A Thread Unspooled


12 October 2018

A year ahead of the Bauhaus centenary, London’s Tate Modern is staging the UK’s first major retrospective devoted to the work of one of the school’s alumni: the textile artist and designer Anni Albers.

Albers (1899–1994) joined the Bauhaus in 1922, where her gender meant that she was discouraged from disciplines such as painting and architecture, and instead steered towards textiles. In spite of this gendering, Albers flourished within her appointed discipline, and in January 1929 was appointed assistant to Gunta Stölzl, the head of the workshop. In September that year she became an acting director of the workshop, before eventually leaving the Bauhaus upon its closure in 1932, emigrating to the US with her husband the artist Josef Albers.

While in the US, Anni taught at the experimental Black Mountain College between 1933 to 1949, expanding her practice through a series of research trips taken throughout Central and South America, where she explored traditional and contemporary weaving techniques. “If the nature of architecture is the grounded, the fixed, the permanent, then textiles are its very antithesis,” wrote Albers in her seminal 1957 essay ‘The Pliable Plane: textiles in Architecture’. “If, however, we think of the process of building and the process of weaving and compare the work involved, we will find similarities despite the vast difference in scale.”

Tate Modern’s exhibition, curated by Ann Coxon and Briony Fer, reflects the seriousness and dedication with which Albers approached her craft. Taking in the wall hangings, pictorial weavings and artworks that Albers created throughout her career in Germany and the US, the exhibition is an exhortation of the artistic value of textiles, as well as a vindication of Albers’s interest in textiles as a central element of design and architecture.

To mark the exhibition’s opening, Disegno spoke to Fer, professor of Art History at UCL, about Albers’ work and the ambitions of the new show in sharing her textiles with a mass audience. An edited version of the conversation follows below.

Discussion around the Bauhaus often gets reduced to tubular steel furniture and modernist product design, whereas other areas of its output – such as costume, performance or textiles – tend to be sidelined. Why is that and why does weaving not play as central a part of the narrative as other areas?

The idea of a “Bauhaus aesthetic” is probably a rather one-dimensional view – the Bauhaus was never as monolithic as that. What we've tried to show in this exhibition – and I think it's part of a general reassessment of the Bauhaus and what that Bauhaus aesthetic meant – is that the school’s output was very much more diverse. The textiles that were produced in the weaving workshop were primarily by the female students at the Bauhaus. Implictly, there’s a gender bias there, but on the other hand those women became pioneers of what you could do with weaving as part of the Bauhaus project.

Anni Albers
; Rug; 1959; handwoven wool.

How does that connect to the work that Anni produced while there?

Anni collaborated from the beginning with architects. Her diploma piece, for instance, was made for Hannes Meyer’s auditorium [for the Bundesschule des Allgemeinen Deutschen Gewerkschaftsbundes], for which she designed a sound-proofing wall covering. Especially after she and Josef moved to the US in the 30s, she worked with architects – she worked with Gropius, she worked with Philip Johnson, and she was close with some of these old Bauhaus masters who commissioned her to make textiles. That relationship to architecture and design is always there in her work, and for Anni it was symbiotic. Perhaps more important is not just the commissions from Gropius or working with Breuer, but rather the way she thought spatially through texture.

The quality of gendering within textiles is interesting, because it’s a field that remains very gendered. Some of the traits in Albers’s work, however, such as the emphasis on structure and material research, are traits that have – unfortunately – traditionally been seen as quite masculine.

Weaving as a process is fundamentally premised on the grid. The loom is the first machine and so the first technology is a 3D grid construction that surrounds the body. That sense of the grid being mobilised through the process and the event of the thread is an amazing idea. Within architectural theory, from Gottfried Semper onwards, there is an idea that the woven textile is the first wall and Albers inherits that kind of architectural culture while growing up in Berlin.

Anni Albers
; Ancient Writing; 1936; cotton and rayon

Her essay ‘The Pliable Plane’ deals with this directly.

Absolutely. I think in terms of the gendering of weaving, it’s interesting because the discipline has been dismissed as decorative and feminized. There is an idea of the textile being women's labor, but historically and globally that's actually not necessarily true in many different cultures. There have been male weavers and female weavers, and it's such a vast history that this gendering is a cliche that has come to be dominant, but it isn’t really born out historically. For instance, Semper’s idea is that textiles represent the first wall, and that weaving and architecture are the first bits of human culture to happen. So it’s bizarre – it goes from this dismissal of weaving as the work of women, and so more trivial, to being the paradigmatic model of all human labour.

How did you try and manage that wealth of material within the exhibition?

We wanted to show Anni Albers as a serious and ambitious artist and designer, and we wanted to show the work that she made in a way that felt adequate to it. She makes a lot of what she called pictorial weavings, as well as wall hangings, but her own aspirations were that she initially wanted to be an artist. We're not trying to say that this is art to fetishise it, but because this is work to be taken seriously.

Anni Albers; Eclat; 1974; silkscreen on woven fabric.