other. Gold Lurex also features prominently in an ark covering of six panels for the Congregation B’nai Israel of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in combination with a black and white floating weft that she described as ‘thread hieroglyphs’.

Albers’ innovative approach to weaving, further developed in her printmaking, drawing and the incorporation of textual elements, has often been read as anticipating the Fibre Art of the 1960s. Albers admitted sculptural problems of environment and ambient space into a medium that had remained for so long pictorial. One could even say the exchange went both ways: that the warm reception of Fibre Art – by Lenore Tawney, Sheila Hicks and Albers’ former colleague Trude Guermonprez – allowed us retrospectively to see the achievement of Albers’ weaving more clearly. But it is significant that she rejected this association; what she was doing, she argued, was of a different order. 

dotted Anni Albers architectural review

dotted Anni Albers architectural review

Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Dotted, 1959

Albers herself never elaborated on why she rejected that aspect of what her reputation had become by the 1970s. But one could speculate that, for her, textiles had to maintain their foundational relationship to architecture and design, for that functionality is part and parcel of their specificity. Late into her career, Albers continued to integrate woven forms into architectural interiors, drawing additionally on printmaking as a way of translating her designs into woven form long after her age prevented extended periods at the loom. These works include a series for Knoll textiles using printed geometric graphics. One of her more astonishing commissions later in life was for the Hotel Camino Real in Mexico City, built by Ricardo Legorreta and Luis Barragán for the city’s 1968 Olympics. The architects initially intended to ask Josef Albers to provide a screen print for every room in the hotel, but after a transformative studio visit with his wife, they ended up awarding the commission to Anni. For the tapestry that would grace a wall of the hotel’s lobby, she eventually settled on a complex composition derived entirely from small, repeated triangles coloured in a range of crimson reds, whose brightness – at 10-feet tall – floods the sparsely furnished interior. 

on weaving Anni Albers architectural review

on weaving Anni Albers architectural review

On Weaving, of 1965, encapsulates the art and history of weaving. She dedicated it to, ‘my great teachers, the weavers of ancient Peru’

know Anni Albers architectural review

know Anni Albers architectural review

The cover of Anni Albers: Pictorial Weaving, a pamphlet for the travelling exhibition 1959-60, depicts one of her drawings of a knot

An intensely private couple, we know little of how such moments may have affected their marriage. It seems that they were supportive of each other’s careers. Josef did not seem to impede his wife’s ambition and interests, often sharing resources, students and intellectual interests. However, it is clear that Anni made more sacrifices professionally: she went with him to Yale when Josef was appointed professor in 1950, even though it meant that she was out of a job (at the students’ request, though, she held secret courses in the early mornings unnoticed by the university, whose policy restricted teaching by faculty spouses). And she tolerated numerous affairs. It is unsurprising, though, that we know little about what effect her marriage may have had on her career: it was all too typical for female Modernists of her generation to reject gender as a category in understanding their work. 

The Hotel Camino Royal tapestry was rediscovered in early 2019, in the storage of the hotel, long forgotten. It, like so many of Albers’ accomplishments, was likely undervalued because of its ties to feminised forms of craft thought to be ‘merely’ functional. Fortunately, as part of a contemporary sea change in art and architectural history to recover the work of female practitioners and contributors, that blind spot is slowly – finally – coming into view.

This piece is featured in the AR June 2020 issue on Inside – click here to buy your copy today