It seems that if you were an important modern artist in the last century — and you were a woman — the best thing you could do to gain rightful recognition was to die.
Both moved out of the shadow of an artist husband, perhaps with more facility than Lee Krasner, who stymied her career trying to get the seriously alcoholic Jackson Pollock to do more dripping than sipping.
As she once told an interviewer, “I find that, when the work is made with threads, it’s considered a craft; when it’s on paper, it’s considered art.”
An exhibition of her work and an accompanying book seek to demonstrate that thread is as strong a medium as any other and that Albers was a pioneering figure in modernism who took an ancient craft and elevated it to fine art.
The volume itself is beautifully designed and printed. The essays and, especially, the images of weavings, show Albers as a masterful technician, as well as an artist who could turn her designs into rich and tactile works. She wrote that her “dominating element” was texture, but in such cotton and silk masterpieces as “Black White Yellow” and “Orange, Black and White,” Albers brought a pattern and color aesthetic every bit as inventive and moving as the work of Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Ellsworth Kelly and Sean Scully.
Without diminishing the color square paintings of Josef Albers, which have their own extraordinary potency, the textile compositions of Anni Albers are arguably richer in content and more interesting.
In 1922, Anni Albers began her studies at the Bauhaus, then in Weimar, Germany, where Josef Albers was already a teacher. They married in 1925, and their lifelong union seemed devoid of the high drama of contemporary artistic couples, which in the perverse world of artistic fame may have counted against Anni Albers’s recognition.
At the Bauhaus, she wanted to study painting but was directed to the weaving workshop, which “became known as the women’s class,” Ann Coxon and Maria Müller-Schareck write in the book’s introduction. There Albers mastered the considerable challenges of the loom and, consistent with the Bauhaus ethos of melding fine and applied arts, Albers found a way to make weavings that worked as elements of interior design and weavings that were meant to be viewed much like a painting.
They soon made the first of many visits to Mexico, where they were transfixed by the colors and moods of its landscape, the beauty and artistry of everyday objects, and the architecture and artifacts of pre-Columbian excavations.
In 1936, Anni Albers created a wall hanging of silk, linen and wool inspired by and named for the excavations at Monte Albán, in Oaxaca. She adapted a traditional weaving technique that added layers to the horizontal threads — the weft — to create pictorial effects. The weaving is a somber work in beige, black and gray, with ghostly traces that recall architectural forms of the ancient civilization. The work was “a turning point in her conception of weaving as an art form,” Maria Minera writes in a chapter titled “Discovering Monte Albán.”
With the help of the architect Philip Johnson, then head of the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art, Albers was given a solo show in 1949. But she was ahead of her time, and it would take until the 1960s and later for the art world to fully embraced fiber art as a legitimate medium for contemporary art. Ironically, that’s when she shifted to printmaking. (She died in her 90s in 1994).
Today, Albers has influenced a new generation of artists who may be battling their own creative monsters but are not having to defend the fundamental value of their medium. Albers blazed that trail a long time ago. As Nicholas Fox Weber writes in the book’s penultimate chapter, “Her will to realize liberty and contribute beauty to the world is triumphant for us all.”
Adrian Higgins writes about the intersection of gardening and life for The Washington Post. @adrian_higgins on Twitter.
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Yale University. 192 pp. $50
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