When Annelise Fleischmann (1899–1994) entered the Bauhaus in 1922, she was steered away from painting and encouraged to join the weavers’ workshop, which was known as the “women’s group” despite the proposed egalitarian principles of the school. Anni Albers, as she was called after marrying the artist Josef Albers in 1925, was initially reluctant, but she nevertheless found in weaving an art form in which she excelled. Working with textiles allowed her to pursue texture, color, functionality and architecture in ways that would not have been possible with paint. Albers was a highly innovative and creative weaver with a deep understanding of her materials, gained through tireless experimentation, physical engagement and close looking. From 1963 she took this same approach to printmaking after she was invited to try lithography by June Wayne, founder-director of Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. Enmeshed I and Enmeshed II, made at Tamarind in Albers’s 64th year, when she had all but given up weaving, are the first prints in a body of over 90 editioned works that she produced over the next two decades. Two-thirds of these works formed the excellent exhibition “Anni Albers, Connections: Prints 1963–1984” at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London, a retrospective across two floors celebrating this remarkable final act of Albers’s career.
The exhibition opened with three lithographs from Line Involvements, a suite of seven that Albers made during a fellowship at Tamarind in the summer of 1964. The imagery is closely related to Enmeshed I and II: interlaced and knotted thread-like lines that loop and snake across the sheet as if suddenly released from the rigid confines of a loom. One can sense the artist’s appetite to learn more about this process and the effects and textures that were possible with these new materials. Delineated by both negative white space and dark inked lines, the “threads” appear to stand proud on the brooding, earthy backgrounds, which have been streaked and smudged by etching with acid and smeared with lithographic tusche.
The opposite wall, in stark contrast, was hung with a row of jewel-colored screenprints made between 1967 and 1970. Printed with precision on pristine white paper at Sirocco Screenprints in North Haven, Connecticut, the geometric shapes and clean, straight lines reflect Bauhaus principles of economy of design, balance and the absence of personal gesture. The Bauhaus also sought to challenge traditional hierarchies that separated fine art from crafts and industrial design, and as both a weaver and printmaker, Albers put this into practice, embracing new technologies and processes associated with commercial art such as screenprinting in the 1960s and photo-offset in the 1970s.
A number of important motifs and ideas that would recur in Albers’s printmaking arise in these screenprints, most notably the triangle, which we see for the first time in Camino Real (1967–9). Albers had previously explored triangles in her textile work, but on paper she was able to achieve the perfect diagonal lines that are not possible on a loom. Although based on a tapestry commissioned by the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City, the Camino Real print is successful largely because of this precise delineation of the triangles, the sole component of the design. In 1970 Albers used screenprinting again to produce the clean lines required for the maze-like designs of her Meander prints, four of which were included at Cristea. Each is printed in two shades of a single color (red, orange, blue or yellow), and they demonstrate how Albers’s growing knowledge of all aspects of printmaking, from technical processes to the properties of certain inks, influenced her creative decisions and compositions. For these works Albers developed a four-step system that began with a solid background layer, then required a pattern screen to be repositioned and rotated for the next three layers. For the final layer the ink was diluted so that it was translucent. The resulting images are mesmerizing: the layers and repositioned patterns confuse the eye so it is difficult to separate ground from figure, and the meandering mazes appear almost three-dimensional. Viewing them as a group, as we are invited to in this exhibition, serves only to heighten the visual effect.
The three-dimensionality of the Meander prints is an illusion, but Albers also produced sculptural prints, most notably the inkless embossed series Mountainous I–VI (1978) named after the Andean landscapes she felt they evoked. Printed at Tyler Graphics in New York State on sheets of fibrous handmade paper, the Mountainous compositions, like many of her works, were inspired by architectural forms she had seen in Central and South America. All six from the series were included at Cristea, displayed in a row along a deep blue wall. Floated in white frames, they looked magnificent. The wall color (and clever lighting) provided a legibility that the colorless works do not have when displayed against white: every peak of the designs could be read as easily as if they were delineated in ink, while the thick, weighty paper gives them a monumentality that belies their relatively modest size.
The exhibition took its name from the Connections portfolio of nine screenprints that Albers produced in 1983. Published by Fausta Squatriti in Milan, the set is itself a retrospective. Each print pictures an earlier work, including a design for a Smyrna rug from 1925, a handwoven wall hanging from 1946 called With Verticals, and a hand-colored version of her photo-offset print Orchestra III from 1980. The imagery varies from grid-like textile designs, through variations on her knotted lines and triangle motifs, to the Keith Haring–esque squiggles of an untitled drawing from 1983. Displayed halfway through the exhibition, the portfolio demonstrated both the aesthetic variety in Albers’s work and the consistent themes running through it. Its inclusion served, perhaps, to acknowledge the close relationship between her prints and her textiles, from which many of her compositions on paper developed.
This close relationship is plainly evident at Tate Modern, London, which is currently holding the first major UK retrospective of Albers’s work. Previously shown at the Stiftung Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, with whom it was jointly organized, the Tate exhibition features over 350 objects, including large-scale wall hangings, “pictorial weavings” intended to be viewed like paintings or prints, jewelry made from everyday objects, and examples of Albers’s commercial designs and functional commissions such as the bedspreads and wall dividers that she created for the Harvard University Graduate Center in 1949–50. Arranged chronologically, it follows her career from her student days at the Bauhaus, through her experiences at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where she and her husband taught after migrating to America in 1933, to her life in Connecticut from 1950 when he was appointed chair of the School of Design at Yale University. The focus, announced by a loom at the entrance of the exhibition, is very much on Albers’s achievements as a weaver, but the ideas behind her compositions are thoroughly explored through the use of contextual material including gouache studies, handwritten notes, photographs of her visits to Mexico, Cuba, Chile and Peru, and examples from her collection of pre-Columbian textiles. In addition, a whole room focuses on her writings, specifically her pioneering work, On Weaving (Wesleyan University Press, 1965), from which there are original plates. Beautifully presented, the Tate exhibition is a joy to experience. Sections are divided by wooden frames and semi-transparent white fabrics, which gives the impression of viewing objects from inside the mechanism of a loom, a subtle reminder of the integral relationship in Albers’s work between process and product.
Printmaking is examined toward the end of the Tate show, although only 12 editioned prints are on view—six of them from the Mountainous series (almost all belong to the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, which lent many of the objects in the exhibition). Nonetheless, much can be learned here: study drawings provide information about the development of particular compositions, and a series of trial proofs for the gold-embossed screenprint TR III (1970) gives insight into the often laborious process that artist and printers go through before a print is editioned. In addition, direct connections can be made between Albers’s prints and her earlier textile works. When visitors encounter the screenprint Red Meander I, for example, they will already have seen its woven namesake from 1954 and will know that it was inspired by the ancient writing systems that Albers explored after her first visit to Mexico in 1935.
The exhibitions at Tate and Cristea complemented each other perfectly. As one progresses through the Tate, the artist’s printed compositions become more deeply layered with meaning, while the Cristea print retrospective allowed us to explore in detail Albers’s second great medium.
Catherine Daunt is the Hamish Parker Curator of Modern and Contemporary Graphic Art at the British Museum.