MAY 22 Material Culture Teach-in Explores the Power of Making Mike Cummings, Yale News

FEBRUARY 21 Anni Albers's Thoughts on Textiles Loom Large Becky Peterson, Hyperallergic

FEBRUARY 7 Josef Albers in Mexico Benjamin Clifford, Brooklyn Rail

Fritz Horstman of the Albers Foundation experiments with a charkha, a portable, hand-cranked spinning wheel that can be set on the floor or a table, at the new low-tech maker space at Yale’s West Campus. Photo: Jon Atherton

Material Culture Teach-in Explores the Power of Making

At Monte Albán, a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Oaxaca, Mexico, the artist Anni Albers encountered ancient jewelry composed of stones and shells. The artifacts inspired Albers to make jewelry out of ordinary materials. She believed the process of making, not the presence of gold and gems, imbued the jewelry with meaning, said Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator at The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

"Jewelry was ornament, but it was not necessarily precious. What was precious became so by what the maker infused into it," said Danilowitz, speaking at the Loria Center as part of a material culture teach-in held at Yale from May 14 through 16.

The teach-in, based on the theme "Resilience and Reconciliation," convened Yale faculty, staff, and graduate students with scholars, curators, and artists from other institutions to consider the way objects can inspire or embody resilience and how the act of making can foster healing and reflection. The event was organized by Ned Cooke, the Charles F Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts, and Glenn Adamson and Martina Droth of the Yale Center for British Art, with support from the Chipstone Foundation.

The three-day teach-in took a three-pronged approach to its theme, examining resilience and reconciliation through the collection and interpretation of objects, making, and artistic practices.

It opened with a panel discussion on collecting and exhibiting objects. Erin Gredell, repatriation coordinator at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History, was a member of the panel and discussed the recent transfer of hundreds of Mohegan artifacts to the tribe's Tantaquidgeon Museum. Matthew Welch, deputy director and chief curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, described a forthcoming exhibition addressing the death of Philando Castile, who was shot to death by a police officer during a traffic stop in a suburb of Saint Paul.

The second day was devoted to exploring various making processes. Participants visited Yale's West Campus for a daylong session featuring workshops on spinning fibers and weaving, raised beadwork, natural dying, and sewing and mending.

Andrew Hamilton '05 B.A., a postdoctoral lecturer at Princeton University, led the workshops on spinning and weaving in Yale's new low-tech maker space—a laboratory at West Campus where students can learn to work with wood, metal, clay, and other materials within the context of classes or workshops.

Hamilton, who has studied making textiles with highland weavers in Peru's Cuzco region, began the workshop by asking the participants to consider the processes involved in making the clothes they were wearing.

"When we see textiles, we see the finished product," he said. "We see fibers and the cloth functioning as they are supposed to, and it's hard to look at it and estimate what the points of difficulty were. You see something that is static and inert as a textile, but it is the product of all sorts of kinetic processes that are difficult to imagine unless you've done them yourself."

Participants took turns handling various fibers in their unprocessed state, such as cotton bolls and a fleece of sheep's wool that was greasy with lanolin, the waxy substance that makes a sheep's coat water resistant and is washed out before the wool is spun.

Hamilton prefaced the spinning exercise by reminding participants that the workshop's point was not to produce expert spinners or weavers.

"We want you to have the chance to engage tactilely with these different materials and learn how fibers are worked into threads and how threads are worked into cloth," he said.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, participants attempted to spin wool into yarn using hand spindles. With varying degrees of success, the rookie spinners worked diligently drawing out fibers and twisting them into strong and workable yarn.

"It's very humbling," said Fritz Horstman, artist residency and education coordinator at The Albers Foundation. "The extraordinary irregularity that I produced was the far end of the extreme of amateur spinning. The point where you could spin a regular and strong fiber is hundreds of hours of experience beyond where I am right now."

Cooke, the driving force behind the creation of the low-tech maker space, said hands-on learning helps students gain a better appreciation for the skill and labor involved in making textiles, ceramics, furniture, and other handmade objects.

"My own explorations into these processes are not about becoming a maker myself, but about gaining a sense of humility toward materials and making," he said.

Hamilton demonstrated spinning fiber on a treadle wheel and a charkha, a portable, hand-cranked spinning wheel that can be set on the floor or a table. Later in the day, participants tried weaving on frame, tapestry, and back strap looms.

While some participants experimented with the charkha, others gathered around a table in a separate room and got a lesson in the healing quality of beadwork.

Bead artist Sam Thomas, a member of the Lower Cayuga Band of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Nation, has spent forty years reviving Iroquois raised beadwork styles from the 19th and 18th centuries.

He led Opening the Doors to Dialogue, a project aimed at cultivating reconciliation from the legacy of Canada's Indian residential school system—a network of state-sponsored schools run by Christian churches intended to assimilate indigenous children into the country's Western-style culture. From 1832 to 1986, when the last residential schools closed, children were taken from their families and stripped of their indigenous culture, many suffering physical and sexual abuse in the process.

Thomas led workshops with survivors of the schools and clergy and staff from the schools in which they would talk about the survivors' experiences while learning beadwork techniques and making projects. The collaborative beading provided a platform for dialogue and healing, Thomas said.

"I've found that a natural dialogue takes place when people come together to create," said Thomas, who also has used beading workshops to foster reconciliation among rival tribes in Kenya.

Participants applied glass beads to two raised beadwork pieces that will be given to the university. Both feature strawberries, which are sacred to the Haudenosaunee as the first fruit and a powerful healing medicine.

"I was impressed with Sam's notion of the meditative process of beading and talking about a cultural practice while being absorbed in that very process; how it freed your mind to discuss things in a way that was deep, but not emotionally fraught, so that it produces a more reflective kind of energy," said Cooke.

The teach-in's last day included Danilowitz's talk as well as talks by current and former artists-in-residence at the Albers Foundation. Fashion designer Christina Kim, who the previous day had led the sewing workshop, spoke about her collaborative work with the Arhuaco people of Colombia.


Cover of the new, expanded edition of Anni Albers's On Weaving (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Anni Albers's Thoughts on Textiles Loom Large

On Weaving offers a model for how to write in a way that incorporates theoretical examination alongside practical content; in it Anni Albers provides valuable—and often overlooked—thoughts on art and creative work.

In her 1965 introductory note to On Weaving, Anni Albers explains that the book is "not a guide for weavers or would-be weavers," and that she hopes to "include in my audience not only weavers but also those whose work in other fields encompasses textile problems." What is a "textile problem"? The questions encountered in the study and Albers's manipulation of textiles can inspire those working outside the medium—you do not need to work with the fiber arts in order to learn from them. Since its initial publication in 1965, Albers's On Weaving has proved an important text for artists and scholars in architecture and design fields, as well as in arts education, but the book has yet to reach others who will find her textile-based investigations eloquent and challenging.

It is only relatively recently (in European and North American art institutions) that textiles have been considered an art form. This revised view of weaving and the fiber arts is due in large part to the efforts of Anni Albers. Albers, who attended the Bauhaus and later taught at Black Mountain College, is often cited as the foremost textile artist of the twentieth century. She was a crucial figure in introducing textiles to the art world. In fact, the 1949 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of her work was the first dedicated to a fiber artist.

Albers published two collections of her essays, On Designing, in 1959, and later, On Weaving. Many of these essays were first published in magazines and other venues in the 1940s and 1950s. Princeton University Press has released an expanded edition of On Weaving around two major exhibitions of Albers's work: the recently closed Anni Albers: Touching Vision at the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the upcoming Anni Albers at the Tate Modern.

I have consistently found Albers's writings, in both On Weaving and the already re-released Selected Writings on Design (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), to be eye-opening on a range of topics. Materiality, tactility, nonverbal language, the histories of both handcraft and factory production—Albers provides clear and rigorous analysis of these and other issues throughout her books. Readers concerned with digital communication and design will appreciate Albers's close attention to technology and style. Albers, in her writings and art, as well as in her life story, has helped me think about the labor of domestic and industrial textile workers, the politics of romantic involvement with an established artist, and the complexities of being a Jewish refugee living in mid-century America. And so, I am grateful for this re-issue of On Weaving, a book which has been increasingly difficult to locate since its initial publication.

Non-weavers may balk at On Weaving's intricate descriptions of weaving technique. But even in the more technical sections of the text, Albers imbues her descriptions of practice with illuminating philosophical statements about creativity, art, and functionality. For example, in "The Loom," she writes, in reference to the historical development of weaving technologies:

As need presses toward fulfillment, so does obtainable fulfillment excite need—a generative cycle, spiraling to dimensions of both need and productivity that must seem excessive to any generation earlier than the one participating in it.

Later, in "Modified and Composite Weaves," she notes: "where the functional aspect of the basic structure is moderated, aesthetic qualities frequently move to the foreground—in fact, they often are the very reason for the structural change."

On Weaving offers a model for how to write in a way that incorporates theoretical examination alongside practical content. Craft practitioners do not always record and publish their ideas; those who do write about craft, such as Albers, provide valuable—and often overlooked—thoughts on art and creative work.

The new edition of On Weaving features full-color plates. (Albers's tapestries and wall hangings are particularly stunning.) Supplementary essays at the end of the text give helpful biographical and historical contexts and contribute to a much-needed body of scholarship that examines Albers as a writer and theorist. This book as well as another new publication, Anni Albers: Notebook 1970-1980, showcase Albers's artistic process and offer readers an intimate, immediate experience of her work. Anni Albers: Notebook reproduces a notebook containing rough "studies" discovered after Albers's death, illustrating the draft notation technique Albers explains in On Weaving.

Though often undervalued and under-examined, textiles are central in art making and in everyday life. These new publications of Albers's work offer insights usually left out of discussions of mid-century modernism—insights that now can and should be included.


Josef Albers
To Mitla, 1940
oil on masonite
21 × 28 in. (53.3 × 71.1 cm)

Josef Albers in Mexico

The Guggenheim's concisely titled Josef Albers in Mexico explores Albers's experience of the eponymous Latin American nation, focusing on his frequent visits to pre-Columbian monuments and archeological sites. Between 1935 and his death in 1976, Josef Albers and his wife Anni, like her husband a veteran of both the Bauhaus and North Carolina's experimental Black Mountain College, traveled to Mexico many times. The pair returned again and again to six key locations: Teotihuacán and Tenayuca near Mexico City, Monte Albán and Mitla in Oaxaca, and Uxmal and Chichén Itzá at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the Guggenheim's exhibition is divided into sections that showcase each location through Albers's photographs of the sites and various related paintings and prints.

The exhibition argues that Albers's geometric abstractions reproduce motifs and formal structures originating in indigenous Mexican art and architecture, and it finds its most explicit evidence in several works whose titles refer directly to one or another site. For example, the interlocking rectangular forms of To Mitla (1940) are described as adapting a repetitious stepped motif known as "xicalcoliuhqui" that Albers highlights in his photographs of the Mitla site. Tenayuca I (1943) and three related studies from the late 1930s are likewise characterized as schematic representations of both Tenayuca's two-tiered pyramid complex and the many serpent sculptures for which the site is known.

However, most of the paintings and prints on display here do not make such clear reference to pre-Columbian art and architecture. This includes several works drawn from Albers's signature Homage to the Square series (1950–76). These austere geometric abstractions pare painting down to a simple formal structure—three or four squares, one inside the next—that allows Albers to freely explore relationships of color. Despite their iconic status, here the Homages are largely kept on the sidelines: all but one are sequestered in a corner of the exhibition space, displayed along a semicircular balcony that doesn't communicate well with the rest of the gallery.

The likely rationale for this decision is clear. Although texts provided by the Guggenheim connect the palette of the Homages to the Mexican landscape, paintings so formally reductive ultimately contribute little to the exhibition's emphasis on pre-Columbian aesthetic sensibility. This is especially obvious when the Homages are compared with works that make direct appeal to their sources or otherwise invite architectural associations. Take, for example, Albers's Variant/Adobe series (1946–66), which also makes exclusive use of simple quadrilateral forms. The compositions, however, are more elaborate, allowing a greater generosity of reference and analogy. Albers has referred to these works as "walls" or "windows," while the name of the series invokes the vernacular architecture of Mexico and the American Southwest. And, in further contrast to the Homages, the section of the gallery reserved for this series is integrated with the rest of the exhibition space.

Other works throughout the exhibition use layered forms and oblique linear projections to suggest spaces governed by an architectural logic of construction as much as by abstract formal principles. The composition of Biconjugate (1943), for example, suggests the superimposed transparent planes typical of buildings in the International Style. Although obviously distant from an indigenous Mesoamerican context, Biconjugate and similar works nonetheless highlight Albers's sustained attention to the built environment, an inheritance of Bauhaus ideology. They also help clarify the importance of his photographs of pre-Columbian monuments, many of which are composed according to the same refined, geometric principles as his paintings. When these bodies of work are displayed side by side, it's easy to imagine Albers processing his experience of architectural space through photography before translating the resulting formal solutions onto canvas.

Albers's interest in pre-Columbian art and architecture is, of course, a single episode in the long story of modernist fascination with non-European cultures. Albers, like "primitivists" such as Pablo Picasso or the artists of Die Brücke, had little knowledge of the conditions and intentions that shaped what he treated as decontextualized formal resources. What distinguishes Albers from earlier European enthusiasts for the indigenous is a bit of synchronicity that, although it falls beyond the purview of the Guggenheim's exhibition, should nonetheless be noted. While Albers was travelling in Mexico, an emerging generation of Latin American artists—including figures as diverse as Tomás Maldonado, Lygia Clark, and Carlos Cruz-Diez—used his work as a prototype for languages of abstraction that to them represented the promise of modernity. These artists, often working from reproductions and without reference to the stated intentions of their European forebears, were thus equally able to project their own aesthetic desires and political aspirations onto relics of an older world.