What Anni Albers Learned as Paul Klee’s Student at the Bauhaus
Anni Albers card weaving at Black Mountain College. © 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina, The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and David Zwirner.
Myths abound about visual artists toiling alone in their studios, coming to epiphanies all on their own. Yet the history of art is more accurately about influential circles, schools, and aesthetic influences. In Germany, the Bauhaus established a new framework for thinking about modernist art, architecture, and design. When the Nazis’ rise led the school to shut its doors in 1933, many of its artists fled to the United States to continue teaching.
One of them, Anni Albers, settled in North Carolina with her painter husband, Josef Albers, where both became instructors at the legendary Black Mountain College. The pair moved to Connecticut in 1950 after Josef accepted a teaching position at Yale. Though Anni didn’t hold a post at the prestigious university, she influenced at least one of her husband’s students: the young Sheila Hicks, who was just beginning to work with thread.
Anni Albers, Wallhanging, 1924. © 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and David Zwirner.
Anni Albers, With Verticals, 1946. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and David Zwirner.
Anni Albers is best known for her innovations in weaving. She took elements of pre-Columbian textiles and transformed them into modernist masterpieces. Her work helped erase the sexist barrier between craft and fine art. After all, weaving had long been considered “women’s work,” hardly worthy of a museum or gallery wall. Beyond her intricate patterns and sumptuous, threaded surfaces, Anni is also a crucial figure in the story of 20th-century art education—later as a teacher, but first as a student of towering Bauhaus artist Paul Klee.
This fall, David Zwirner reunites instructor and pupil in its 20th Street gallery space. The gallery has devoted its ground floor to Anni Albers’s textiles, prints, and drawings. The show’s anchor is the artist’s newly restored 1968 felt textile Camino Real. The cherry-colored, triangle-covered wall hanging, measuring more than 10 by 10 feet, previously adorned the modernist Mexico City hotel of the same name. Two writers recently found the work rolled up in storage at the Hotel Camino Real and brought it into the light after 30 years underground.
Paul Klee, Kämpft mit sich selber (Struggles with himself), 1939. © Klee Family. Courtesy of David Zwirner.
Paul Klee, Maske LAPUL (“Mask: Lapul”), 1939. © Klee Family. Courtesy of David Zwirner.
In the upstairs galleries, simple, childlike drawings and watercolors by Klee are on view. They were all made in 1939—the year before he died. The pairing links two generations of influential modernists.
Anni Albers entered the Bauhaus as a student in 1922. She remembered taking one weaving course at the school with Klee—it was one of the few classes open to women—but Nicholas Fox Weber, an art historian and the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, has found evidence in her journals that she took more. While she found her instructor aloof, Anni always remembered how he advised his students to “take a line for a walk.” She applied the same principle in her tapestries, with complex lines made from thread instead of pencil or paint.
Paul Klee in his atelier, Bern, summer 1939. Photo by Felix Klee. © Klee-Nachlassverwaltung, Hinterkappelen. Courtesy of David Zwirner.
Weber isn’t shy about discussing Klee’s influence on Anni. “She would say, ‘Klee was my god,’” he recalled. “Which Josef didn’t love, naturally.” Klee’s approach to art was “everything that Anni believed in,” Weber continued. He was spontaneous, talented, musical, and able to live in “a very beautiful fantasy.”
Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, links the pair’s shared appreciation for music—Klee himself was a violinist—with weaving. Both disciplines, she said, share “an embodied sense of working.” Harnessing the power of a loom and plucking strings are both physical activities that require skilled finger work.
Anni moved to the United States in 1933 after Josef accepted the position at Black Mountain College. Soon after she moved to America, Anni translated into English “On Modern Art,” a 1924 lecture that Klee had given in German. Anni thought that if her work was published, it would be a sufficient “thank you” to her former instructor. In a 2007 essay entitled “Anni Albers’s Thank-You to Paul Klee,” art historian Jenny Anger writes: “That hope remained unfulfilled, but Anni Albers issued another sort of thank-you to Klee, one, in fact, that he might have appreciated more: she absorbed the principles of his teaching and made them her own.”
Anni Albers, In Orbit , 1957. © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and David Zwirner.
While the connections between Klee and Anni Albers are intriguing from a biographical standpoint, it goes without saying that Anni’s creations speak for themselves. At David Zwirner, Scroll (1962) unfurls down a gallery wall in shades of tan, mahogany, and other earthy tones. Against a tightly woven backdrop, lines protrude in hues of coffee and cream, turning at sharp angles and appearing to float down the tapestry like lines of writing.Shaped by Anni’s creative interpretation of Klee’s teachings and her own keen sensibility, Scroll is part-poem, part-manifesto on how weaving is a language unto itself.