FEBRUARY 21 Anni Albers's Thoughts on Textiles Loom Large Becky Peterson, Hyperallergic

FEBRUARY 7 Josef Albers in Mexico Benjamin Clifford, Brooklyn Rail

Cover of the new, expanded edition of Anni Albers's On Weaving (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Anni Albers's Thoughts on Textiles Loom Large

On Weaving offers a model for how to write in a way that incorporates theoretical examination alongside practical content; in it Anni Albers provides valuable—and often overlooked—thoughts on art and creative work.

In her 1965 introductory note to On Weaving, Anni Albers explains that the book is "not a guide for weavers or would-be weavers," and that she hopes to "include in my audience not only weavers but also those whose work in other fields encompasses textile problems." What is a "textile problem"? The questions encountered in the study and Albers's manipulation of textiles can inspire those working outside the medium—you do not need to work with the fiber arts in order to learn from them. Since its initial publication in 1965, Albers's On Weaving has proved an important text for artists and scholars in architecture and design fields, as well as in arts education, but the book has yet to reach others who will find her textile-based investigations eloquent and challenging.

It is only relatively recently (in European and North American art institutions) that textiles have been considered an art form. This revised view of weaving and the fiber arts is due in large part to the efforts of Anni Albers. Albers, who attended the Bauhaus and later taught at Black Mountain College, is often cited as the foremost textile artist of the twentieth century. She was a crucial figure in introducing textiles to the art world. In fact, the 1949 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of her work was the first dedicated to a fiber artist.

Albers published two collections of her essays, On Designing, in 1959, and later, On Weaving. Many of these essays were first published in magazines and other venues in the 1940s and 1950s. Princeton University Press has released an expanded edition of On Weaving around two major exhibitions of Albers's work: the recently closed Anni Albers: Touching Vision at the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the upcoming Anni Albers at the Tate Modern.

I have consistently found Albers's writings, in both On Weaving and the already re-released Selected Writings on Design (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), to be eye-opening on a range of topics. Materiality, tactility, nonverbal language, the histories of both handcraft and factory production—Albers provides clear and rigorous analysis of these and other issues throughout her books. Readers concerned with digital communication and design will appreciate Albers's close attention to technology and style. Albers, in her writings and art, as well as in her life story, has helped me think about the labor of domestic and industrial textile workers, the politics of romantic involvement with an established artist, and the complexities of being a Jewish refugee living in mid-century America. And so, I am grateful for this re-issue of On Weaving, a book which has been increasingly difficult to locate since its initial publication.

Non-weavers may balk at On Weaving's intricate descriptions of weaving technique. But even in the more technical sections of the text, Albers imbues her descriptions of practice with illuminating philosophical statements about creativity, art, and functionality. For example, in "The Loom," she writes, in reference to the historical development of weaving technologies:

As need presses toward fulfillment, so does obtainable fulfillment excite need—a generative cycle, spiraling to dimensions of both need and productivity that must seem excessive to any generation earlier than the one participating in it.

Later, in "Modified and Composite Weaves," she notes: "where the functional aspect of the basic structure is moderated, aesthetic qualities frequently move to the foreground—in fact, they often are the very reason for the structural change."

On Weaving offers a model for how to write in a way that incorporates theoretical examination alongside practical content. Craft practitioners do not always record and publish their ideas; those who do write about craft, such as Albers, provide valuable—and often overlooked—thoughts on art and creative work.

The new edition of On Weaving features full-color plates. (Albers's tapestries and wall hangings are particularly stunning.) Supplementary essays at the end of the text give helpful biographical and historical contexts and contribute to a much-needed body of scholarship that examines Albers as a writer and theorist. This book as well as another new publication, Anni Albers: Notebook 1970-1980, showcase Albers's artistic process and offer readers an intimate, immediate experience of her work. Anni Albers: Notebook reproduces a notebook containing rough "studies" discovered after Albers's death, illustrating the draft notation technique Albers explains in On Weaving.

Though often undervalued and under-examined, textiles are central in art making and in everyday life. These new publications of Albers's work offer insights usually left out of discussions of mid-century modernism—insights that now can and should be included.


Josef Albers
To Mitla, 1940
oil on masonite
21 × 28 in. (53.3 × 71.1 cm)

Josef Albers in Mexico

The Guggenheim's concisely titled Josef Albers in Mexico explores Albers's experience of the eponymous Latin American nation, focusing on his frequent visits to pre-Columbian monuments and archeological sites. Between 1935 and his death in 1976, Josef Albers and his wife Anni, like her husband a veteran of both the Bauhaus and North Carolina's experimental Black Mountain College, traveled to Mexico many times. The pair returned again and again to six key locations: Teotihuacán and Tenayuca near Mexico City, Monte Albán and Mitla in Oaxaca, and Uxmal and Chichén Itzá at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the Guggenheim's exhibition is divided into sections that showcase each location through Albers's photographs of the sites and various related paintings and prints.

The exhibition argues that Albers's geometric abstractions reproduce motifs and formal structures originating in indigenous Mexican art and architecture, and it finds its most explicit evidence in several works whose titles refer directly to one or another site. For example, the interlocking rectangular forms of To Mitla (1940) are described as adapting a repetitious stepped motif known as "xicalcoliuhqui" that Albers highlights in his photographs of the Mitla site. Tenayuca I (1943) and three related studies from the late 1930s are likewise characterized as schematic representations of both Tenayuca's two-tiered pyramid complex and the many serpent sculptures for which the site is known.

However, most of the paintings and prints on display here do not make such clear reference to pre-Columbian art and architecture. This includes several works drawn from Albers's signature Homage to the Square series (1950–76). These austere geometric abstractions pare painting down to a simple formal structure—three or four squares, one inside the next—that allows Albers to freely explore relationships of color. Despite their iconic status, here the Homages are largely kept on the sidelines: all but one are sequestered in a corner of the exhibition space, displayed along a semicircular balcony that doesn't communicate well with the rest of the gallery.

The likely rationale for this decision is clear. Although texts provided by the Guggenheim connect the palette of the Homages to the Mexican landscape, paintings so formally reductive ultimately contribute little to the exhibition's emphasis on pre-Columbian aesthetic sensibility. This is especially obvious when the Homages are compared with works that make direct appeal to their sources or otherwise invite architectural associations. Take, for example, Albers's Variant/Adobe series (1946–66), which also makes exclusive use of simple quadrilateral forms. The compositions, however, are more elaborate, allowing a greater generosity of reference and analogy. Albers has referred to these works as "walls" or "windows," while the name of the series invokes the vernacular architecture of Mexico and the American Southwest. And, in further contrast to the Homages, the section of the gallery reserved for this series is integrated with the rest of the exhibition space.

Other works throughout the exhibition use layered forms and oblique linear projections to suggest spaces governed by an architectural logic of construction as much as by abstract formal principles. The composition of Biconjugate (1943), for example, suggests the superimposed transparent planes typical of buildings in the International Style. Although obviously distant from an indigenous Mesoamerican context, Biconjugate and similar works nonetheless highlight Albers's sustained attention to the built environment, an inheritance of Bauhaus ideology. They also help clarify the importance of his photographs of pre-Columbian monuments, many of which are composed according to the same refined, geometric principles as his paintings. When these bodies of work are displayed side by side, it's easy to imagine Albers processing his experience of architectural space through photography before translating the resulting formal solutions onto canvas.

Albers's interest in pre-Columbian art and architecture is, of course, a single episode in the long story of modernist fascination with non-European cultures. Albers, like "primitivists" such as Pablo Picasso or the artists of Die Brücke, had little knowledge of the conditions and intentions that shaped what he treated as decontextualized formal resources. What distinguishes Albers from earlier European enthusiasts for the indigenous is a bit of synchronicity that, although it falls beyond the purview of the Guggenheim's exhibition, should nonetheless be noted. While Albers was travelling in Mexico, an emerging generation of Latin American artists—including figures as diverse as Tomás Maldonado, Lygia Clark, and Carlos Cruz-Diez—used his work as a prototype for languages of abstraction that to them represented the promise of modernity. These artists, often working from reproductions and without reference to the stated intentions of their European forebears, were thus equally able to project their own aesthetic desires and political aspirations onto relics of an older world.