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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Lavinia Greenlaw on Anni Albers at the Tate

I left the Albers retrospective feeling a mixture of triumph and rage.

By Lavinia Greenlaw

We studied the Bauhaus at school: Walter Gropius’s theories of design, Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color, Marcel Breuer’s tubular-steel chairs. I don’t remember a single woman’s name being mentioned. Years later, when I visited the Bauhaus archive in Berlin, everything that seemed most radical and delightful had been made by a woman. The Bauhaus, a fulcrum of modernist design, claimed that it was open to “any person of good repute, without regard to age or sex”, but Gropius also thought that women were less able than men to think in three dimensions. When Anni Albers (then Fleischmann) joined in 1922, she was, like most women students, allocated to the textiles department. She took the craft of weaving into the heart of the modernist project and asserted its potential as art.

When I visited Tate Modern’s major retrospective of Albers’s work, the thing that struck me most was its beauty. Her engagement with colour is every bit as exhilarating and investigatory as that of her husband, for whom she was a vital collaborator. Close up, you can see how this beauty is inextricable from adventure and intelligence. Her work is always exploratory and has the conviction that comes from an artist able to depend only on themselves. She once said that “most important to one’s own growth is to see oneself leave the safe ground of accepted conventions and to find oneself alone and self-dependent. It is an adventure which can permeate one’s whole being.”

Albers worked in complex geometric abstractions but also made “pictorial weavings” that are poised on the cusp of image. She explores every aspect of what she’s doing: experimenting with floating threads, knots and the visual pull of meandering lines. She studied the theory of knots and numerical sequencing in nature.

Women artists (including writers) routinely turn out to be more radical than the men around them. Withheld from the centre, misinterpreted and disequipped, they have to be.

This exhibition is the latest in a growing number to feature this shadow canon of artists: Joan Jonas, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton and, forthcoming, Dorothea Tanning, also at Tate Modern (if you think surrealism is all about melting watches, go to see this). Every time I go to another of these shows, I come out feeling a mixture of triumph and rage. These artists command us to take nothing for granted, to act and not simply react. They remind us that we must resist values formed out of exclusion but not resist values that lead to the production of art.

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Every work in the Albers show asks questions about image, depiction, material, pattern, rhythm, sensation. If you search for Anni Albers online, you’ll find that the word “quiet” comes up a lot – as it usually does for women (along with “domestic” and “lyrical”). Fuck “quiet”.

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special