The threads of Anni Albers' life are twisted and twined like her weaving, like her designs. Her work is full of hidden thoughts, mysterious suggestions, secret meanings, mantras for meditation.
"I hope my work cannot be looked at just once, that people will come back and look and be puzzled," she said. "In my constructions, I make some irregularities in the hope of clutching your thoughts or feelings."
A retrospective of 89 examples of her woven and graphic art opened Wednesday at the Renwick Gallery, 17th Street at Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
Her designs are deceptive, appearing, disappearing and reappearing in a hide-and-seek with the eye. Some materials, quiet and subdued in the daylight, shine forth under the night's electric light in a glittering metallic splendor. What seems to be a red thread turns out to be many strands of pink and cream wrapped around silver. In her drawings, finding the center and the end of the maze is difficult. A symmetrical design, when examined closely, is quite asymmetrical.
Tuesday, on the eve of her 86th birthday, her eyes were still sharp, her mind ready for the next project. Despite the need to put her feet up on the flowery bedspread at the Hay-Adams, she still was able to affirm strongly: "I believe all is growth."
Her smart suede suit was a creamy no-color; her only jewelry ("it's all I ever wear") a wide gold band.
"My second wedding ring, though I've had only one wedding. My husband had it made for me for our 50th anniversary. He never wore his." Her late husband was the abstract painter Josef Albers.
The two of them: Anni Albers, weaver, textile designer and most recently a graphic artist; Josef Albers, the painter, famous for paying "Homage to the Square," influenced several generations of artists, including Kenneth Noland and Shelia Hicks.
Anni Albers, though her life from a distance is full of broken threads, sees it always as a continuation."Everything develops gradually."
Annelise Fleischmann was born in 1899, the pampered daughter in a Berlin household of art tutors and butlers. Her family's ballroom would be transformed for costume parties into a train station or a Gru newald.
In 1933, forbidden by her art teacher to paint with black and repelled by designing wallpaper at the Hamburg School of Applied Art, she went seeking freedom of expression to the Bauhaus, the innovative design school that fathered the sleek, minimalist, Modern movement in architecture, industrial and domestic design.
"I had seen a brochure with Walter Gropius' proclamation about the Bauhaus with a drawing by Lyonel Feininger. Gropius' words meant little to me then, but Feininger's prints intrigued me.
"It wasn't easy to be admitted to the Bauhaus. I found I couldn't lift beams, or paint from the tops of ladders, so the weaving workshop was all that would take me. I thought weaving was sissy, like embroidery."
She didn't find all she was looking for at the Bauhaus. One lecture by painter Paul Klee, whom she admired, was enough. "I didn't understand a word he said."
Bauhaus was just developing and the emphasis was more on industrial design than art. Back then, designers believed in the triumph of people's design: cheap, clean-lined products, and, as American architect and historian Philip Johnson said, "that flat roofs would save the world."
Even today, she adores Sears and American shopping centers, where, she says, she "goes treasure hunting." Today, Anni Albers lives in her Orange, Conn., tract development house, the headquarters of the Josef Albers Foundation. She works on a folding aluminum table in a room with narrow slat venetian blinds. Her bedspread is drip-dry. Her kitchen table is a simple "dinette" style. Josef Albers' desk is a piece of Masonite supported by plumbing pipe. She loves Tupperware.
At Bauhaus, she found Josef Albers, "a lean, half-starved, ascetic-looking student," who later became a master, and at the end, one of the school's last directors.
"From the time of the Dessau Bauhaus," writes Nicholas Fox Weber in the catalogue of the Renwick exhibit, "she recalls a dinner she gave as a nervous young bride for Mies van der Rohe and his companion Lilly Reich. Albers' mother had given her a butter curler, and Lilly Reich, upon seeing the butter balls, scowled, 'Butter balls! Here, at the Bauhaus! At the Bauhaus I should think you'd have a good solid block of butter.' " The story still makes Anni Albers mad at Reich's rudeness.
Bauhaus was something of a holy cause, a guild, a band of brothers and sisters, a part of the great flowering of German creativity between the wars.
In 1933, more than half a century ago, the life of Albers and her husband broke into scattered threads, as though a tapestry had been ripped untimely from a loom.
"Not suddenly -- it came gradually," she said. Because the Bauhaus had a reputation for being communal, considered communistic by Hitler, "We knew when the school closed that no one who had been associated with the Bauhaus could find work in Germany."
Weber, executive director of the Josef Albers Foundation, writes that Anni Albers knew in Nazi Germany her heritage jeopardized both herself and her husband: "Although confirmed in an important Protestant church in Berlin, Anni realized that she was 'in the Hitler sense, Jewish.' " Josef was Catholic.
Many dissident German architects and artists, championed by Philip Johnson, came to the United States to transplant their design beliefs.
The Alberses -- he was 45, she was 34 -- saw Johnson on a Berlin street. He came back to their apartment for tea, and asked if they'd like to come to America. Johnson knew of the new, experimental Black Mountain College just opened in North Carolina.
"Everything in Germany had blown up," she said, "and Josef and I sat on the bed and read the offer from Black Mountain. They wrote they were an experimental college. And we said, 'that's for us.' "
In the peace and safety of Black Mountain, he painted, she wove and they both taught as their fame grew for 16 years. In 1949, she was the first weaver to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The next year, they moved to the New Haven, Conn., area where he became head of the Yale University design department, and she received an allied craftsman medal from the American Institute of Architects. Her poignant weavings were commissioned as ark curtains for several synagogues, including B'nai Israel in Rockville, and a memorial for Nazi victims at the Jewish Museum in New York.
In 1963, "she was just the wife hanging around" at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles where Josef was a fellow. That gave her the opportunity to make prints and she received a fellowship of her own the next year. So at 64, she embarked on a new art medium. She had always framed her weavings and railed against artificial distinctions between art and craft.
In 1970, they moved to Orange, Conn., and she gave away her looms to concentrate on graphics.
Anni Albers doesn't hesitate to acknowledge that in her youth, "My work and my husband's looked more alike. I don't think my work influenced him, but his did me. I dabbled along. His paintings are icons."
Today, she has no feeling that being "the dragon at the door," to protect her husband during his years of fame, interfered with her own creation. "When he ran out of vermilion, at five minutes to 5, we'd call the store, jump in the car and fetch it. I enjoyed helping him in that way. I felt it was not a burden, but a pleasure to be helpful to your partner.
"We truly enjoyed being together. On birthdays or anniversaries, we'd decided to go out to dinner -- just the two of us."
Her own life has gone on with much vitality and cheer. She has designed textiles. She has taken up woodcuts and gouaches. And this week, when she went through her exhibit with Lloyd Herman, the Renwick director who put on the show, she said, "My own work is more interesting than I remembered."
The Renwick exhibit continues through Jan. 5 and then goes on to the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; the Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon School of Crafts; and the Frederick W. Wight Art Gallery, University of California at Los Angeles.