CHICAGO — Through twists and turns of fine thread and thick rope, fibers morph into an array of forms in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Weaving beyond the Bauhaus. Starting with samples woven at the Bauhaus and eventually leaping off the loom with a hulking macramé sculpture that could crush you, the show — which spans five galleries and includes about 50 works — marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus’s opening.
Though numerous organizations around the world have been celebrating this milestone — a world-touring Bauhaus bus that hit the road in Germany, a new biography of founder Walter Gropius, Bauhaus Beginnings at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles — this exhibition seeks to tell the story of the famed German art school a different way: through the intersecting connections and relationships that took root at the Bauhaus’s weaving workshop and continue to unfurl today.
When the Bauhaus was forced to close in 1933 due to mounting pressure from the Nazi party, many students scattered, taking with them the seeds of the skills and philosophies they developed at the school. “Similar to a dandelion that has gone to seed, those seeds [the Bauhaus artists] didn’t necessarily have a choice,” says Erica Warren, associate curator of textiles at the Art Institute, and curator of this show. Some, including Anni Albers and Marli Ehrman, were able to escape the country and emigrate to the United States; others didn’t survive. Otti Berger, whose golden cellophane-and-cotton furnishing fabric is featured in the show, died in Auschwitz. Warren and I, sharing a bench in a dim Art Institute hallway, take a few somber moments to reflect before continuing our chat. “After the initial dispersal, it becomes more like a spiderweb with all these connections from different points in different situations,” she notes.
Crossing through the glass doors into the hush of the exhibition, visitors enter a world of interconnected threads. The textile galleries are so reverently quiet that when a pair of gallery-goers slowly unwrap cough drops, the crackling sounds like a roar. The show kicks off with the origins of the Bauhaus weaving workshop and a diagram that charts how the featured artists studied, worked, and exhibited together.
An eye-catching wall hanging titled “Black-White-Red” near the entrance embodies the show’s exploration of relationships across time and place. Weaver, teacher, and writer Anni Albers originally designed this piece in 1926/27, while at the Bauhaus. But, as Warren tells me, Albers lost her copy during World War II. Nearly 40 years later, Albers, who was then living in New Haven, Connecticut, reached out to Gunta Stölzl, an influential teacher at the school and Albers’s friend, who had started a weaving workshop in Switzerland. Stölzl agreed to weave a replica of the lost piece for Albers. “For me, that really speaks to the enduring nature of their friendship,” Warren says. “It also speaks to a real respect for each others’ artistic abilities and the importance of that work for Albers and Stölzl.”
By focusing on personal connections, Weaving beyond the Bauhaus challenges prevalent art-world narratives of the lone-wolf genius (often male), who mythically springs forth fully formed without outside help or influence. In contrast, the exhibition illuminates the ways that textile art has evolved over the last century — not in a vacuum, but through collaboration and the exchange of techniques and ideas. This reciprocity expanded art-making possibilities for these Bauhaus fiber artists, who are primarily women (their work is in the company of several other women-centered shows at the Art Institute currently).
These artists tell their own stories, in their own words, through quotes posted on nearly every wall of the exhibition space. The quotes are from oral histories, interviews, personal correspondence, essays, and books, including Anni Albers’s On Weaving. One reflection from Claire Zeisler, who studied at Chicago’s Institute of Design (originally called The New Bauhaus) and with Albers at the Black Mountain College, pointedly reads, “At a certain time in history people experience the same development and respond to the same stimuli. They find parallel ways to express themselves, whether they communicate directly with each other or not.” The unwavering spirit of experimentation that took shape at the Bauhaus and rippled out across time and place is a bright light that shines throughout the show.
A room dedicated to discontinuous weft, a weaving technique in which the horizontal threads don’t extend fully across the vertical warps, shows how “technical knowledge allows the freedom to expand and get away from the expected,” as a quote from Else Regensteiner declares. Each piece in this section represents a radically different take on the same technique. Lenore Tawney’s “Landscape” (1958) uses squiggles of yarn in deep earthen hues to create textural fields of color. Zeisler employs the technique as a means to attach a tangle of objects — a glass ornament encased in netting, a skein of golden yarn, an embroidery hoop — to her expressive red and tan “Hanging” (1950/91). And a green-blue thread roams through the cream-colored cascade of linen and silk that makes up Sheila Hicks’s “Weft Wandering Astray” (1985) — a title that aptly reflects the show’s throughline of threads meandering and crossing, much like the artists’ collective experience making textile art.
As visitors step into the final gallery, many gasp audibly. At the center of the room Zeisler’s colossal 10-foot-tall, 1,300-pound “Private Affair I” (1986) spills over with hemp ropes twisted, wrapped, and knotted into macramé at grand scale. It is a monument to fiber. Floating from the ceiling like an oversized jellyfish, Tawney’s “The Bride Has Entered” (1982) dangles ethereal linen threads shimmering with gold leaf. “I have this impulse a lot in museums,” one woman murmurs, extending her hand wistfully as if running her fingertips through silken locks. Opposite is Tawney’s “Waters Above the Firmament” (1976), a 13-foot square tapestry containing a huge circle composed of slits, their top half covered in strips of paper manuscripts painted aqua blue. Another woman crouches before it, closely examining the construction; subtle seams reveal it was woven in four parts. This finale of the show soars with technical prowess and fearless, unexpected experiments with material and scale.
To exit the exhibition, visitors must backtrack through the galleries, through time and textiles, back to the beginnings of the Bauhaus, seeing in reverse the comet of experimentation and innovation that a school, open for just 14 years, set in motion.
Weaving beyond the Bauhaus continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through February 17, 2020.