Life and Work of Anni Albers, Master of Modernist Weaving

Photograph of Anni Albers card weaving at Black Mountain College.
Photograph of Anni Albers card weaving at Black Mountain College.

Courtesy of Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

Born Anneliese Fleischmann in 1899 to an affluent German family, Anni Albers was expected to live the tranquil life of a housewife. Yet Anni was determined to become an artist. Known for her masterful textile work and influential ideas about design, Albers went on to establish weaving as a new medium for modern art.

Fast Facts: Anni Albers

  • Full Name: Anneliese Fleischmann Albers
  • Known As: Anni Albers
  • Born: June 12, 1899 in Berlin, German Empire
  • Education: Bauhaus
  • Died: May 9, 1994 in Orange, Connecticut, U.S.
  • Spouse's Name: Josef Albers (m. 1925)
  • Key Accomplishments: First textile designer to receive a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art.

Early Life

As a teenager, Anni knocked on famed Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka’s door and asked him if she could apprentice under him. In response to the young woman and the paintings she had brought with her, Kokoschka scoffed, barely giving her the time of day. Undiscouraged, Anni turned to the newly founded Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany where, under the guidance of architect Walter Gropius, a new philosophy of design was being developed.

Bauhaus Years

Anni met her future husband Josef Albers, eleven years her senior, in 1922. According to Anni, she asked to be placed as a student in the Bauhaus glassmaking studio because she had seen a handsome-looking man at work there, and she hoped he could be her teacher. Though she was denied placement in the glass workshop, she nevertheless found a lifelong partner in the man: Josef Albers. They married in 1925 and would remain married for more than 50 years, until Josef’s death in 1976.

Though the Bauhaus preached inclusivity, women were allowed entrance only into the bookmaking studio and the weaving workshop. And as the bookmaking workshop shuttered soon after the Bauhaus’ founding, women found that their only option was to enter as weavers. (Ironically, it was the commercial sale of the fabrics they produced that kept the Bauhaus financially secure.) Albers excelled in the program and eventually became head of the workshop.  

At the Bauhaus, Albers exhibited a remarkable ability to innovate with a variety of materials. For her diploma project, she was charged with creating fabric to line the walls of an auditorium. Using cellophane and cotton, she made a material which could reflect light and absorb sound, and could not be stained.

Black Mountain College

In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. The Bauhaus project came to an end under pressure from the regime. As Anni had Jewish roots (though her family had converted to Christianity in her youth), she and Josef believed it best to flee Germany. Rather serendipitously, Josef was offered a job at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, by way of a recommendation of Philip Johnson, a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art.

Black Mountain College was an experiment in education, inspired by the writings and teachings of John Dewey. Dewey’s philosophy preached of an artistic education as the means to educating democratic citizens capable of exercising individual judgment. Josef’s pedagogical skill was soon an invaluable part of the curriculum of Black Mountain, where he taught the importance of understanding material, color, and line through the pure act of seeing.

Anni Albers was an assistant instructor at Black Mountain, where she taught students in the weaving studio. Her own philosophy was derived from the importance of understanding of material. We touch things to put ourselves in close contact with reality, to remind ourselves we are in the world, not above it, she wrote. 

Annie Albers,
Annie Albers, "Knot" (1947). Courtesy of David Zwirner

As her husband spoke little English upon arrival to the United States (and in fact would never speak it fluently despite forty years in America), Anni acted as his translator, having learned English from the Irish governess with whom she grew up in Berlin. Her command of the language was remarkable, as is apparent when reading any of her extensive writings, either in numerous publications, for the Black Mountain newsletter, or in her own published works.

Peru, Mexico, and Yale

From Black Mountain, Anni and Josef would drive to Mexico, sometimes with friends, where they would study the ancient culture through sculpture, architecture, and craft. Both had much to learn and began collecting figurines and examples of ancient cloths and ceramics. They would also bring home the memory of South America’s color and light, which both would incorporate into their practices. Josef would seek to capture the pure desert oranges and reds, while Anni would mimic the monolithic forms she discovered in the ruins of ancient civilizations, incorporating them into works like Ancient Writing (1936) and La Luz (1958).

In 1949, due to disagreements with the administration of Black Mountain, Josef and Anni Albers left Black Mountain College for New York City, and then went on to Connecticut, where Josef was offered a position at the Yale School of Art. In the same year, Albers was given the first solo show dedicated to a textile artist at the Museum of Modern Art. 

Writings

Anni Albers was a prolific writer, often publishing in crafts journals about weaving. She was also the author of the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s entry on hand weaving, with which she begins her seminal text, On Weaving, first published in 1965. (An updated, color version of this work was reissued by Princeton University Press in 2017.) On Weaving was only in part an instruction manual, but is more accurately described as an homage to a medium. In it, Albers extols the pleasures of the process of weaving, revels in the importance of its materiality, and explores its lengthy history. She dedicates the work to the ancient weavers of Peru, whom she calls her “teachers,” as she believed the medium reached its highest heights in that civilization.

Anni Albers, "Open Letter" (1958). Courtesy David Zwirner

Albers sold her loom by 1968 after producing her last weaving, appropriately titled Epitaph. When accompanying her husband to a residency at a college in California, she refused to be the wife who sat idly by, so she found a means to be productive. She used the school’s art studios to produce silkscreens, which would soon dominate her practice and often mimicked the geometries she developed in her woven works.

Death and Legacy

Before Anni Albers’ death May 9, 1994, the German government paid Mrs. Albers reparations for the confiscation of her parents’ successful furniture business in the 1930s, which was shut down due to the family’s Jewish roots. Albers put the resulting sum into a foundation, which manages the Albers estate today. It includes the couple’s archive, as well as the papers relating to a few of their students from Black Mountain, among them wire sculptor Ruth Asawa.

Sources

  • Albers, A. (1965). On Weaving. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Danilowitz, B. and Liesbrock, H. (eds.). (2007). Anni and Josef Albers: Latin American
  • Journeys. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.
  • Fox Weber, N. and  Tabatabai Asbaghi, P. (1999). Anni Albers. Venice: Guggenheim Museum.​
  • Smith, T. (21014). Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Craft to Mode of Design
  • Bauhaus. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.