Bauhaus’ Brave Albers Was a Tedious Weaver

Anni Albers (1899-1994), whose work is currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Jewish Museum-and is also represented on a smaller scale in the Making Choices exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art-is, so to speak, the other Albers. She was 11 years younger than Josef Albers when they were married in 1925. He was already established at the Bauhaus in Weimar as a junior master. She had been enrolled as a Bauhaus student since 1922, mainly in the school’s weaving workshop-one of the courses reserved for women.

Under the directorship of its founder, Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus did not offer training in architecture to female students, who were relegated to the sphere of household crafts. Painting was not then part of the official program of instruction, which gave priority to architecture, crafts and industrial design. Paul Klee, for example, taught design in the weaving workshop. Which is how Albers came to embrace weaving as her principal artistic medium and Bauhaus notions of form and function as her aesthetic philosophy.

It was an odd vocation for a gifted young woman of her social class. She was born Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann in Berlin, the daughter of a prosperous Jewish businessman, Siegfried Fleischmann, who manufactured furniture, collected antiques and frequented the art museums. Albers’ mother, whom she is said to have disliked, was an Ullstein, a family that presided over what would now be called a media empire. It was mostly devoted to book publishing and commercial magazines-the Condé Nast of Weimar Germany.

Albers had started painting at an early age. As an adolescent she was provided with a private art tutor, and in the family’s spacious Berlin apartment there was a room devoted to her paintings. An early attempt to study with Oskar Kokoschka in Dresden was rebuffed, however, and her enrollment at the Bauhaus at the age of 23 seems to have marked the end of her ambitions in that direction.

Whether this was a loss for painting must remain a matter of speculation, of course. Based on the watercolors and other works on paper in the current shows, my guess is that it probably was a loss for painting. Of the 17 items in the section of Making Choices devoted to Albers, 15 are works on paper-watercolor, gouache, pencil and India ink-and all, in my view, are more compelling as examples of abstract art than many of her textile compositions. So, too, are the design studies on paper and the later prints in the Jewish Museum retrospective.

This is only partly owing to the severe restrictions which the Bauhaus conception of “functional form” imposed on the imaginative element in textile art. As a material means of creating abstract art, there is something inherently monotonous- visually and expressively monotonous-about the weaving medium itself when it is separated from its decorative function, as it is in this retrospective, and made to serve as an autonomous museum art. It is then that we are inevitably reminded that the traditional distinction that is made between the crafts, on the one hand, and fine art, on the other, is based on something more than intellectual snobbery. It is based on the nature of aesthetic experience, which accords to some media a higher artistic status over others precisely because of their capacity to encompass a greater range of emotions and ideas. In other words, a greater range of vision.

I must therefore respectfully disagree with the claim advanced in the catalogue of the current Albers retrospective by Nicholas Fox Weber that “Anni elevated the status of woven threads and put the medium on equal footing with oil on canvas and watercolor on paper.” Neither am I persuaded by Mr. Weber’s further claim that “Anni [created] individual objects that hold up against some of the finest abstract paintings of the [20th] century.” This is not an assessment that can be seriously entertained, for there is nothing in the current retrospective to support it. Mr. Weber is no doubt correct in observing that Albers “did her utmost to achieve with the [weaving] medium what her heroes like Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky had accomplished in paint,” but this proved to be an ambition that was unachievable.

Let’s face it: In the history of abstract art on both sides of the Atlantic, the work of Anni Albers is scarcely more than a footnote. That it is a very interesting footnote, as footnotes sometimes are, is largely due to the personal and historical circumstances in which Albers and her husband Josef pursued their respective artistic vocations. In this respect, Mr. Weber is right to describe her as “a brave woman.”

“She left the comforts of her luxurious bourgeois upbringing to join those daring souls who wanted to do the unprecedented at the Bauhaus,” he writes. “She married a man from the other side of the tracks-in part because they shared a consuming faith in art,” and they persevered “in spite of the sometimes desperate vicissitudes of their existence, in which Nazism, illness, and financial duress were a reality.”

Theirs was indeed the fate shared by many gifted members of their intellectual generation in Weimar Germany. While others repudiated their bourgeois origins in favor of communism or Zionism or, among those who were not Jewish, even Nazism, the Albers’ radical commitment was to modernist art, and they were among the fortunate who were able to secure safe passage to America when Hitler closed the Bauhaus in 1933 and stigmatized modernist art as “degenerate,” and hence forbidden.

Theirs is certainly a dramatic story, and Anni’s role in that story is beautifully documented in the final room of the current retrospective-the only room, alas, in which visitors to this exhibition tend to congregate in order to study the details of her life and that of her more famous husband. In the rooms devoted to her work, however, this intensity of interest is much diminished. To relieve the visual monotony of these woven abstractions, the organizers of the exhibition have engaged the services of Gae Aulenti, the Italian architect responsible for the horrors of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, to provide the work with an installation that at times simply overwhelms the work itself.

As you might expect, Albers’ wall hangings from the Bauhaus period are closer in spirit to the kind of geometrical design that was taught in the school’s introductory Vorkurs . In the later work, an attempt is made to provide the woven abstractions with somewhat more dramatic textures and sculptural effects. The latter reflect the influence of Peruvian textiles, in which Albers developed a keen interest. Yet there is no escaping the tedium inherent in the visual and material monotony of the medium itself. If not for Ms. Aulenti’s installation design in the first room of the exhibition and the absorbing documentary material in the final room, there would not be much to sustain one’s attention. Neither the woven versions of Paul Klee and De Stijl abstraction nor the neo-primitive adaptations of Peruvian folk art add much to our aesthetic experience, and about the most ambitious single work in the show- Six Prayers (1965-1966), created as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust-one can only say that it is scarcely sufficient for its subject.

Anni Albers remains on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through Aug. 20.