Anni Albers had a fraught relationship with her medium. She spoke of being disappointed when she ended up in the weaving class at the Bauhaus in the early twenties. ‘To work with threads seemed sissy to me. I wanted something to be conquered,’ she told an interviewer in 1977. Even in the late seventies, when her reputation as a great artist was sealed—the first weaver, and the first woman from the Bauhaus, to get a solo show at MoMA in New York—she still claimed to be switching to printing in the last decades of her life because weaving ‘limits opportunity for exhibition. Also, weaving is not generally recognized as an art, but as a craft. I find that, when the work is made with threads, it’s considered a craft; when it’s on paper, it’s considered art.’
Albers had a keen belief, also, that she was working within a fallow period in the long, long history of weaving. In the first years of the twentieth century a German ethnographer and archaeologist called Max Uhle began collecting items he had found—bought, dug up, stolen—in the Andes and transporting them back to Germany. These fabrics and artefacts, collected and displayed in museums across Europe, had a profound impact on various different avant-guards of the time—especially at the Bauhaus, where Albers studied before moving to the U.S., and Black Mountain College, when the Nazis came to power.
For Albers the Andean textiles were a lesson that her discipline had reached its high point many thousands of years ago, in a culture totally remote from hers. The first archaeological traces of textiles in South America date from around 8000BC, with the appearance of the technologically sophisticated heddle loom at around 2000BC (making textiles an older form of craft than even ceramics.) Over millennia textiles became as ubiquitous in Andean societies, and as central to them, as photography is in many societies today—they were ‘an essential part of the region’s culture and system of communication,’ write Chilean scholars Paulina Brugnoli and Soledad Hoces de la Guardia. ‘Every member of every society came into close contact with textile techniques, textile codes became internalized; clothing, headgear, and emblems determined and identified the wearer as a member of a hierarchy or group.’ They were an everyday medium used to ‘encode and express kinship, environment, information regarding heaven and earth, flora, fauna, climatic time, agriculture, political events.’ Albers thus worked in the knowledge that most textiles were now not only technically less sophisticated in structure—due to the demands of industrial looms—but also that they had lost the central societal role they had once held in previous eras. ‘I feel an unworthy latecomer,’ she once wrote, ‘perhaps belonging to an almost obsolete species.’
The effect on the culture from which these artefacts were taken was immense, as Brugnoli and de la Guardia have written about—Europeans like Anni Albers were enriched by them, given a humbling sense of perspective and a vast new technical and aesthetic tradition to draw upon. In contrast, cultural workers in many of the Latin American countries from which those very same artefacts came felt pressure—’as a result of the institutionalization of the European domination of Latin America’—to reject them as ‘cultural achievements which… had negative connotations because they were “Indian”’.
A couple of decades later the cultural heritage which had been taken was handed back in Europeanised form to Latin America ‘where generations of artists and designers—not always aware of its remote pre-Colombian origins—re-adopted its concepts.’ This is, of course, the dismally familiar logic of colonialism—from tantalum to rubber to art—in which raw material is removed from the colonised country, processed by the coloniser, then marketed back to the original place from which it was taken, at a higher price.
The work of Anni Albers is currently at the peak of a long-building boom. Multiple books on her, or of her work, have been released in recent years, and there have been sizeable exhibitions at the Guggenheim Bilbao and then the Tate Modern—the latter an enormous, sprawling show that is on until the end of January. The extent to which this new interest is a “rediscovery” is perhaps overstated—in her lifetime (she died in 1994) she was held in high esteem, and her work was frequently exhibited—but she was certainly under-appreciated in the decades after her death, perhaps not surprisingly given the prevailing values of the art world in the nineties and noughties. The qualities that might have made it drop out of circulation then—suspiciously like ‘craft’, made from a decidedly non-macho tradition, drawing upon ancient South American cultures—are what make it seem so welcome today.
She also suffered the indignity of being married to a famous painter, and having her work often discussed (or ignored) in the context of his; particularly egregious is an article about Black Mountain College from the early seventies that labels her as Josef Albers’s “daughter Anni”. It was in large part Anni Albers’ achievements at the Bauhaus—a stunningly innovative wall hanging fabric, with cellophane woven into it, for a Trade Union School near Berlin—that had won the Albers’ teaching positions at Black Mountain College and a ticket out of Nazi Germany, rather than the achievements of Josef. (The belated correction, a few months later, merely states that Anni is Josef’s wife, not his daughter.)
This kind of effacement has continued today—a book of scholarly essays about the couple from 2007 titled Latin American Journeys, for example, contains four texts focusing solely on Josef, and two texts authored by him; there are only two texts about Anni specifically, and just one written by her.
The latter choice is particularly odd, as Albers was a gifted and prolific writer, skilled at turning a topic around in order to reveal its many facets. In a number of short texts, collected over the years in the books On Designing and On Weaving, Albers traces out the beautifully open ended network of ideas within which she situates the artistic practice of weaving—textiles, for her, have ancient roots in structural, synthetic arts like architecture and basket making. Through her writing you can understand weaving as an analytical practice, and think about its shared roots with modern computer technology (many take the first computer to be an automated, punched card-programmed loom developed by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801). This flows on to how the sense of programming, of process, was also important to her, and she echoes Freud’s ideas of prosthesis when she states that ‘not only the materials themselves which we come to know in a craft, are our teachers. The tools, or the more mechanised tools, our machines, are our guides too.’ The double-edged nature of human relationships with the machines they construct—both creatively enabled and freed, and controlled and limited—interested her immensely as a result.
Study of the history of these machines also gave her an unusually critical perspective on technological progress, much more sensible and generous than the murderous techno-superiority that characterised the eras and cultures she lived through—from the breathless Futurists in the twenties to the psychotic nuclear managerialism of America in the 1950s. It was obvious to her, through experience, that ‘all progress, so it seems, is coupled to regression elsewhere.’
After the opening on the Anni Albers exhibition at the Tate Modern in London I saw that someone had posted a picture on Instagram of an ancient South American textile that was in the exhibition, labelling it as by Anni Albers. On one level this was obviously a simple mistake, but it made me think: could the exhibition have been arranged differently so that such a mistake was impossible? Or: was there something about the exhibition that might make such mistake more likely?
“Rediscoveries” are always also reframings, reassessments. If the artist really is as overlooked as they say she is, curators and writers are free to re-present the artist, unencumbered by wider knowledge or persistent notions about them. At the Tate we were being asked to slot Albers into a fairly familiar art historical timeline—in fact, we were being asked to see Albers as the person doing the slotting. The exhibition presents her in the context of ‘international abstract modernism,’ (as the catalogue says) and sees her as someone who ‘connected one of the oldest human cultural techniques with the modern artistic language of her time.’ It notes that she was an ‘important member of the Bauhaus’ but concludes that ‘her most important contribution to modernism may have been the fact that she made the ancient practice of weaving an exemplary modern experience—a tool to generate works in which new ways of living could find expression.’ This is clearly the chosen theme for the exhibition, and is hammered home in bold on the homepage for it on the Tate website: ‘Anni Albers combined the ancient craft of hand-weaving with the language of modern art.’
Any big creative projects, like blockbuster exhibitions at the Tate, need to be reducible to a sentence, for marketing purposes, for clarity. I’m not arguing with that, but it’s interesting to think about how such reductions are made, and what gets elided when they take place. The exhibition itself, though featuring an incredible selection of staggeringly beautiful, challenging, weird and beguiling works of art, felt collectively quite shapeless, potentially because so much of what Anni Albers achieved during her long life, so many of the aesthetic forces and practices she managed to bring together into charged, kaleidoscopic works of art, fell far outside the pretty uninspiring rubric of ‘contributing to modernism.’
Never mind the work of Albers herself, but with this approach the vast well of pre-Columbian culture that she drew upon also becomes subordinated to this rubric, with potentially more troubling consequences. Note the terms above—the ancient craft of hand-weaving with the language of modern art. Albers herself might draw attention to the dichotomy we’re being asked to go along with here, as though the ancient craft of hand-weaving wasn’t also linguistic and artistic, as though Anni Albers doesn’t owe a significant debt to the visual language of that older non-European art, as well as to that of the modern. There was a version of this exhibition that could have taken its cue from Albers’s own complex thoughts on the matter, and dealt more richly with the forces of cultural interplay and colonialism of which she was unavoidably a part of, rather than hiving all the work not by her off into one room of ‘South American influences’—raw material for the modernist project.
Felix Bazalgette is a writer from London. His work has appeared in The New Statesman, The White Review, The Economist, The London Review of Books blog, Blackbox Manifold and 3:AM Magazine among others.