Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, in 1937 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource New York/Scala

The whole world in a spool of thread: when Anni Albers reimagined the craft of weaving as a modern art form, she took the geometric precision encouraged by her Bauhaus teachers in Weimar, flew with the experimental energy of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, found her most potent inspiration in ancient Peruvian and Mexican motifs, and all the time employed sources as diverse as Japanese screens, the abstract paintings of her peers, and mathematical codes.

Her democratising, globalised story, original in its particulars but encompassing key shifts in 20th-century art — women’s role as pioneers of new media, America emerging from European influence to seize postwar dominance, crossovers of art and design — is told for the first time in the UK in Tate Modern’s marvellously orchestrated, fresh and lively retrospective.

At miniature or monumental scale, as pure abstraction, pictorial suggestion or objects for functional use — her point was that all could be works of art — Albers’ textiles ravish and intrigue the eye through bursts of colour and plays of texture. Flaring reds, pale turquoise and hot oranges in “South of the Border”, tightly woven in cotton and wool in a small landscape format, distil the intensity of brightness and heat she loved in Mexico. A massive gold-white jute and lurex free-hanging room divider, designed for student bedrooms at the Harvard Law faculty in 1949, has a loose open weave, modulating different light conditions. The thick studded cream-brown patterns of cotton and linen interwoven with plastic in “Variations on a Theme” suggest rhythmic patterns of musical notation.

Anni Albers
Intersecting 1962
Pictorial weaving, cotton and rayon
400 x 419 mm
Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop
© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London
‘Intersecting’ (1962) © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

As gifted and rigorous a colourist and constructor as her uncompromising abstract painter husband Josef, Anni Albers today seems the more interesting, for her flair for materials to create art “close to the stuff the world is made of”, as she put it. From flat grey-cream linen she evokes night falling on a high-rise metropolis (“City”), and in a dance of black-gold wavy jute and lurex lines she offers a visual approximation of memory in the tombstone-shaped “Epitaph”. These are models of vivid modern abstraction, self-contained works to be hung on the wall like pictures, but with a different material presence from that of paintings.

Anni married Josef in 1925 when both worked at the Bauhaus, Germany’s idealistic school of design, art and architecture launched in 1919 amid post-first world war social breakdown. The couple’s dialogue was life-long, despite Josef’s serial infidelity and Anni’s marginalisation as his partner. “Just the wife hanging around,” she would say self-mockingly while working — though the freedom was beneficial, too, for an artist resolutely following her own path.

Initially reluctant to take a course in weaving — the other Bauhaus classes were full, at least to women — Albers quickly grasped the painterly potential of thread. “Black White Yellow” (1926), her earliest wall-hanging here, is composed of only three colours, but shimmers of lemon, lime, creams and greys pulsate across a surface animated by contrasts between shiny silk and matt cotton.

Anni Albers
Design for Wall Hanging 1926
Gouache and pencil on paper
356 x 292 mm
Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the designer
© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London
Anni Albers’ ‘Design for Wall Hanging’ (1926) © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Nearby hangs Paul Klee’s lyrical arrangement of warm-hued rectangles “Measured Fields”; Albers cited watching Klee mix layers of watercolour on paper as a determining influence.

A lovely sequence of her own linear, geometric gouache designs in bands of primary colour from the 1920s — few early textiles survived her move to America in 1933 — are clearly in conversation with Klee, Mondrian and her husband. But while the men sought measure and order to contain brushstrokes — Josef Albers loathed “that sentimental self-expression business” of German art — Anni was paradoxically liberated by the grid of the loom.

Fundamentally structured on the basis of verticals and horizontals, weaving embodies the grid in its warp and weft; thus this old-fashioned craft offers a paradigm for geometric abstraction and minimalism. For Albers the reassuring strength of the discipline encouraged experimentation with textural and chromatic variants: the blended fading/deepening pink hues in the blush of rough linen “Development in Rose II”; the all-over swarm of woollen knots in “Dotted”.

Anni Albers
TR II 1970
50.5 x 55.6 cm The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany CT
© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London
Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art
‘TR II’ (1970) © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London / Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

“Great freedom can be a hindrance because of the bewildering choices it leaves us, while limitations, when approached open-mindedly, can spur the imagination to make the best use of them and possibly even overcome them,” Albers wrote. Her Bauhaus training gave formal toughness; America — the empirical, pragmatic ethos at Black Mountain, a community of artists, writers and philosophers founded in 1933, plus her enraptured visits south — really unleashed her inventiveness.

She was nearly 40 when she made the fragile masterpiece “Ancient Writing” (1936) in response to excavations at Monte Albán encountered on her first trip to Mexico. Using a floating weft technique, interlacing an additional weft thread over the woven surface, she imitated in sumptuous black and gold the “layer upon layer of former civilisations under the ground”, in a schematic version of the archaeological process itself.

Drawing on the encrypted symbolic language of weaving traditions, Albers was after the “quality of mystery” that coexisted with the “expressive directness” of ancient textiles. “La Luz” (1947), another standout, centres on a cross, radiating through linen and metallic thread a light that seems immaterial, although the tactile quality of the weaving is visible.

Anni Albers
Epitaph 1968 Pictorial weaving 1498 x 584 mm The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany CT
© 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London
‘Epitaph’ (1968) © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

In the 1950s-1960s, in works including the enigmatic “Open Letter” and “Haiku”, she made rich use of calligraphy and hieroglyphs. “Code” is a vertical oblong scroll whose threads of differing volumes and materials — metal, hemp, cotton — create staccato signs and fluent strokes resembling a mysterious script. The expressive minimalism is fascinatingly close to that of Cy Twombly, a Black Mountain alumnus, who developed his language of scratchy graffiti at this time, and places Albers in a lineage to conceptual art-and-language practitioners today.

Not that she can be pigeonholed; as the show unfolds, there are frequent unexpected turns. The silver-grey-beige “Six Prayers”, commissioned in 1966-67 by New York’s Jewish Museum in memory of 6m Holocaust deaths, and the most ambitious of what Albers called her “pictorial weavings”, are a sextet of long hangings reminiscent of prayer shawls; interlaced but discordant lines suggest chaos, darkness pierced by light — almost symbolic, the pieces are infused with the presence of religious ritual (Albers was secular).

From the same year is the glorious modernist construction of crimson triangles locked together of “Camino Real”. Zany, with pop overtones yet recalling Zapotec architecture, the tapestry — the gouache designs for which are here — was woven for a Mexico City hotel built for the 1968 Olympics.

Unafraid to look either back or forwards, Albers steered an exceptionally optimistic course for her own interpretation of modernism: rooted in material existence, non-dogmatic, human-scaled and still inspirational.

To January 27,

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