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Anni Albers in the US
From Weimar to Black Mountain – the Afterlife of the Bauhaus Textile

Anni Albers winding a bobbin at Black Mountain College, 1941
Photo courtesy of Claude Stoller

In 1933, the weaver Anni Albers left Germany for the US, where she was invited to teach at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Accompanied by her husband, the artist Josef Albers, whom she had met at the Bauhaus in 1922, they belonged to a group of European émigrés who had been associated with the German school of art and design that had been disbanded by the Nazis.

By Jordan Troeller

At the small, liberal arts school in rural North Carolina they were joined by former Bauhaus members Xanti Schawinsky, Howard Dearstyne, Marli Ehrman, Lyonel Feininger, Walter Gropius and Margarite Wildenhain. These artists were but a handful of former Bauhäuslers who found teaching positions across the country – including at Harvard University, The New Bauhaus in Chicago, and Pond Farm in Northern California, where the pioneering ceramicist Wildenhain lead an intentional community of craftsmen that was “not a school” so much as “a way of life.” Despite differences in reputation and stature, these émigré artists all shared the same challenge: how to integrate a crafts-based education into the emerging mass-media and consumerist culture of their adopted country. 

Crafts-Based Education in the Modern World

This challenge was particularly acute for Anni Albers, who recognized that the medium of weaving, a centuries-old craft that had become a somnolent art in its industrial form, sorely needed updating. A central figure in the Bauhaus’s weaving workshop, Albers had pioneered the use of textiles for functional objects, including furniture, wall coverings, curtains, and room dividers.
 
Rejecting the then prominent idea that textiles were, as her colleague and head of the workshop Gunta Stölzl put it, “pictures made of wool,” weavers at the Bauhaus embraced the dynamic language of abstraction combined with a renewed sensitivity to fibers and technique. To do this, they systematically investigated the possibilities of new kinds of threads, natural and synthetic pigments, dying methods, as well as binding techniques. They sought to take rather simple means and materials and make something entirely new from them – for instance by exploring the surprising effects of reversal, repetition, and mirroring. To make a good fabric, they argued, one had to think less about creating a picture than “listening to the materials,” as Albers later wrote. 

Recognition for a Woman Artist

Unlike other women artists trained at the Bauhaus who emigrated to the U.S., Albers achieved a remarkable degree of recognition. Although in Germany she had had a prominent position in the weaving workshop, even substituting for Stölzl during a leave of absence in 1929, at the Bauhaus Albers was never given a position on the male-dominated faculty. Black Mountain College, however, hired her as Assistant Professor of weaving, and Albers single-handedly ran the weaving workshop, which was very popular among the students.
 
In this position, Albers imaginatively negotiated the lack of resources following the Depression and the outbreak of World War II: She devised exercises that required simple and ready-at-hand materials, including the portable back-strap loom, which Albers had bought and learned to use during a trip to Mexico in 1939. She gradually built up interest in her work through essays that she published in the contemporary design and architecture press, as well as small exhibitions of her weavings, which were becoming increasingly sophisticated. Her final year at Black Mountain College was spent preparing for a large retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first ever in the museum’s history devoted to a contemporary textile artist. 

The Lure of Latin America

What distinguished Anni Albers from fellow Bauhaus émigrés who traveled to Latin America – including former Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, who joined Mexico’s revolutionary El Taller de Gráfica Popular in 1942 – was that she went the furthest in allowing her work to be shaped by its ancient cultures and civilizations. With her husband, Albers made regular trips south of border, first to Cuba in 1934 and then to Mexico, Peru, and Chile in the two decades following, often traveling by car since Josef Albers was reluctant to fly.
 
Although Anni Albers already was familiar with ancient American textiles from visits to ethnographic collections in Berlin, where she had grown up, it was through this first-hand encounter with Latin America that she deepened her knowledge of pre-Columbian weaving. She was fascinated by this ancient culture’s sophisticated approach to textile-making; how it regarded materials as a means of communication and mastered techniques that were still, during Albers’s own time, considered extremely difficult.

An Integration of Art into Everyday Life

Describing the ancient weavers of Peru as “her great teachers” in her book On Weaving Anni Albers’s encounter led her to an unusually expanded definition of modernism for mid-century America. In Peruvian textiles, as well as in the Zapotec architecture that she visited – often just as these archeological sites were being discovered and inventoried – she saw modern weaving’s ancient origins. What impressed her most was how these civilizations had integrated art into everyday life in ways that reinforced collectivity and community. In doing so, these cultures were able to accomplish monumental feats of construction, imagine non-figurative designs, and forge complex languages of communication through fiber and thread.
 
In turn, Albers incorporated these lessons into her own weaving and teaching large scale textiles – sometimes even citing her debt to these experiences, such as Monte Albán, whose title references the archaeological site in Oaxaca, Mexico. Producing remarkable abstract tapestries that employed simple, but visually stunning techniques, such as twisting small bunches of thread at regular intervals and incorporating a floating weft into an overall geometric design, Albers simultaneously reinvented textiles as an integral element of architectural space, rather than as a decorative addition. Although this was a core principle at the Bauhaus, along with the sensitivity to materials that is everywhere evident in her weaving, in America – and particularly in Latin America, where she was impressed by how the modern could be revealed by the most ancient of cultures – Anni Albers made it her own. 
 

Sources / Further Reading

Jeffrey Saletnik, “Bauhaus in America,” in Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, ed. Helen Molesworth with Ruth Erickson, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

Marguerite Wildenhain, The Invisible Core: A Potter’s Life and Thoughts (Tokyo: Kondansha International, 1973), 145; cited in Jenni Sorkin, “Pond Farm and the Summer Craft Experience,” in West of Center Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977, ed. Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 129.

For more on the Bauhaus textile workshop, see T’ai Smith, Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2014).

In addition to numerous articles, Anni Albers wrote two books on textiles and design. These were On Designing (1959) and On Weaving (1965) and both volumes enjoyed multiple reprints.

Karoline Noack, “The ‘Workshop for Popular Graphic Art’ in Mexico: Bauhaus Travels to America,” Journal of bauhaus imaginista, Edition 1: Leading From, http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/2444/the-workshop-for-popular-graphic-art-in-mexico-bauhaus-travels-to-america?0bbf55ceffc3073699d40c945ada9faf=48ullugb8s44dmh8cniakip0g0 (accessed February 10, 2019).

Brenda Danilowitz, “‘We Are Not Alone’: Anni and Josef Albers in Latin America,” in Anni and Josef Albers: Latin American Journeys, ed. Brenda Danilowitz and Heinz Liesbrock (Hatje Cantz, 2007).

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