Last night I had the pleasure of attending a sold-out talk at the Museum of Modern Art given by Nicholas Fox Weber, author of the newly-published The Bauhaus Group (and the recent Le Corbusier plus many other books) and executive director of The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation, on the topic of "Women and the Bauhaus: Weaving/Anni Albers" in conjunction with the Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity exhibition. I was invited by his wife, Katharine Weber, whose novel, Triangle, I publicized a few years ago; her next one, True Confections, is out next month. I always enjoy seeing her in person because she wears Un Jardin Sur Le Nil by Hermes and fills me in on her doings splitting her time between Connecticut, Paris and the Irish countryside. She also hipped me to the Cosmopolitan Club.
Fox Weber's talk began with a fascinating trio of snapshots of Anni Albers in a car, wearing a tweed overcoat with wide lapels and a beret, an instant portrait of a person whose singularity radiates from the expression on her face to the buttons on her blouse. He described the simple act of driving with her to be "an extraordinary event," not only because of her tales of friendships with Klee and Kandinsky but because "she was so engaged in the present." Raised in a prosperous German family (her mother was an heiress to a publishing fortune), she was drawn to transformation and change early in life, and her adolescent interest in art was encouraged by her adventurous mother, who, with unusual enthusiasm, allowed her daughter an art tutor and to draw nude models in the house. Anni sought out the Bauhaus, where she was "floored" during a lecture given by Walter Gropius, which "gave her a sense that there was art that she could make and a new way of looking at life." There she met Josef Albers, different from her in nearly every way: Catholic (she was Jewish), poor, eleven years older. They shared an instant chemistry.
Anni was assigned to the weaving workshop, where she continued her lifelong streak of extreme independence to the point of being an outsider, which very much reflected her internal view of her relationship to the world around her. Art comforted her, however, and the creative process was something from which she discovered she could draw solace, thinking of art as "a visual resting place, a source of peace and harmony she couldn't find anywhere else in her life." Paul Klee, an artist she regarded as a cosmic figure, was the master of the weaving workshop and issued such inspiring directives as, "take a line for a walk." Anni was also inspired by Goethe's Metamorphosis of the Plants, and the idea of natural beauty reflected in patterns determined by mathematical principles of organization while avoiding repetition. She soon discovered the triumph, euphoria and celebration she could achieve visually with her "quiet, beautiful and rich" weavings, often employing synthetics and the latest technology.
In 1925 she and Josef married and honeymooned in Florence. While they can appear formidable in portraits alone, photographs of them together often glow with a palpable romance. They went to Biarritz with other artists on vacation, Mies van der Rohe came over for dinner, and they made a life. In 1933, the Gestapo padlocked the Bauhaus. Soon after, Philip Johnson, then at MoMA, facilitated an invitation for the couple to join the newly-established and thriving Black Mountain College. In America, Anni's textiles began to reflect "a new earthiness" and informality.
During the war, Anni often made jewelry on the fly out of humble objects such as washers and ribbon (a design that strikingly predates Lanvin's wrapped pearls), bobby pins and chains and other everyday materials elevated to new heights by her ability to realize the elemental beauty of unadorned designs. In 1949, she was given the first solo exhibition by a textile artist at MoMA. Her weaving "City" reflects the "homage to a spirit of urbanism" and delight she and Josef experienced upon arriving in New York via steamship from Europe in 1933. In 1950, the couple moved to New Haven, where, for the first time, Anni had to learn how to cook. She also experimented with new materials such as horsehair in her weaving, and, in 1963, made her first prints, distinguished by unique applications of screenprinting and other techniques. She was careful about her influences, but acknowledged a fascination with Peruvian and Pre-Columbian textiles and the idea of what could be achieved with limited materials.
Necklace from hardware (brass grommets on length of chamois), 1940.
Fox Weber's depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject made it the most memorable and exquisite artist talk I've attended in recent memory. Asked afterward by an audience member what he learned from the Albers, he answered, with only a moment's pause, "that one could be totally devoted to art and have a very rich life because of it... a sense of how to live for beauty." We must.
All images: The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation.