Annie Albers Review – Tate Modern until Jan 27th 2019
Despite its name, modernism sure had some old school failings. When Anni Albers got through her first year at experimental German art school the Bauhaus in 1923, she was kept away from disciplines like painting and sculpture and was shoved roughly towards something more suitable for a woman: weaving.
But Albers took her shitty stick and ran with it, diving into the world of textiles to create a body of work that totally changed what the use of fabric meant. In her long life of abstract geometric innovation, Albers may just have become the most modern of all modernists. Her work here isn’t restricted to just painting or sculpture, and it’s not ‘merely’ decorative fabric. It’s all of these things: it’s handmade but industrially designed, unique but replicable.
The show opens with a loom, so you know, immediately, that what comes next is the result of a relationship between human and machine. Lots of Albers’s work, especially the early pieces, have a purpose: they’re not ‘just’ art. One piece is a sound proof fabric for an auditorium which glistens and reflects. Other designs, all exploiting the loom’s knack for near geometric perfection with criss-crossing perpendicular lines, are intended to become bags, bedspreads or wall hangings.
By the time Anni and her husband – the great painter Josef – fled the Nazis for the USA, she’d started to conceive of purely ‘pictorial’ weavings: fabrics as art and art alone. Now the lines and shapes start to loop and dip, they raise out of the surface like keloid scars, judder like static across the fabric. This is Albers in free flight and it’s gorgeous. Then come prints – including an awesome set of white impressions – moving religious memorials, designs for dorm rooms, swirling carpets and knotty drawings.
Yeah, the show can feel a lot like walking through Habitat, but maybe that says more about the impact of Albers’s designs than anything else.
Because what you see here in these rooms is walls being knocked down. Art, sculpture, textile, craft, industrialisation, ancient traditions, modern methods: each piece you see chips away at the distinctions between all of these things. Hers was a fight against restrictions and restraints: being forced into weaving, having to work within the narrow lines of the loom, living in the shadow of her husband. And at every turn, she weaved her own magic and triumphed.