Two versions of the voluminous weaving “Black White Yellow“ hang in Tate Modern’s beautifully installed retrospective, Anni Albers, on view in London through Jan. 27, 2019, part of a worldwide commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. Conceptualized at Bauhaus Dessau in 1926, the work was conceived as a simple geometric sequence with overlapping strips of cotton and silk; the blending colors created the impression of rungs on a ladder or stairs. Like any patterned textile, you come to know its artistic rhythms, strategies, and irregularities with patience and over time. But let your eyes glide across the interwoven vertical and horizontal bands, going up or down in a series of steps and hops, and you feel the authority and honesty of its design and designer.
Anni Albers, born Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischmann in 1899, liked to think back to the early Bauhaus, remembering that when she came as a student in 1922 it was the “period of the saints,” everyone wearing what looked like handmade, “baggy white dresses and saggy white suits.” The Bauhaus was a collaborative experiment, pitting youthful energy and idealism against the despair and purposelessness that followed World War I. As she put it in her classical and balanced prose (she had learned English—this included the words “guinea pig”—as a child, from an Irish governess), “What had existed had proved to be wrong; everything leading up to it seemed to be wrong, too.”
If the Bauhauslers were unsure about the precise way ahead in architecture and art, they were serious about their goal to unify and democratize the fine arts and the applied arts while building useful things. Initially, she was unenthusiastic about her assignment to the weaving studio where most of the other women were also placed. In her words, it was “sissy.” But eventually she became engrossed in the challenges of the work. The alternation between free play or improvisation and the time-consuming process of executing compositions onto the grid of the loom was particularly suitable for her mind that often moved too quickly. What she called “the threads” drew her forward in exhilarating and unpredictable ways.
Concurrently, she had some private goals having to do with the discomfort she felt about the elite circumstances she was born into, the tangled matter of her family’s prominence and identity as wealthy baptized German Jews. Her father was a prosperous businessman who manufactured furniture that was sold in an elegant Berlin showroom, but her mother’s family was wealthy on an entirely different scale. Leopold Ullstein, her maternal grandfather, had been the founder of what was the largest publishing company in Germany and, thus, the world. Her five uncles operated the business, employing about 19,000 workers and managing a conglomerate that produced everything from sewing patterns and sheet music to newspapers, magazines, and books, acquiring bestselling authors Vicki Baum and Erich Maria Remarque among others.
At the Bauhaus, with its rooftop calisthenics and haircutting ceremonies, she met Josef Albers, journeyman instructor and head of the glass studio. Albers was the son of a “decorative painter” (house painter). He was from a provincial coal-producing town in the industrial northwest of Germany and 11 years her senior. During the Bauhaus years, he was a nonpracticing Catholic but later in life he went to daily Mass. They became a couple after Walter Gropius, dressed as Father Christmas, handed her a well-chosen gift from Josef, a copy of Giotto’s “Flight Into Egypt.” How do you find your way? This is the question she turned over in her mind, ultimately coming up with a Zen-like solution that she articulated in “Material as Metaphor”: You can go anywhere from anywhere.
Judging from the highly focused and surprisingly young viewers in the galleries at the Tate and the excellent coverage the show has received, the critical framework has shifted since Hilton Kramer, nearly 20 years ago, dismissed Albers and her craft as a footnote in the history of modernism with a review titled “Bauhaus’ Brave Albers Was a Tedious Weaver.” Kramer disparaged weaving as an inferior medium and saw craft, in general, as limited both in vision and emotional scope; he was bored by it, too impatient to notice the profound structural integrity of the early work or to experience the complex and vibrant power of the later pictorial weavings.
The Tate show brings together over six decades of Albers’ work, spanning from her time at the Bauhaus to the 16 years she and Josef spent teaching at Black Mountain College and the productive later period when they lived in the New Haven area. It showcases the looms she used—a 12-shaft countermarch floor loom and an 8-shaft Structo Artcraft Handloom—and makes use of her seminal texts on design and weaving as well as her historical collection of textiles from around the world. Anni Albers was a pioneer both of weaving and modern design and the show traces the growth of her virtuosity and influence as she experimented with architectural applications, materials, and the almost limitless possibilities of the weaving process, expanding her technique as she collected the work of Mexican and Peruvian weavers when she traveled, unraveling swatches she came upon in order to teach herself how they could be reconstructed.
Gradually, she and Josef built up a collection of textiles and small-scale “but great objects,” Andean and Mesoamerican art that bristled with vitality. Anni came to think of the intricate hand-woven patterns as a wordless language and the threads were like ciphers, carriers of meaning. When she incorporated these studies into her modern hand-weaving the results could be breathtaking. You see this in two of her most astonishing pieces, “Open Letter” and “Development in Rose I,” with gauze-like leno weave allowing air to peek through while exposing twists and loops of thread that stand out like glyphs.
A large, central area of the exhibition space is dedicated to Albers’ collaborative interior designs. These include the drapery she did for the Rockefeller Guest House in 1950 (she thought it looked like potato sacking during the day but with its metallic threads it glittered at night) and curtains and cotton plaid bedspreads for the Harvard Graduate Center in 1949. There’s also an array of fabrics she produced for Knoll and other manufacturers that are now recognized as classics of midcentury modernism.
In 1930 Albers had received her Bauhaus diploma for a work that was installed in the auditorium of the ADGB Trade Union School in Bernau, a textile that combined transparent cellophane (a brand-new material at the time) and a velvety chenille in order to reflect light and simultaneously absorb sound. Throughout her weaving life, she was stimulated by the challenges of designing “the epidermis” of textiles while thinking about the ways in which materials respond to heat and cold, light, air flow, and architectural materials. Looking at the free-hanging room dividers she made in the 1940s—one using simple wood slats and dowels strung with waxed-cotton harness-maker’s thread, another constructed with jute and metallic yarn—you can see her pleasure in the combination of old and new materials and the endless possibilities of abstract geometric patterning.
When Anni and Josef Albers arrived in New York on the Friday after Thanksgiving 1933, they were refugees from Germany as well as the Bauhaus, which had forcibly been closed by the Gestapo in the spring. Philip Johnson had helped them find teaching jobs at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and they were lucky to have obtained visas since their first applications were denied. As soon as Hitler came to power, propaganda was directed against the publisher Ullstein Verlag, which was consistently referred to as “the Jewish press.” In April, when there were strikes against Jewish businesses, 150 employees acting as a fifth column rallied against the company from inside the Ullstein building, marching from department to department, shouting fascist slogans. In July, the first anti-Jewish legislation was announced. By 1934 the Ullstein family was disseized and the company was Aryanized.
Albers’ artistic legacy is entwined with Jewish institutions that commissioned her most monumental works, but she apparently never set foot in a synagogue, neither in Germany nor in the United States. According to a memoir written by one of her uncles, the Ullsteins could trace their origins in Germany as far back as the year 936. When the generation of her grandparents underwent a group conversion, they were most likely demonstrating their assimilation and patriotism to Germany rather than religious persuasion. Her grandfather and his two wives were buried at Judischer Friedhof Schonhauser Allee, but she was herself baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. Equivocations were difficult for Albers who was prone to describing the complexity of her religious background by saying she was “Jewish only in the Hitler sense.” During a 1968 interview for the Smithsonian Institute, she made a segue that revealed something of her pared-down thoughts on religion and art:
ANNI ALBERS: And I find art is something that gives you something that you need for your life. Just as religion is something that you need even if you constantly find it denied today.
SEVIM FESCI: Are you religious yourself, Mrs. Albers?
ANNI ALBERS: Well, not in any organized way. But there is something I think that everybody believes in whether they deny it or not.
It’s hard to know exactly what she thought about her synagogue commissions. In the postwar period, when American Jewish communities were growing and there was a need to enlarge the older synagogues and design new ones, they often turned to émigré architects and artists with training in modernism and the avant-garde, advocates of functional design and geometric abstraction, in many cases, witnesses to the destruction of the European Jewish diaspora. Albers’ convoluted relationship to Jewishness was not unique.
Without a doubt, “Six Prayers,” commissioned by the Jewish Museum in New York, stands as the apogee of the Tate exhibit. It was designed in 1966-67 as part of the museum’s ongoing project to acquire work memorializing the Holocaust. One can assume that its design developed out of the woven ark coverings Albers did for Temple Emanu-El in Dallas in 1957 (the sanctuary and the ark covering have recently been restored) and Temple B’nai Israel in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in 1961 (the panels and some woven curtains are currently being conserved at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation). For those two projects she produced textile panels that would become focal points of contemplation. For Dallas she produced machine-woven fabric, patterned with silver, gold, green, and lapis lazuli in zigzagging bands, the patterned colors evoked the universality and simplicity of Japanese screen paintings and their celebration of nature. For Woonsocket she used a brocade-like technique, floating black, white, and gold Lurex threads along the weft to make lines that she thought of as “thread hieroglyphs” since they curled into one another the way that letters connect and flow together. In this way, the ark cover with its graphic symbols was an interface protecting the Torah with its sacred letters while gold threads in the tapestry made the sanctuary radiant.
“Six Prayers” is far more complex but similarly conceived as a group of textile panels covered with woven glyphs. This time Albers chose to work with cotton, linen, and bast in order to create a more durable and tighter weave while bits of silver thread lend a somber shimmer. Tactile and dynamic, intimate and stately, the panels were intended to be arranged slightly apart, like stelae bearing geometric and abstract ideographic signs that look like inscriptions, both decipherable but indecipherable, with different groups of threads catching their reflection and becoming prominent, then disappearing as light shifts along the surface over time. Like all Holocaust memorials, this one presents a message for which words are inadequate while it originates in a knot of thoughts. Most of Anni Albers’ family survived the war in England and America. Otti Berger, perhaps her closest friend at the Bauhaus, was deported to Auschwitz and died there in 1944. Similarly, a cousin, Robert, son of the famous pianist Moritz Mayer-Mahr, was transported from Drancy. Perhaps we should think of the bends and curves on the tapestry as tally marks for all the others.
Read more of Frances Brent’s art criticism in Tablet magazine here.