Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living
October 1, 2004 through February 27, 2005
Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Fifth Avenue at 91st Street, New York
The ancient Greek poets wrote myths about the Fates – the three daughters of Nyx, the powerful goddess Night. They are also called the Moerae sisters.
Clotho spun the tapestry of life, Lachesis measured it, and Atropus cut it, all the while singing to the Sirens’ tune. Lachesis sang of the past, Clotho of the present, and Atropus of the future. The Greek poets also sang of Penelope, famous for faithfully awaiting her husband Odysseus’ return for 20 years. She appeased the suitors who daily ate and drank away her fortune by claiming that she must finish weaving her father-in-law’s funeral shroud before choosing a husband. (Every night she shrewdly unwove that day’s work).
The literary move of mapping out weaving as a metaphor for life and time permeates the Jewish canonical metaphors as well. The Book of Psalms (19:4) speaks of “Their line is gone out through all the earth.” The Hebrew kav (line) conveys an image of threads encircling the globe. The Book of Exodus (35: 26) tells of “the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun goats’ hair” for the Tabernacle. And the author of The Book of Koheleth (4:12) meditates, “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Despite the profusion of textile reference in the Bible, Director Sylvia Herskowitz, of the Yeshiva University Museum (YUM) wrote in the catalog entitled Tradition and Fantasy in Jewish Needlework (November 1981-June 1982) that although historians have dissected virtually every facet of Jewish sociology and culture, “one area that remains virtually unscrutinized is the flourishing of Jewish arts and crafts.”
The YUM exhibit showcased tallitot, ark curtains, Torah coverings, challah covers and a variety of woven ritual objects. Further in the catalog, Judith Gottesman Friedman’s writes in her essay “Stitches in Time: Thirty-Five Years of Ceremonial Judaic Needlework in America” that “Needlework has traditionally been women’s work, and as such, it has been smiled at with condescension. History, however, argues that needlework has been a respected profession practiced by men as well.”
An example of Jewish female needlework – and one that differs from the ritual objects of the YUM in everything from temperament to tone ? is Anni Albers’ (1899-1994) textiles – which serve as the subject of the current Cooper-Hewitt exhibit. She created this in conjunction with her husband, Josef Albers (1888-1976).
Albers studied and then taught textiles at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, until she and Josef immigrated to America after the Nazis closed the school in 1933. (Josef was not Jewish. Anni – who was born Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann in Berlin to a wealthy Jewish businessman and his wife from the prosperous Ullstein family which published books and magazines – subsequently converted to Protestantism). Anni typically weighs in as “the other Albers,” as Hilton Kramer notes in “Bauhaus’ Brave Albers Was a Tedious Weaver” in the New York Observer (8/14/00). She studied weaving since the Bauhaus more or less quarantined women to the domestic crafts. In the weaving workshop, Albers studied with Paul Klee (whom the Nazis called a Jew, though he was hardly one).
The Bauhaus, which was founded in 1919 in Weimar by Walter Gropius, functioned as a school of art, design and architecture. “Functioned” is an apt term, actually, for the Bauhaus tolerated nothing but hyper-pragmatism. When asked how he painted “Homages to the Square” (perhaps Josef’s most famous works, which tended to present circumscribed squares within other squares, all solid color), Albers responded, “I paint the way I spread butter on pumpernickel.”
In the Cooper-Hewitt catalog, Executive Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Nicholas Fox Weber compared the Albers’ notions of food preparation and painting. Both necessitated the correct arrangement of appropriate ingredients. “Nothing fancy, please. Don’t make grandiose claims. And understand that a simple domestic activity – the following of a recipe, the spreading of butter on a piece of honest black bread…is noble.”
The Nazis’ hatred of Modernism, coupled with Anni’s Jewish background, led the couple to move to America, though Anni noted that her family never affiliated as Jewish until forced by Hitler to do so. She even noted that the “Hitler business” turned out well in that it forced the Albers to emigrate to America.
Some of Anni’s work is Jewish in subject matter. The Jewish Museum commissioned Anni Albers’ for “Six Prayers” (1965-66), a conglomeration of cotton, linen, bast (a strong woody fiber from plant phloem) and silver threads, to serve as a memorial for the Six Million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The fibers in “Six” line up unevenly, but they suggest a continuous horizontal line that binds them together.
No matter how much the borders seem to try to alter the symmetry, organizational order manages to survive. The coloration further underscores the notion of endurance. The tones mostly reside in the earthy realm: umbers and blacks and beiges, but subtleties of coloration emerge upon careful inspection. Strictly speaking, the forms are non-objective (though I would hardly call them abstract), but they maintain a very natural and believable network of forms, very straight and solid.
Necklace, c. 1940 somehow manages to turn a metal-plated drain strainer, a chain and paperclips into a necklace. Every element contributes to the function of the larger machine. The paperclips fulfill no ornamental purpose. The two paper clips connecting the chain and the strainer play integral roles, just as the clips on the bottom serve to break up the circular form and to lend some weight to what would otherwise remain entirely top-heavy. The necklace sets itself diametrically opposed to the standard jewelry form: glittery and extravagant.
If “Necklace” conveys a soft and humble aura, Drawing for Rug II, 1959 has something of Jackson Pollack in it. It reads like a maze, with bright colors ? reds, yellows, oranges, greens, blues, grays and browns, all fairly pure – that move in a wiggling formation that suggest spaghetti or worms.
On its surface, the painting – gouache on paper – seems flat, but further inspection reveals a visual plane that unfolds slowly with the warm colors pressing forward, while pushing the blues and greens to the background. Despite the movement, “Rug” does not show off, and the detail is minimalistic in that no extraneous matter neutralizes the message.
Anni Albers is the quintessential secular Jewish artist, who thinks of herself as “all artist” and as little Jew as possible. She cared far more for the Bauhaus than she did for her Jewish identity. Her work was immediately abstract and, perhaps, Jewish at times as an afterthought. Ironically though, life cast her irrevocably into a situation in which she had to recognize her Jewishness in her flight from Nazi Germany, which she expressed in her creation of many Jewish ritual objects. Even when she walked away from her religious heritage in her work, her no-nonsense, utilitarian approach to art making (that questioned the boundary between art and craft in a way that only the Bauhaus did) had something of a Jewish sensibility to it. And one can only speculate what would have been were Anni Albers Orthodox, and as interested in forging a visual Jewish culture as she was in object making.
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: email@example.com.
For more information about the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, please visit the website: www.albersfoundation.org
Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living