Modernist weaver Anni Albers believed textiles should have a fundamental relationship with architecture
Modernist weaver Anni Albers (1899-1994) is best associated with the colourful abstract designs of her Bauhaus days. Yet it was to be a very different design, an acoustic auditorium wall covering for her diploma piece, that was to be her ‘passport to America’ according to architect and future collaborator Philip Johnson, who helped Albers and her husband Josef make new lives for themselves in America in 1933 following the closure of the Bauhaus.
Dark grey with threads of cotton, raffia and chenille, this shimmery weave was created for Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer’s Trade School in 1930 and was a hint of the diversity to come of Albers’ post-Bauhaus work, which ranged from site-specific commissions, woven pictures, necklaces and printmaking as well as theoretical work. All are beautifully presented in a splendid retrospective of her work – the first in the UK – at the Tate Modern.
Fittingly, the exhibition begins and ends with a loom. Albers entered the Bauhaus in 1922 and after initially lacking enthusiasm for weaving went on to embrace it, becoming a teacher herself in 1929. The show expands in scope to incorporate pieces by her contemporaries and tutors such as Paul Klee, who was a major influence on her work. Many of Albers’ pieces from this time were lost but later recreated by Gunta Stölz, who was head of the weaving workshop. The first main room of the exhibition introduces visitors to the complexities of weaving, as well as Albers’ easy-to-love designs, with their blocks of colour and geometric patterns.
But the bulk of the show is post-Bauhaus. Her time teaching (following a recommendation by Johnson) at the experimental Black Mountain College art school in North Carolina during the 1930s and 1940s looks idyllic – there is a lovely photograph of students sitting out in the sun dressed in summer tops and shorts as they work on their portable mini-looms. The enduring importance of Central and South American cultures to Albers’s work is emphasised – she particularly enjoyed how Mexican artefacts combined precious and found materials and this was a clear influence on her enjoyable jewellery, which incorporated hair grips, paper clips and corks to great effect.
Her weaving evolved as she experimented with different thicknesses of thread, the incorporation of additional surface threads, and the leno technique of twisted warp threads as well as knots, which were of particular interest to her. She began to explore the idea of suggesting ancient writing in her work, something that continued later in her Six Prayers commission for the Jewish Museum in New York in 1965, a memorial to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. These are also an example of the pictorial as opposed to pattern weavings that she began making, intended as woven artworks for the wall.
Her spatially oriented work is a revelation. According to exhibition co-curator Ann Coxon, Albers was interested in ‘how textiles can be used to divide spaces and have a relationship to architecture not just as a supplement to be added on afterwards but as something fundamental to its core’. In 1957, Albers set out her thinking in her essay The Pliable Plane: Textiles in Architecture, which advocated ‘a new understanding between the architect and the inventive weaver’.
She worked with fellow Bauhaus-émigré Walter Gropius on his Harvard Graduate Center student housing in 1949-50, creating bed coverings and curtain dividers for shared study bedrooms – an effect recreated in an installation in the exhibition – and contributed a shimmering chenille and copper thread curtain to Johnson’s 1944 Rockefeller guest house in Manhattan, New York. She also wove spatial dividers for the staging of her solo exhibition in 1949 at the Museum of Modern Art and was interested in the potential for dividing space and filtering light. Her window coverings for Knoll, for whom she worked for 30 years from 1951, are also included.
Albers was always driven by process, and once she embraced printing as a medium in later years, after the physical exertions of weaving became too much, she was to be found exploring embossing, screen and lithography printing. Yet it seems only right that at the end of this highly pleasing exhibition, the focus comes squarely back to her weaving – both in the plentiful samples and in the inclusion of the hand loom that she used for many of her pictorial weavings. Meanwhile a film showing contemporary weaver Ismini Samanidou working on the same loom ensures that visitors don’t lose sight of the process behind Albers’ beautiful work.
Tate Modern director Frances Morris feels that the time is right for a reappreciation not just of Albers but of fibre art in general, and this show does well to put her work in the context of historical examples from around the world, drawing on work from Albers’ personal collection. And with the centenary of the Bauhaus school coming up next year, we’ll no doubt be hearing a lot more about Albers and her illustrious contemporaries very soon.
Anni Albers, until 27 January 2019, Tate Modern, Bankside, London