In the fifties, painters enjoyed analyzing the distinctive character of Mondrian’s brushstroke. They would admire the slight waver of an edge, for example, or the no-nonsense application of a field of paint. In doing so, they were mounting an implicit defense: Mondrian was not, as some fools believed, a “mechanical” painter of abstract geometric forms. He was instead a deeply personal artist with a sensual, even visceral appreciation for an ideal world – a dreamer who had nothing whatsoever to do with running a line along a ruler. The same argument could be made for the work of Josef and Anni Albers, the German couple who immigrated to the United States in 1933 from Nazi Germany. Like Mondrian, the Alberses made rigorously abstract pictures that seem to unite the earthy and the metaphysical, the personal and the platonic.
Of the two, Josef (1888-1976) is much better known. Every museum seems to have an example from his series “Homage to the Square,” and he was an influential figure in the art world as a teacher at Black Mountain College and at Yale. His wife, Anni (1899-1994), is too often treated as a kind of artful appendage to the master. She was a “textile designer” and maker of “crafts” – an interesting figure, that is, but not a painter. The exhibit Anni Albers, now at the Jewish Museum, should help correct this injustice. Organized by Nicholas Fox Weber and Pandora Tabatabai Asbaghi, the show includes more than 200 works, including wall hangings, pictorial weavings, various fabric designs, and prints. Anni’s early weavings were made at the Bauhaus, the legendary German school where Josef taught. The Bauhaus artists hoped to break down visual experience into its fundamental qualities – its alphabet – and did not believe in the established hierarchies of art and craft. Instead, infused with utopian dreams of a new world, they sought to remake the arts into a revolutionary and unified vision of the modern.
At the Bauhaus, Albers earned her diploma with a sound-absorbing and light-reflecting wall covering made for an auditorium. She continued for much of her life to create inventive fabrics intended to be useful in some way, many of which are on view in the exhibit. But she also began to make what are called pictorial weavings – works hung flat on the wall like paintings – especially after she and her husband moved to America. Although these images typically have a strong rectilinear or geometric structure, the rippling beauty of the weave and the beguiling texture of the cloth add a softening, playful, even quixotic note. The works are at once lively and restful; many retain the utopian inflection of her youth. In The Pasture, the gentle grid suggests the order of a well-laid-out field, the complementary reds and greens speak of a harmony between animal and land, and the rough weave conveys an impression of clods of grassy earth and bumpy swellings of ground. The play of rectangles in Cityscape, in turn, has the jazzy syncopation – and underlying order – of the modern city.
Albers could create extraordinary effects. Some strands of silver thread woven into an intricate design could add a sparkling of light to a piece of cloth; the weaving-together of dusky and pale planes could establish a powerful sense of receding space. She was not an artist who ordinarily made social and political comments in her work, but the exhibition does include Six Prayers, an important piece about the Holocaust that has the dignified presence of religious ritual. The six weavings resemble prayer shawls. The interlacing of discordant lines suggests both control and mayhem, darkness and light; human beings appear woven of good and evil on the loom of nature. As a historical figure, Albers is a fascinating study in both restraint and freedom. She was bound to a husband and tied to a “craft,” yet always proudly – and grandly – refused the role of victim. She made a virtue of necessity, much as a great poet uses the constraints of rhyme to find a new thought.