#108. Robin Greenwood writes on Anni Albers at Tate Modern: A Short Speculation on Greatness in Perspective

Anni Albers, untitled, 1941, rayon, cotton, linen, wood and jute, 56 x 116 cm

Anni Albers at Tate Modern until 27 January 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/anni-albers?gclid=Cj0KCQjwr4beBRDNARIsAGZaZ5eeerCTKiGTovocSOD-R_VC7YPB3oqrIYNmYEhM0vdBaykfFHx9AKwaAl3aEALw_wcB 

The story of Anni Albers’ career is now well told and there are currently plenty of opportunities to read about her development at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and beyond. She is now receiving the plaudits that are appropriate for the decades of innovative work that is displayed at Tate Modern, and so I see no point in repeating the broader story on Abcrit. In fact, I find some of the back-story tedious. What I want to try and do here is make an attempt at the value of her work as an abstract artist, and how it corresponds to or differs from more general discussions about abstract painting; And beyond that, how we might attempt to consider her oeuvre in the light of the long history of weaving and textile art generally. These issues are not easily unpicked due to ignorance and prejudice, not least my own, and I’m by no means an expert. However, having read a few reviews and texts after the show, mostly based on the rather prosaic standpoint of her life and career, what I miss, including from the writers of the Tate’s own catalogue, is not so much the issues related to art made by women and its devaluation, which is now being correctly and collectively re-evaluated; Nor do I miss Albers’ own significant labours to change the preconceptions of the so-called “decorative and applied arts” and the insensitivities of seeing these efforts as the poor relation to fine art; But no, what I find more annoyingly absent is a closer reading of the best of her individual works as abstract art in its own right. And let’s state the case early – weaving has a very long history of very great art, both abstract and figurative, and Albers joins with, and adds to, that history. As the catalogue rightly says, “Weaving is not painting. A wall-hanging is not a picture.” No, it is not, but it can be seen to be, on occasion, at least as meaningful and magnificent as painting, and sometimes more so. What is important is to recognise the differences and the values that dissimilar art offers, and in the case of weaving, not much has been said in acknowledgement of its very special case. There is a complex materiality to weaving which has its own particular interactions of space and depth, and with that comes a degree of partial three-dimensionality, to be experienced in-the-full, and not pictorially. This needs to be witnessed in front of the work itself, and explained, and felt in its special kind of wholeness and its own particular reality. This is true even when one cannot directly access the inverse side of the work, something Albers herself often prohibited. No matter, because you still get the feel of the bigger achievement. The physical encounter-in-depth with good weaving is rarely if ever to be experienced in the same way as painting, and a number of the works in this show would be greatly undervalued by being interpreted or appraised as “pictures”. I love painting, I love sculpture, and I love weaving and textiles too; they are all different.

Anni Albers, “Ancient Writing”, 1936, cotton and rayon, 150 x 116 cm

“Ancient Writing”, 1936, is for reasons of conservation shown horizontally at Tate. I enjoyed the experience of this way of presentation all the better because it partially removes the reading of a dominant design or image – the problem that troubles much of this work when it is reproduced in books or online (like here! And this is a very poor image). In some of Albers’ early works they appear to take on board a connection to the anecdotal subject-matter and/or pictorial compositions of Paul Klee and Josef Albers. “Ancient Writing” transcends those problems when viewed on the flat. Physicality in the interaction of the different sizes, colours, shades, textures and patterns of the threads, and how they build together into an intricate whole, is brought to bear explicitly on our view of the object. For example, the borders of this work (to say nothing of the rest of it) demonstrate eight or ten (I lost count) extraordinarily beautiful and captivating expressions of how with very few and hushed colours the warp and weft of the fabric can be mutated into entirely diverse adjacent elements, one to another in differently-sized bands. This is by no means the end of it, because the fabrics are confounded by silvery changes of pattern-in-depth on a microscopic scale. Its compellingly clever, this difficultly-conceived individual magic. (One should make a simple disclaimer, though – that such brilliant complexity in weaving has a long history. See later examples!)

Anni Albers, “Open Letter”, 1958, cotton, 57 x 60 cm

We should now look at a succession of minor masterpieces of small-scale weaving, perhaps a couple of feet or so in both dimensions (as per the above example), made in the 1950s in Albers’ own home, on a small-scale loom, entirely for her own interest, and separate from the various other commercial enterprises of design with which she was otherwise involved. There are twenty or so, all told, currently in Tate, that form the body of work that interests me the most in this show. True, there are lots of other thought-provoking things in the Tate, from textile examples and fabric samples by both her, her students, and parts of the collection of historic South American works that she and Joseph Albers collected together. I’m compelled nevertheless to stick with the works that Albers herself termed “pictorial weaving”. Whilst I was looking at this broad set of work, I was thinking of this designation, and on the whole I found it unpersuasive. Take a look at this:

Anni Albers, “Development in Rose 1”, 1952, Linen, 57 x 43 cm

 

Some generic examples of weaving such as Albers might have used.

This work (above) entitled “Development in Rose 1” is from 1952, made of linen, and measures 57 x 43 cm. It undoubtedly utilises many traditional and long-established techniques of weaving that go back in some cases hundreds of years, whilst others are perhaps more recently developed uses of newer loom technologies. How these skills are utilised are simultaneously both fascinatingly simple and mind-blowingly complex – and slow and time-consuming too. There are in these procedures numerous ways and means of adjusting at the outset – and during the later stages – the relationship between the arrangement of warp and weft, and one or more of these methods Albers employed in a number of variations in these works, namely, that of the cross-warp or hand-crossed “gauze” technique, as seen in the examples above. In this process the fabric is opened out and articulated spatially in different ways and at untold different places, by different degrees, to bring about active and dynamic relationships of space and depth that are anything but flush to or adjacent with surface. The warp and weft are turning in and out and back and forth upon themselves. We see Albers teasing out the numerous changes to each and every variation of the fastening and unfastening of the fabric, combined with all the variations possible within each established organisation, as the work is built up. All of this is achieved with satisfying combinations of extemporisation and pre-determination.

Anni Albers, “Dotted”, 1959, 60 x 27 cm

There are in this and other works from this category no subject-matter involved, no back-story dialogues invoked, and, although it obviously played upon Albers’ mind sufficiently to prompt her analogy with the “pictorialism” of abstract painting, there are no real connections with picture-making of any value. Occasionally these works are given cursory titles that are vaguely reminiscent of landscape, but they don’t mean too much.

Here is some more; I’m showing the work that I think will suffer least from reproduction, though they will all be undermined to some extent from the flattening-out of the screen:

Anni Albers, “Pasture”, 1958, 35 x 39 cm

 

Anni Albers, “Thickly Settled”, 1959, cotton and jute, 78 x 61 cm

 

Anni Albers, “Variations on a Theme”, 1958, cotton, linen, plastic, 87 x 77 cm

I hope the variety of thought and action in Albers’ work comes across. Very little in each piece is repetitive; and so too, very little in the whole series of these works ever suffers from duplication. The level of invention is unrelenting. Works such as “Pasture”, “Thickly Settled”, and “Variations on a Theme” are endlessly enjoyable to look at and consider entirely in their own right as abstract art. I urge you to see the show.

 

Anni Albers, “City”, 1949, linen and cotton, 44 x 67 cm

How good, then, is Albers? I think, as a modern abstract artist, very good. And the value of her work for me is greater than that of many abstract paintings, including that of Joseph Albers and Paul Klee. However, a direct comparison with abstract painting, even if one wanted such a thing, is mostly superfluous because it is impossible. Paintings that seek to reproduce the look of these weavings will fall short at the first hurdle for lack of an inbuilt feeling for real materiality. By the same token, weaving which seeks to appropriate the artistic stylisations of painting will fail too, by losing the truth of its own distinct presence.

Is Albers amongst the best of modern weavers? I don’t know, because I have not seen enough. There are probably a lot of undervalued and anonymous weavers who make excellent work, about whom most people, myself included, know nothing. I would like to see more of it shown and valued as art, certainly in preference to the numerous so-called fine art rip-offs that get a big profile in the galleries for no apparent reason other than the personality cults of overvalued artists. Take a look, for example, at the recent work of Sean Scully now on show, which takes a large degree of influence out of some of Anni Albers early ideas and turns them into dross. I don’t want to say any more about that.

How does Albers compare with works from some of the many centuries-old disciplines of wonderful weaving from around the world? That also is very hard to say, for different reasons, because although I think it is interesting to speculate, it’s also very tough to consider work such as those made by anonymous Aztec or African weavers who had their unknown reasons and motivations for doing what they did in the way that they did it. I think some of these, such as the illustrations below, are truly great art, but it is presumptuous to guess too much on their motives, and even the best books on the subject are speculative on the development and thought behind their art. Let’s leave it at that; but it does not stop us enjoying weaving that is as astoundingly brilliant as these examples:

 

Inca weaving from c. 1550, 119 x 171 cm

This early colonial shroud of Neo-Inca culture is an outstanding example of complex interlocking warp and weft, of over 78 wefts per centimetre and 1,824 separate geometric motifs. Amazing.

 

Huari, c. 700-1000 A.D., 124 x 76 inches

An example of the so-called “abstract art in motion” from the Huari highland technique of ancient Peru. There was a very similar textile on show at Frieze Masters this year. Wow!

 

Berber woollen textile, Algeria, undated.

This Algerian weaving has close correspondences to Albers work. It’s from the British Museum.

 

A “Kente” cloth from Ghana, woven in rayon.

The date is not known, but this example is likely to be even more recent than the Albers works!

One comment

  1. Another significant difference to painting (at least for the artist) would seem to be the directionality of weaving.

    The “warp” dimension has temporal quality. The work can only progress from the bottom to the top. What is done cannot be changed. For the weaver, the work has an “arrow” like time´s arrow.
    For the viewer, however, this temporal dimension reverts to a non-directional spatial dimension. We don´t read these works as a kind of narrative along the warp.

    I think this might be relevant to the degree of spontaneity and the kind of image (for want of a better word) that weaving allows.

    The “viewer´s aspect” demands premeditation from the artist, for at the moment of weaving it involves parts that belong to the past, present and future along the temporal (warp) dimension of the work.
    Spontaneity has to find a place alongside this premeditation, without destroying it.
    Most of the works illustrated here achieve this with robust, rhythmic patterns that can then incorporate what are possibly spontaneous irregularities on a smaller scale.

    Liked by 1 person

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