Art in Focus: ‘Rail’ by Anni Albers

Artist focused attention on an ancient craft as a rich contemporary art medium

‘Rail’, linen casement weave material, 1958, Anni Albers

‘Rail’, linen casement weave material, 1958, Anni Albers

 

What is it? A detail from Rail, a 1958 textile work by Anni Albers.

How was it done? Rail is a section of leno woven linen casement fabric. The looseness of leno weave, with twin warps entwining the weft, allows for strength allied to a level of translucency and transparency, making it functional in a variety of contexts. In her material, Albers is elucidating the basic structural grammar of the weave and texture of the yarn, and emphasising its aesthetic quality. Her technical and historical knowledge was unsurpassed. As she wrote in the preface to her classic book On Weaving, she could lift the introduction from the Encyclopaedia Britannica without being accused of plagiarism: “For the article Weaving, Hand in it is written by me.”

Where can I see it? Rail is included in Josef and Anni Albers: Voyage inside a blind experience, an exhibition at the Glucksman Gallery at University College Cork (until November 4th, glucksman.org). The show poses and sets out to answer the question: How do people who are blind or partially sighted experience abstract artworks? It marshals textile – and tactile – works by Anni, several of Josef’s Homage to the Square paintings, and some of his LP cover designs, the latter accompanied by the music. There’s also a darkroom section in which visitors “see” through touch.

The Glucksman worked with the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Atlante Servizi Culturali and l’Istituto dei Ciechi de Milano in putting together the exhibition.

Is it a typical work by the artist? It is typical in that it exemplifies Anni Albers’ use of textiles as an art medium. Anni is perhaps less widely known than Josef, whose Homage to the Square series of paintings are – rightly – recognised as one of the finest achievements in 20th-century art, but she was certainly as significant a figure. Born in Berlin in 1899, she was from early on intent on being an artist. Rather reluctantly, at the Bauhaus (although progressive for its time, it still limited women’s options), she took weaving as a second choice, but quickly realised it was a fantastically versatile medium. To this day, it could be argued, it is still disparaged as a craft rather than an art medium, a distinction that undoubtedly accounts for the underestimation of Anni’s work, despite her ever-growing renown (she became the first designer to feature in a solo show at MoMA in 1949, for example).

It should not be thought that Anni was indifferent to practicality in design: she worked keenly on projects where function was paramount. Though older, Josef was also at the Bauhaus. They married and their lives remained closely linked professionally as well as personally from then on (he died in 1976, she in 1994).

As the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany in the 1930s, the Albers accepted an invitation to move to the US. There they both pursued exceptionally industrious and productive academic and creative careers. From the 1960s, Anni became interested in printmaking and produced an absolutely outstanding body of print work. Her weaving and print works place her in the first rank of 20th-century artists.

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