LONDON — Anni Albers, who wrote the important book titled On Weaving, was a master of the form. Her knowledge of it was encyclopedic. In fact, she wrote the entry on weaving for the 1963 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Despite her far-reaching impact on the worlds of art, design, architecture, and, yes, weaving, Albers hasn’t always gotten due credit in the canon of modern artists. But the expansive exhibition at the Tate Modern sets out to change this, with 11 engrossing rooms that chart the many facets of her career.
The exhibit opens in a quiet room with a wooden loom and a black-and-white photo of the Bauhaus weavers peaking mischievously through the treadles of a loom. Starting with her schooling at the Bauhaus, the show leads into Albers’s life as a teacher in her own right at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she headed the weaving department for more than 15 years.
Each doorway of the exhibit is a portal into a different side of Albers’s career and identity: A consummate innovator, writer, researcher, and collector who revered Pre-Columbian textiles. She made, in her words, “pictorial weavings,” artworks meant to simply be looked at. She was commissioned to make fabric designs (some still in production today) and textile works that interacted with auditoriums, restaurants, private homes, and synagogues. Partitions made with sheer fabric are used to break up the exhibition space, summoning to mind Albers’s visions for using textile panels to divide rooms for flexibility and to reflect light — not as an afterthought or a decoration, but integral to the architecture.
Taken together, the more than 350 works portray an artist who translated the structure and techniques of an ancient craft into a visual language wholly fresh and modern. She used modern materials and processes with an open mind, coaxing out the possibilities of a thread in innovating ways. “What I’m trying to get across,” she wrote, “is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it, makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive.” Her relentless exploration of materials and experimental samples informed her larger works and commissions. In a long glass display case of these postcard-sized samples created throughout her career — a miniature retrospective, of sorts, within the retrospective — I counted 24 different fibers, from cellophane to horsehair.
Experiencing Albers’s work up close reveals sensory details that photographs dull. The copper thread in the chenille drapery designed for the Rockefeller Guest House in 1944 — which Albers described as looking like a “potato sack” when backlit by the sun — shimmers rose-gold under the gallery lights. “Epitaph,” a tapestry from 1968 that stretches six feet up a white wall features black squiggles that evoke text and glints with gold Lurex woven alongside cotton and jute. When I glimpsed the colorful confetti of texture bursting through the black-and-white ground in “Dotted” (1959), I had to put my hands behind my back to resist reaching out and touching the puffy baubles of wool.
For me, Albers’s pictorial weavings from the ’50s were the star of the show. I wasn’t alone in this either. Fellow museum-goers clustered around these pieces murmuring. “This looks like a double weave,” one woman said to her companion, presumably both weavers. “Could it even be a triple weave?” Leaning in to examine the techniques, untangling the threads with our eyes, we got lost in the colors, textures, and dazzling array of techniques that highlight Albers’s virtuosity and inventiveness. These pieces reward close viewing, too. At a glance, “Open Letter” (1959) appears black and white, but there are two delightful pops of rusty orange upon further inspection. The twists and gathering of cotton and linen threads in “Variations on a Theme” (1958) are, surprisingly, held open with slender, white plastic tubes.
In the final section, visitors are invited to touch (finally!) hanks of spun fibers and woven samples. (I think others may have been harboring a tactile urge too, given how many people lined up to run their fingers through the threads that ran through Albers career.) “Weaving is an example of a craft which is many sided,” Albers wrote. “Besides surface qualities, such as rough and smooth, dull and shiny, hard and soft, it also includes color, and, as the dominating element, texture … Like any craft, it may end in producing useful objects, or it may rise to the level of art.”
Anni Albers continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) through January 27.