Tate Modern, London
11 October, 2018 – 27 January, 2019
Review by Selina Oakes
“Like any craft it may end in producing useful objects, or it may rise to the level of art,” Anni Albers said of weaving. A designer, weaver, printmaker and craftswoman – Albers is often described by these labels; rarely does she receive full recognition as ‘an artist’ in the fine-art sense. The delivery of Albers’ retrospective at Tate Modern not only identifies her as a pioneering influence on 20th century design but it also reflects the gallery’s move to increase its representation of women artists. Though resolute in its in-house etiquette – the show differs to its first iteration in Dusseldorf – Tate disrupts its pool of painters, sculptors and conceptual practitioners by also embracing a medium that is historically associated with design, industry, craft and production – not art.
Chronologically arranged, the retrospective eases the audience into Albers’ practice by beginning with her education at the Bauhaus – an art school which sought to breach the divide between sculpture, painting, design and craft. Albers, who first attended in 1922, reluctantly entered the weaving workshop – which, at the time, was also nicknamed the Women’s Workshop. At the entrance, we’re met by a wooden hand-loom: it’s an intricate mechanism with multiple beams and shafts. Behind, a translucent screen affords a glimpse of a wall hanging (rewoven by Gunta Stolzl) introducing us, softly, to the narrative that connects process to object.
As though to represent pockets in Albers’ career, each room is dedicated to phases in her life: in room two, grid-like drawings from the 1920s illustrate the visual language that emerged from the weaving workshop – references to Paul Klee’s colour theory class and notes from this period build a foundation for the ensuing show. Our understanding expands further through her work with the Black Mountain College students: here, she experimented with found materials to produce pieces which weren’t necessarily functional. Gradually, text and textiles influences from her trips to South America – Peru, Cuba and Chile – begin to filter through.
A black and gold weaving, ‘Ancient Writing’ (1935), first introduces elements of text and cyphers; thereafter, she starts distinguishing specific pieces as “pictorial weavings.” Albers is quoted; “To let threads be articulate again and find a form for themselves to no other end than their own orchestration, not to be sat on, walked on, only to be looked at, is the reason d’être of my pictorial weavings.” We’re given the opportunity to experience weaving as more than an ‘add-on’: in ‘Pasture’ (1958), the lines of leno weaving, a process where thread is pinched and pulled across opposing axis, are as valuable, if not more so, as brushstrokes. But, does the elevation of these “pictorial” works shunt value away from her interior-designs?
In room six, ‘The Pliable Plane’, a title taken from Albers’ essay which explores the rapport between textiles and architecture, makes a case for weaving as sculptural, functioning objects. Examples of her textile divides for museums and images of her light-reflecting drapery at the Rockefeller Guest House (1944) illustrate its innate aesthetic and serviceable qualities. We return, with Albers, to her pictorial style in ‘Six Prayers’ (1966-7) – a commission for the Jewish Museum, New York – which provides a much-needed pause in the exhibition. Mounted on a navy-blue wall, six panels demonstrate her scriptural technique as she reimagines the Jewish Torah scrolls in memory of those killed in the Holocaust.
Towards the end of the show, a resource hub inspired by Albers’ seminal book, ‘On Weaving’ (1965), educates us on the wider culture of weaving. Stocked with artefacts from the last 4,000 years – some of which is source material gathered by Albers – this section illustrates her deep belief that ancient techniques could revitalise contemporary practices. In observing collections from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, we’re able to place Albers within an ever-expanding narrative – and Tate’s mini-survey of her textile samples stresses her impact on future generations of artists, particularly the Fiber movement.
Tate’s Anni Albers is a comprehensive retrospective that gently unwraps the stages of her process: from her Bauhaus to her printmaking days, we learn of her admiration for colour theory; her dedication to ancient techniques; and her determination to shape new avenues for weaving and textiles. But, it isn’t until we read about her switch to printmaking in later life, that we truly realise the physical demands of weaving. The show also lacks some tactility: we can observe textures, but we cannot touch – a factor which is somewhat redeemed by artist Louise Anderson’s yarn and weave samples in a designated ‘tactile’ room.
Albers didn’t settle, she was intellectually and physically restless in her bid to elevate her discipline in the world of art and architecture. As a viewer, we glimpse at Albers’ personal life through references to collaborators such as Walter Gropius, her husband Josef Albers and her weaving peers, but, happily the show does not seek to make an icon of her; instead, it broadens our awareness of her necessity in modern art and design narratives.