Anni Albers was a German-born artist credited for blending traditional weaving techniques with the principles of abstraction. She is known as one of the most influential textile artists and printmakers of the 20th century. Most importantly, her work played out the concerns of mid-century modernist painters in a medium that was often disregarded for being too 'feminine' or within the realm of craft.
Born Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischmann to a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, Albers had an early inclination for art and studied under impressionist artist Martin Brandenburg from 1916 to 1919. After a brief stint at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg in 1920, she began studying at Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar in 1922. While the utopian art and design school offered many disciplines, women were limited to taking certain classes such as pottery and bookbinding, and discouraged from studying 'heavier' mediums such as sculpture or furniture-making. Though she wanted to work in glass, Albers studied weaving alongside Gunta Stölzl. It was here that Albers began to refine her craft and experiment with sound absorption, light reflection and the sense of touch.
The weavings and artworks made during this period—such as Drapery material (1923–6) and Design for Smyrna Rug (1925)—show concerns that would stay with Albers for the next several decades. The works had largely abstract crisscrossing geometric patterns that experimented with colour, shape, scale and rhythm. Often working on double and jacquard looms, Albers oscillated between making non-representational wall hangings and functional textile pieces, using both traditional and unusual materials such as linen, cotton, wool, horsehair and metallic thread. Her spontaneous and sometimes surprising colour palette was deeply influenced by Paul Klee, who was teaching at the Bauhaus at the time.
It was also at the Bauhaus that Albers met her future husband Josef Albers; the two were married in 1925. That same year, the school moved to Dessau. During this time, the Albers lived in the teaching quarters with the Klees and Kandinskys and travelled extensively through Spain, Italy and the Canary Islands, where Albers conducted her own research into the history of textiles.
In 1929, Albers became a teacher at the Bauhaus. In 1931, at a time when it was rare for women to hold leadership positions at the school, she became head of the weaving workshop. In 1933, however, under Nazi pressures, the school closed and the Albers soon moved to the United States.
At the invitation of Philip Johnson, the Albers began teaching at Black Mountain College—an experimental art school in North Carolina that had holistic pedagogical values similar to those of the Bauhaus. Here, Albers continued to develop her weavings and textiles while writing essays on design. The couple travelled often to Mexico and South America, and accumulated a significant collection of pre-Columbian art, which had a significant impact on both of their practices.
The Albers continued to teach at Black Mountain until 1949. In 1950, they moved to Connecticut and set up a studio in their home. In 1949, Albers became the first weaver to hold a solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition showcased her wall hangings, room dividers, draperies and rugs, and toured into the next decade, solidifying her reputation as an influential modernist designer.
Following the MoMA exhibition, Albers spent several years making mass-reproducible patterns, experimenting with unusual materials such as cellophane, and creating more pictorial compositions, such as La Luz II Tapestry (1958), which shows a skewed cross-like shape from below. She also began publishing her writing in article-form, and in a collection titled On Designing (1959). Her later book, On Weaving, was published in 1965 and remains an important text on mid-century design.
In the 1960s, Albers discovered printmaking at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in California and switched from weaving to focus mostly on screen printing and lithography. The lithographs—such as the series 'Line Involvements'—display a loosening of form and embracing of organic lines, while the screen prints—notably Red and Blue (1970) and Yellow Meander (1970)—tend to revolve around repetitive graphic patterns.
In 1971, Josef Albers founded the not-for-profit Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, aiming to further 'the revelation and evocation of vision through art.' The foundation also supports exhibitions and publications of the artists' works.
Albers died in Connecticut at the age of 94.
Walking through the Anni Albers exhibition at the K20, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, in Düsseldorf this summer (9 June–9 September 2018), I couldn't help thinking about the 1944 poem by American dancer and artist Raymond Duncan, 'I Sing the Weaver'. The poem talks about weaving as a practice linking a weaver's body to the world; a view that...
If there were any justice in this world, those hearing the name Albers would ask 'which one?' rather than assume a reference to Josef, the painter, color theorist and influential teacher.
IN A 1985 INTERVIEW, Anni Albers remarked, "I find that, when the work is made with threads, it's considered a craft; when it's on paper, it's considered art." This was her somewhat oblique explanation of why she hadn't received "the longed-for pat on the shoulder," i.e., recognition as an artist, until after she gave up weaving...
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War a manifesto entitled Hand-Weaving To-day was published by Faber & Faber. It argued for fresh forms of expression demanded by new conditions, observing that weaving in particular needed to find a context within 'architecture, based on the new building materials – steel, concrete, glass'. A...
Anni Albers brought wonder to weaving. Born in Berlin in 1899, she applied modernist ideas to the ancient craft of the loom, marking her out as the most innovative and influential textile artist of the 20th century. Now, her bold body of work is celebrated in a major retrospective at London's Tate Modern ("Anni Albers" 11 October 2018 to...