Anni Albers on How to Be an Artist
take a line for a walk,” she once recalled to Nicholas Fox Weber, director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. “And I thought, ‘I will take thread everywhere I can.’”
Albers also advocated for artistic experimentation in her role as a teacher, both at the Bauhaus and, later, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. To stimulate the creative process of her students, she’d ask them “to imagine that it was the 10th century, and they were on the coast of Peru,” she once told Fox Weber. In her view, the materials that washed up on beaches—seaweed, sand, branches, shells, even fish skeletons—could spark ideas for inventive weavings and unique abstract compositions.
After Albers died in 1994, she left behind writings, lectures, and interviews rife with ideas on how to stoke and sustain creativity. Below, we extract advice from the innovative, endlessly curious 20th-century artist’s theories.
Lesson #1: Embrace accidents
Albers discovered her calling—weaving—by accident. She intended to pursue Material as Metaphor.” “I learned to listen to them and to speak their language. I learned the process of handling them.”
Albers became a deft and inventive weaver, advocating for the power of accidents in the creative process. “How do we choose our specific material, our means of communication? ‘Accidentally,’” she wrote in the same essay. “Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed.”
As Albers told her students, she believed that accepting accidents could lead to an unexpected, new direction for an artwork, and could open new avenues of artistic thought. “Students worry about choosing their way,” she continued. “I always tell them, ‘you can go anywhere from anywhere.’” Both accident and its cousin, improvisation, spurred innovation in Albers’s own textiles, too. “Improvised weavings…provided a fund of means from which later clearly ordered compositions were developed, textiles of a quite unusual kind,” she wrote in a 1938 essay, “Weaving at the Bauhaus,” of her early days at the school, when she began to develop her practice of irregular geometric abstraction. “A new style started on its way.”
Lesson #2: Bring play into the artmaking process
Albers also celebrated the role of play in the creative process. She believed that a spontaneous and experimental approach to hues, patterns, and materials inspired meaningful work. In a 1941 article, “Handweaving Today: Textile work at Black Mountain College,” she proposed that artists start works with “a playful beginning, unresponsive to any demand of usefulness, an enjoyment of colors, forms, surface contrasts and harmonies—a tactile sensuousness.”
In the environment of the Bauhaus, Albers recalled, “uninhibited play with materials resulted in amazing objects, striking in their newness of conception in regard to use of color and compositional elements.” This method, in which all mediums and processes were game, was especially valuable to beginners who were developing their own aesthetic. Albers believed it also built self-confidence in young artists: “Courage is an important factor in any creative effort,” she wrote in “Weaving at the Bauhaus.” “It can be most active when knowledge in too early a stage does not narrow the vision.”
In her own practice, Albers embraced play through injecting spontaneity and creativity into the highly technical process of weaving, where the loom dictated many aesthetic decisions. She experimented with unorthodox metal threads, for instance, and often improvised shapes and compositions as she wove, rather than religiously following a pattern. Albers even nodded directly to her reverence of play in the title of one work, Play of Squares (1955). The textile shows a labyrinth of white and deep-brown squares, organized seemingly haphazardly—without a predictable, overarching formula. Scholar Virginia Gardner Troy pointed out in a 1999 essay that the piece “evokes an ambiguous arrangement of words and letters (a play of words) or of musical notes (a play of sounds).” The spirit of playfulness also led Albers to experiment with other mediums, like
Albers also saw playfulness in the work of her artist heroes. In her famous instructional book On Weaving (1965), she described the textiles made by Peruvian weavers (whom she referred to as her “greatest teachers”) as “infinite phantasy within the world of threads, conveying strength or playfulness, mystery or the reality of their surroundings, endlessly varied in presentation and construction, even though bound to a code of basic concepts.”
Lesson #3: Listen to your chosen material
Albers felt strongly that textiles should reveal, rather than obscure, their structure. As Fox Weber pointed out in a 2017 essay, “she designed and executed her work according to the belief that fibers and their interlocking should be appreciated in their raw state.” Indeed, the geometric shapes and undulating lines that surge through Albers’s woven compositions reflect the weft and warp of the weaving process, and highlight the texture of the varied, knotty threads.
Essential to her approach was a respect for raw materials, and Albers continually encouraged her students to “listen” to whatever substance they’d chosen to work with. “To restore to the designer the experience of direct experience of a medium, is, I think, the task today,” she mused in the 1947 essay “Design Anonymous and Timeless.” “It means taking, for instance, the working material into the hand, learning by working it of its obedience and its resistance, its potency and its weakness, its charm and dullness.” In other words, extensive time should be spent getting to know your material: touching it, considering it, and understanding its properties so that it can be used creatively and to its full potential.
“The material itself is full of suggestions for its use if we approach it unaggressively, receptively,” Albers continued. “It is a source of unending stimulation and advises us in most unexpected manner.” Later, in her 1982 essay “Material as Metaphor,” she connected the act of listening to artistic innovation and success. “The more subtly we are tuned to our medium, the more inventive our actions will become,” she wrote. “Not listening to it ends in failure.”
For Albers, close observation and use of raw materials would also help her work stand the test of time. “The more we avoid standing in the way of the material and in the way of tools and machines,” she wrote in “Design Anonymous and Timeless,” “the better chance there is that our work will not be dated, will not bear the stamp of too limited a period of time and be old fashioned some day instead of antique.”
Lesson #4: Experiment with new technologies
Albers also advocated for the use of new machines and technologies—as long as respect for raw materials was maintained. “Not only the materials themselves which we come to know in a craft, are our teachers,” she advised in “Design Anonymous and Timeless.” “The tools, or the more mechanized tools, our machines, are our guides, too.”
It’s through new technologies (like a machine loom as opposed to a hand loom or foot-powered loom, for instance) that one can learn more about a material, and therefore expand its use and experiment with it in new ways. “We learn from them of the interaction of material and its use,” Albers continued, “how a material can change its character when used in a certain construction and how in turn the construction is affected by the material, how we can support the characteristics of material or suppress them, depending on the form of construction we use.”
Albers applied this concept to all mediums: “In architecture this may mean the difference of roman and gothic style, in weaving the same difference on a minute scale, the difference of satin and taffeta—the same material in different construction,” she wrote.
Embracing new technologies was another instance of Albers’s endless hunger for artistic experimentation, which drove both her deeply influential practice and her teachings.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.