Anni Albers: Material and Meaning

Anni Albers, Mitla, Mexico, 1936–37. Photograph by Josef Albers.

Anni Albers, Mitla, Mexico, 1936–37. Photograph by Josef Albers.

When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, Anni Albers and her husband, Josef, left Germany to accept an invitation to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Always fascinated with Pre-Columbian art during their time in Europe, the pair frequently drove to Mexico, where they found a “country for art like no other.” Though not much was known about these civilizations, both Anni and her husband found a deep resonance with the timeless geometric design that was left behind.

In relation to the recent exhibition, Josef Albers in Mexico at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Anni Albers’s work also finds itself (unsurprisingly) heavily influenced by the art and architecture the couple encountered in Mexico and South America. They toured widely through the country, consistently returning to Mitla, Oaxaca, and Monte Albàn. Discovering the value of the hand-crafted material of Mexican and South American art, Anni discovered the “great teachers” of her practice and worked to prove the dependency of art on craft and tactile sensibility.

Josef Albers, Detail of Mitla, 1935. Gelatin silver print, 8.1 x11.9 cm. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut.

Josef Albers, Detail of Mitla, 1935. Gelatin silver print, 8.1 x11.9 cm. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut.

During her time in Mexico and Peru, Anni began a collection of ancient fabrics and discovered several traditional weaving techniques. She responded to the timeless, abstract forms and visual language of the ancient textiles. For Anni, accessing these ancient techniques and working closely with raw materials brought her closer to the importance of physically creating and experiencing her practice.

Anni had a philosophy about the tactile sense she felt so strongly attuned to and the modern insensitivity to it. Through the rise of industry, “we remove a cellophane wrapping, and there it is-the bacon,” she writes. There is no sense of craft, only the final product. Contrary to what she was taught in her time at the Bauhaus, Anni emphasized the importance of the material she used in her work. In the same way an artist is trained to understand the language of color by sight, she believed the tactile sense – our sense of touch – must be trained to speak the language of structure.

In weaving, Anni never limited herself to cotton or linen. Instead, she accessed plastic, metal, and wire as material to be woven. Through the juxtaposition of various materials in a single work, Albers was able to alter the perception of the surface. Anni saw worth in material through their capacity for visual effect. Material impacted the final impression of the work, all while sharpening her haptic sense.

Detail of stone work, Mitla, ca. 1937. Gelatin silver print, 24.7 x 17.7 cm. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut.

Detail of stone work, Mitla, ca. 1937. Gelatin silver print, 24.7 x 17.7 cm. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut.

Anni Albers, Red Meander, 1954. Linen and cotton pictorial weaving, 52 x 37.5 com. Private collection.

Anni Albers, Red Meander, 1954. Linen and cotton pictorial weaving, 52 x 37.5 com. Private collection.

Anni Albers, Study for Camino Real, 1967. Gouache on paper. 44.5 x 40.6 cm. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut.

Anni Albers, Study for Camino Real, 1967. Gouache on paper. 44.5 x 40.6 cm. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut.

Hanging, Peru, ca. 1300-1470. Cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Hanging, Peru, ca. 1300-1470. Cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Albers met Alex Reed – a student – at Black Mountain College. Upon his graduation in 1940, Reed worked closely with both Anni and Josef. Working with household items, Reed and Anni created a collection of jewelry during a time period after World War II when materials were short in supply.

Anni Albers, Necklace, ca. 1940. Bobby pins on metal plated chain. Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut.

Anni Albers, Necklace, ca. 1940. Bobby pins on metal plated chain. Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut.

Necklace, ca. 10th-16th century, Columbia. Gold. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Necklace, ca. 10th-16th century, Columbia. Gold. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Upon visiting Oaxaca in Mexico, the two were exposed to the jewelry of Monte Albán, composed of materials which were both precious and common. A mixture of gold, pearls, seashells and pebbles – the two approached jewelry as form rather than value. They achieved designs that embodied the ancient aesthetic and questioned the merit of precious versus non-precious materials as well as the purpose of everyday items.

Material was a quality that drove Albers’s career. She saw material as something to spend time with and as a formal element which gave meaning to the final work. Anni believed “we touch things to assure ourselves of reality.”

Sources:

Albers, Anni. On Weaving. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Dickson, Andrew. “Anni Albers: Picking Up the Thread”. The New York Review of Books, 21 Nov. 2017. http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/11/21/anni-albers-picking-up-the-thread

Glover, Christina. “Anni Albers’s Modernist Philosophy in Thread and Text”. Florida State University Libraries, 22 Mar. 2012. https://fsu.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fsu:185061/datastream/PDF/view

Hinkson, Lauren & Joaquin Barríendos. Josef Albers in Mexico. Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2017.

Logan, Liz. “Unraveling the Abstract Weavings of Anni Albers”. Introspective Magazine, 30 Oct. 2017. https://www.1stdibs.com/introspective-magazine/anni-albers-touching-vision

Parsons, Elly. “All About Weave: A New Show Threads Together Anni Albers’ Artistic Ambidexterity”. Wallpaper, 20 Oct. 2017. https://www.wallpaper.com/art/anni-albers-touching-vision-retrospective-guggenheim-bilbao

Peterson, Becky. “Anni Albers’s Thoughts on Textiles Loom Large”. Hyperallergic, 21 Feb. 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/428089/anni-alberss-thoughts-on-textiles-loom-large

Simenc, Christian. “Anni Albers, the Thread of Life”. L’Oeil, 18 Jan. 2016, https://www.abeautifulconfluence.com/press/2016_01_00_l_oeil_magazine_eng.pdf

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