Published: October 26, 2004
Modernism has had a long run in America, so it is a pleasure to learn that there is still something new to say. In “Josef & Anni Albers: Designs for Living,” at the Cooper-Hewitt, the textiles and furniture of these two artists are surveyed for the first time in a joint exhibition.
Josef and Anni Albers began their careers at the Bauhaus, the modern design school in Germany, in the 1920s. After the school was shut down in 1933, they settled in America, first in North Carolina, teaching at Black Mountain College, and later in Connecticut, where Josef Albers was chairman of Yale’s department of design.
But it is for their association with the Bauhaus that the glamour lingers after all these years. The earliest works on display are Josef Alber’s experiments in stained glass, which he undertook beginning in 1920. These assemblages of broken bottles and bits of wire – the fruit of his scavenges in the town dump – are representative of his student years, when he was already executing commissions for Bauhaus director Walter Gropius (untitled, 1921). By the mid-1920s, after the school’s shift from craftsmanship to industrial design, Albers was painting on sandblasted glass, which obviated the need for a supportive metal framework (“Upward,” circa 1926). What had been a colored grid (“Park,” circa 1924) became, so to speak, an abstraction of a colored grid.
It is familiar territory, given new meaning by the proximity of his wife’s textile designs. Although the Alberses worked side-by-side for decades, they did not collaborate, which means there are no who-did-what disputes. They were drawing on the same influences, though, including the color theories of the painter Paul Klee, who was a teacher at the Bauhaus.
Thanks to Klee, Anni Albers’s startling and complex patterns were simplified and, she believed, better adapted to their purpose. Klee’s belief that textiles were “serving objects” is borne out in the period photographs on display that show bare walls and plain carpets and rugs. The Modern German interior did not, it seems, accommodate the bright wall hangings like those made by Anni Albers in the mid-1920s (“Wall Hanging,” 1925). Apparently, such works were even omitted from the Alberses own living room at the Bauhaus.
The highlight of the show is the furnishings that Josef Albers designed for Fritz and Anna Moellenhoff. Individual pieces are on view in public collections, but this is the first time since the patrons’ deaths that they have been brought together. The assembled sofas and tables refute the assumption that the Modern interior was necessarily “cold” – an assumption reinforced, incidentally, by the circa 1928 photo of Anni Albers’s bedroom, with its bare white walls and sparse furnishings.
The double armoire, circa 1927, the most substantial piece, doubles effectively as wood paneling with its clean planes of walnut and maple. Also noteworthy is the sofa, circa 1927, which belongs squarely to its time while arguably tracing descent from the boxy refinement of Regency designer Thomas Hope. The office desk, circa 1927, conveys the same seriousness, suggesting the taste of someone who liked to write, rather than of someone who liked to imagine himself writing.
Lettering and typeface, a little known dimension to Josef Albers’s career, are also included. These samples, preserved on grid paper and holiday cards, belong to the efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to simplify the highly elaborate German script. In Josef Albers’s case, they also suggest a somewhat heavy-handed wit; hence, the New Year’s cards that he adapted from a postcard of the Smoky Mountains. “A Good 39” painted Albers on the aerial view, with the number three represented by a famously looping road. He liked the joke so much that he used it again four years later for 1943.
The exhibition and catalog add to the substantial scholarship about Josef Albers’s work, and they add to the growing interest in Anni Albers, whose career was, for many years, documented in flimsy ephemera – the checklists and announcements that were an inaccurate gauge of her contribution to Twentieth Century textiles.
During her lifetime, she achieved a certain eminence for her work, which she sometimes produced for former Bauhaus colleagues. The exhibition includes swatches for these notable commissions, including the bedspreads and room dividers, 1950, for Gropius’s Harvard Graduate Center. The subdued plaids and stripes look suitable for a summer camp in the Adirondacks, though they are in the tradition of the rectilinear patterns that Anni Albers first designed at the Bauhaus.
Then there were the one-ofs, like the drapery material, circa 1944, for the Rockefeller Guest House, a project she undertook at the request of architect Philip Johnson – the guesthouse was donated to the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 and later sold for $11 million – who was an influential admirer of her work. Notwithstanding the natural colors and nubby texture, this commission was one of her many experiments in the use of synthetics. Cellophane, which is used in the weave, emerged as one of her favorite materials in the 1920s, along with rayon, aluminum and plastic.
The exhibition was organized by Nicholas Fox Weber, the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut. Weber has spent his career researching and promoting the work of the two artists, who befriended him in the 1970s when he was a disaffected graduate student at Yale. Josef Albers, in particular, sympathized with the young man, deploring – in memorably pungent language – the pedantry of the art history department.
The personal note comes through in Weber’s catalog essay, which conveys the Alberses’ austerity and dogmatic unpretentiousness. The couple is also present in photographs scattered throughout the show, staring out at the viewer with quizzical intensity.
“Josef & Anni Albers: Designs for Living” is a poignant exhibition, in part, because it celebrates a modern style that is nearly a century old. It should be of interest to anyone who appreciates German Modernism and to anyone who never really understood its enduring appeal.
The exhibit is on view through February 27. The Cooper-Hewitt, open Tuesday through Sunday, is at 2 East 91st Street at Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-849-8400.
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