Anni Albers (1899 – 1994) was a twentieth century modernist artist and designer who worked in the medium of textiles, and is particularly known for using the method of hand weaving. Throughout her career Albers produced many forms of textiles including functional and architectural works. Albers began her artistic training at the Bauhaus in 1922 and learned the processes of hand weaving. She remained as a student and later teacher until it was forced to close in 1933 by the National Socialists. Albers then moved to the USA and taught at Black Mountain College where she began to create works she called ‘pictorial weavings’.
These pictorial weavings made between the 1930s and 1960s contrasted to other textiles, wall hangings or even tapestries because they did not provide a functional purpose. Albers intended the pictorial weavings to be viewed in the same way a painting or sculpture would be, due to her frustrations with the hierarchy of arts that placed less value on textiles than other mediums. These pictorial weavings can be considered her most innovative works and the reason she is perceived as an important twentieth century modernist artist.
An example of Albers’s pictorial weavings is one of the first she produced, Monte Albán (1936). Along with Ancient Writing (1936) a work created in the same year that shares many similarities, Monte Albán was the first work to be given a title that refers to its subject matter. Monte Albán is also the first work in which Albers began using the supplementary-weft brocade technique, also known as a ‘floating weft’, which can be moved to create and almost ‘draw’ on the surface of the woven piece. In this work it produces representations of pyramids and geological shapes of Monte Albán the pre-Columbian archaeological site in Mexico.
When considering Albers’s pictorial weavings they appear to be closest to tapestries because they move away from pattern weaving and focus on pictorial subject matter. When discussing tapestries Albers states;
It is artwork, and as in other plastic arts, it demands the most direct – that is, the least impeded – response of material and technique to the hand of the maker, the one who here transforms matter into meaning.
This ‘meaning’ Albers mentions appears to be a fundamental characteristic of the pictorial weavings and distinguishes them from her other textile works.
Albers’s first large scale exhibition was the 1949 show at the MoMA, which was the first time a textile artist had been given a solo exhibition at the MoMa or any other major institution in the US. This exhibition shows that Albers and the pictorial weavings had an effect on the wider conversation surrounding textiles, fine art and Modernism.
The legacy of Albers and specifically the pictorial weavings have continued to inspire artists working in textiles. The pictorial weavings brought textiles into modern art spaces and to modern art audiences. They opened up the medium and began deconstructing hierarchical tensions surrounding textiles. This paved the way for later contemporary artists to have a more fluid approach to threads and textiles in their work. Contemporary artists such as Sarah Sze (1969 – ) and Leonor Antunes (1972 – ) have directly responded to Albers in their work. This demonstrates how significant Albers and her work, particularly the pictorial weavings, were for textiles as an art form.
Our thanks to the author of this weeks Volunteer Voices, Sarah McDermott Brown.
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