An interview with Brenda Danilowitz of the Albers foundation
Why is Anni Albers considered a great textile artist?
Written by one of the twentieth century’s leading textile artists, this splendidly illustrated book is a luminous meditation on the art of weaving, its history, its tools and techniques, and its implications for modern design. With her focus on materials and handlooms, Anni Albers discusses how technology and mass production place limits on creativity and problem solving, and makes the case for a renewed embrace of human ingenuity that is particularly important today. Now available for a new generation of readers, this expanded edition of On Weaving updates the book’s original black-and-white illustrations with full-color photos, and features an afterword by Nicholas Fox Weber and essays by Manuel Cirauqui and T’ai Smith that shed critical light on Albers and her career. Read on for our Q&A with Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, to learn more about the legacy of Anni Albers.
Why does Anni Albers continue to be an important influence on contemporary artists and designers?
In recent years there has been an energetic resurgence of interest in skilled craft, material awareness, and efficient design. Anni Albers’s work and philosophy are a guiding force. Artists working in textiles look to the inventiveness of her craft, while artists in other disciplines find inspiration in its proportions and aesthetic brilliance. Her laser-like intelligence and acute perception of the magic to be discovered in the mundane make her writing a must for amateur and professionals alike. Designers are attuned to her problem-solving skills and the courage she showed in using new materials and making art a part of life. Her focus on experimentation and independent thinking is a boon to contemporary educators. Albers considered material a means of communication and the weaving studio a laboratory for experimental work in construction and design. For her, handlooms allowed for the slow operation necessary for experimentation. To create something lasting was to pay close attention to the material at hand, and she let the thread lead the way.
Is On Weaving intended for weavers only?
Absolutely not—Albers addresses the book’s wide appeal in her introduction: “Perhaps I should start out by saying that this book is not a guide for weavers or would-be weavers, nor is it a summary of textile achievement, past or present. . . . My concern here was to comment on some textile principles underlying some evident facts. By taking up textile fundamentals and methods, I hoped to include in my audience not only weavers but also those whose work in other fields encompasses textile problems. This book, then, is an effort in that direction.”
On Weaving relates to all makers, artists, designers, students, teachers, philosophers, historians, and readers. Albers writes in a clear and engaging manner that works on many levels. She tells a compelling history of weaving that parallels cultural evolution and how textiles have influenced human progress over the past 8,000 years. She gives notes and diagrams that work on multiple levels: they are instructive for the experienced weaver and also reveal more advanced construction techniques to the non-weaver. Albers walks us through a design problem—creating a wall fabric for a museum—so that we might see her process and the kinds of questions she asks. The final chapter has broader implications for design and its relationship to both nature and technology and offers a philosophy that resonates today.
How was Anni Albers involved in the original book’s design? How does her process translate to the new and expanded edition?
In designing On Weaving, Albers focused on collecting the highest quality images, highlighting a symbiotic relationship between text and image. In her introduction, Albers explains: “I approached the subject as one concerned with the visual, structural side of weaving.” Over the course of twenty years, Albers researched and collected images from institutions, museums, acquaintances, and fellow artists within the United States and abroad, handpicking objects during personal visits to New York City. She often used textile-focused publications as a first point of reference, bringing together the best images for her own book. As a result, reviewers and readers continuously praised On Weaving for its illustrations.
Albers desired to publish in color and even requested grants to do so: 52 years later, the new edition features more than 100 full-color images of objects originally produced in black and white. The stunning new color plates give readers a privileged understanding of Albers’s eye for structure, texture, and color.
The new edition of On Weaving pays homage to the original book’s design, in which the image plates are gathered together at the back, separate from the text, almost like a field guide. The book is generally half text and half image and a reader may choose to read the text straight through, or dip into sections, or browse the images, thereby opening up possibilities to make new connections.
What else is new in the “new and expanded” edition?
Along with new full-color, full-page images, all objects in the original book have been retained, with new photography of Albers’s own textile and graphic work. For example, the diagrams Albers created for the original On Weaving are presented in the new edition as art objects, leaving the artist’s hand visible. In addition, new essays by contributing scholars provide context for understanding the importance of Albers’s achievements. Manuel Cirauqui’s essay “Two Faces of Weaving” considers the opposite poles of Albers’s work and how she was able to weave contradictions into a unified philosophy. T’ai Smith’s subtle essay, “On Reading ‘On Weaving,’” considers the implications of the original book’s design and provides a framework for understanding how the book relates to the rest of Albers’s oeuvre. The new edition also features a personal afterword by Albers Foundation director Nicholas Fox Weber, who knew Anni during her life. Weber creates a lovely portrait of a friend and mentor and provides a window into the artist’s more personal motivations.
The original On Weaving was in print for twenty years through the 1980s. Since then, the hardcover and subsequent paperback editions have become rare and expensive, though they continue to be in high demand. Using the latest print technology, we were able to make the new edition available at an affordable price and in full color with striking resolution to a much larger audience. Albers’s intention to create something meaningful and timeless, her efforts to connect the past to the present, and her understanding of the process and progress of technology hold important lessons today.