When you enter the Tate Modern’s Anni Albers retrospective, the first thing you will see is a 12-shaft countermarch floor loom standing on a raised dais. It is warped and ready, with a shuttle resting on the woven cloth, as if the weaver at work has just popped out for a cup of tea. I almost stepped up to the loom myself, for a closer look at the cloth and the warp, as I would if I visited any weaver’s studio. I caught myself just in time.
It’s impossible to separate Alber’s art from her craft, or her thinking and processes from the end result. This exhibition presents not only an extraordinary range of Alber’s woven work and prints, but also her planned studies, preparatory sketches and swatches of fabric. There are scraps of paper with the little notes that every weaver makes, half-thought-out scribbles to remind yourself of a pattern or thread change. The exhibition also presents her personal collection of historic textiles from around the world, and in the final room displays the eight-shaft Structo Artcraft handloom that she wove on for many years.
As a weaver myself, I’m familiar with the many stages and processes of weaving, the warp and the weft, the craft of the loom in all its beautiful simplicity and maddening complexity. And of course I’m familiar with the work of Albers. She is a towering figure in the weaving canon, active in both the Bauhaus in Germany and Black Mountain College in the US. Her influence is felt on both sides of the Atlantic, and her seminal work “On Weaving” guides weavers to this day. I learnt about her in school, dutifully cutting out photos of “Open Letter” and “With Verticals” and sticking them into my A Level Art sketchbooks. I’ve even been fortunate enough to see one or two of her extraordinary pieces the flesh.
However, nothing prepared me for the experience of this retrospective, where each room displays yet another level of Alber’s conceptual and technical mastery. Her engagement with materials, her application of design principles, the depth of her research, her passion and creativity, and those hours and hours spent at the loom – it’s all on show here.
The exhibition takes us from her early days weaving at the Bauhaus, where she first began to engage with the woven grid of warp and weft. By her own account, she came to weaving unenthusiastically, but over time it caught her imagination. She begin designing and weaving geometric designs with interlocking and overlapping areas of color, experimenting with building and breaking the woven grid. She worked with unusual combinations of materials, such as the transparent cellophane she used in her design for an auditorium wall covering.
From there we follow her progress from Europe to the United States, through her time at Black Mountain College and beyond. As you move from one room to the next, you can see first hand how she became more comfortable with the craft of weaving and explored new possibilities of the grid. Her woven work became increasingly detailed and technically complex.
Even if you are not a weaver yourself, you can’t fail to be astounded by the detail and care that went into each one of these works. For many of her pictorial works Albers used a method known as leno or gauze weave, where she actually twisted the warp threads around each other, twining them into the weft. She added frequent supplementary wefts, allowing them to pass back and forth across the surface of the weaving, only occasionally intersecting with the warp. In fact the whole surface of each of her handwoven textiles feels alive and breathing, like a map of her thoughts on the loom.
Looking at these pieces, I felt so lucky to be a weaver, to have a trained enough eye that I could follow how she had constructed each one. I felt almost as though I was looking over her shoulder at the loom, and watching her at work. I could see how each weft thread had been directed just so, how here she was twisting the warp, and here she was gathering it. Each piece is so compressed full of detail and texture, they are like miniature worlds in woven form.
Even in her larger works designed for manufacture by others, the attention to detail and care for material quality is always present. She was immensely conscious about the space and the quality of the light and the air, as seen in her essay “The Pliable Plane”. She wrote about the relationship between textile and architecture, and imagined a museum where “textile panels instead of rigid ones… provide for the many subdivisions and backgrounds it needs. Such fabric walls could have varying degrees of transparency or be opaque, even light-reflecting.” In fact, the Tate has subdivided the rooms of the exhibition itself with wooden frames covered in fabric, which are themselves slightly transparent, putting Albers’ theory into practice.
It is this attention to subtle qualities that most moved me about Albers’ work. The things that other people might not notice, she paid attention to. She thought so thoroughly over every aspect and possibility, and came at it from every direction. When Anni Albers looked at knots, she drew knots, she printed knots, she investigated their mathematical properties, and researched the knots of ancient Peru, all before incorporating them into her designs. And when it came to her own weavings, this level of careful thought manifests itself as careful labour. Each handwoven piece has been constructed so intricately over the course of many, many hours.
And what struck me about the depths of Albers’ thoughtfulness is that it also speaks to a deeply-held conviction that these things do matter, that textiles matter, that the placement of a single individual thread, almost invisible unless you come very close, is important and vital and real.
I’ll confess, from the moment I stepped into that first room and saw the loom standing there, I felt almost moved to tears. In my mind I was 19 years old again, defending my textile sculptures to my peers in art school. I was 24, exhibiting my woven wall-hangings for the first time and being asked “are they… placemats?” I felt the lessening of the burden that I did not know I was carrying, the burden of justifying my work, of advocating for its value and importance as art. As though I’d been on a long journey and I’d found that it had all been worth it. There is a loom in the Tate.
Albers’ weavings have nothing to prove. They are not showy or bold or obvious. They are subtle and deep, and they hold within themselves evidence of the care taken over them. They exist. The weaving’s own language is enough.
It seems as though the world is finally catching up. Perhaps we’re tired of the instantly Instagrammable, those images can be comprehended in the snap of an iPhone. Throughout the exhibition I watched as people stepped back to take the prerequisite photo, and then put their phones away. They drew in close, heads bent to peer through the glass at these textiles in all their painstaking, intricate glory.
Albers saw connections everywhere, between weaving and language, between textile and architecture, between art and craft. It’s the legacy of her time at the Bauhaus but also the result of a life lived in constant engagement with materials and their possibilities. This masterful show pulls together all the strands of her thinking and shows that there are no rigid divisions between disciplines. Rather there is an interconnectedness in all of it, as strands of culture and creation weave over and under each other, warp and weft.
Christabel Balfour is an artist and tapestry weaver, living and working in south east London. She studied at Camberwell College of Art and the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.Since graduating in 2013, she has developed a practice as a tapestry weaver, and set up her studio in 2015. She specializes in rugs and woven wall-hangings. Read more about her art.