I’ve been trying to spend a little time each day stretching my mind to understand more closely the world of Anni Albers. I don’t want to lose the excitement and wonder I felt at the recent exhibition at the Ruthin Craft Centre..
This morning I’ve been looking at just one piece called La Luz 1 (1947). This is Albers first pictorial weaving made in cotton, hemp and metallic gimp 47 x 82.5 cm (18 1/2 x 32 1/2 in.). It features in Ruthin’s beautiful catalogue but not in the show itself. The piece is currently in the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Connecticut, MA.
I realised during the week following my visit to Ruthin that I simply couldn’t write about the whole Albers exhibition. It would have to be one piece, or in the case of the samples on view, a small collection at a time. There are three pieces shown in the catalogue, 2 in the show, that really fascinate me, and I want to spend time thinking about. La Luz 1 is shown across a double page in the catalogue. The photo is therefore large enough to show fine detail, and it is this detail that so grabs my attention.
What strikes me so forcefully is the unevenness of the surface design outcome and (I imagine) the surface texture. I have just taken a piece of paper with a small square cut into it, and putting it over the bottom left hand part of the photo examined what the cut away square reveals.
By doing this I find myself making reference to my own work and what I have accepted as a kind of requirement, an expectation of what constitutes a woven surface – that is a kind of neatness, an evenness, something that meets with traditional values in craft.
When I look at La Luz 1 I see a richness and an invention that no matter how often I might gaze at it will not easily give away its secrets or the sense of its structure. Anni Albers and her husband (Josef) talked and wrote much about ‘pure form’. This is the idea of an artistic work without a subject made so that one comes to it with no preconceived notions or emotions. For Josef Albers the square was his pure form and he did hundreds of pieces using this form, often with just two colours. La Luz 1 has neither purity nor a stable form. It is subversive in its weave structure and highly unstable in its form , which makes its form highly expressive.
Every minute I look at La Luz it seems to expand the way I think about my own ambitions to weave, develops my own vision a little. Exactly what is this ? I ask myself . . . and I feel terribly impatient to start working – drafting a design or experimenting at the loom. I’m beginning to think I am not very able at imagining what I want to make – holding an idea in front of me.
So I’m trying to work from viewing La Luz 1 into something that reflects an observed structure but carries an expressive character. In many ways it is no different from carefully listening to a piece of music and making discoveries about how such music makes expressive gestures; how it holds the attention or seems to offer different readings or interpretations. I heard an interview last night with the American lutenist Hopkinson Smith who said about the music he plays ‘this is not elevator music, it’s music to stop and listen to. It can move your soul’. So with La Luz 1, this is not some wall hanging to glance at and pass by. Its texture and detail draws you in and invites a commitment to look and look again. It’s full of such expressiveness I hardly know what to do with myself after looking at it for a while! It does move my soul.
All that said a piece like La Luz 1 is just intensely stimulating. It is one of the few pieces I have examined by Albers that I can really imagine being designed ‘at the loom’, something she did she insisted in her book ‘On Design’. I do find it very musical in its structure, its arrangement of colours. It is not so much a composition but an interpretation of an idea performed at the loom. The warp is the simplest threading of black cotton, but the weft is so rich and varied, not just in colour, but in thickness and shape. The woven weft is so uneven, it seems to wobble across its trajectory, and from time to time bulges as though the weft hemp yarn is swollen. The metallic gimp (this is a type of yarn that is spiral in structure and requires two doublings, the first to form a two-fold spiral, at the second doubling a fine tight thread is added) predominates, but its beating down is often dramatically uneven.
I think this pictorial weaving is full of, and speaks of, the courage an artist has to reveal an emotional response – in this case I surmise Albers experience of Latin America, possibly the town of La Luz where she and her husband stayed during their year long sabbatical journey through Mexico and southward. There is the backdrop of the Mexican and Peruvian landscapes, the flash of the Pacific, the colours of natural objects and animals, the not quite rightness of indigenous architecture, the provisionality of things, and light, always the light. I imagine if I stood in front of this piece the metallic gimp would reflect and tremble, something the camera image can’t show. And there’s the cross in double weave woven into the centre of the image. In Latin America the cross is invariably a symbol of light, the glare of the sun. It touches all everyday life – it is there in every room. It is a continual presence and a reminder: of death, of life, of God’s presence amongst us.
I think La Luz 1 also speaks about chance. I just won’t believe the weft of this woven piece was planned carefully beforehand. It embodies that outcome of chance that Anni Albers wrote so convincingly about, and is quoted in the Ruthin catalogue:
How do we choose our specific material, our means of communication? “Accidently”. Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness: it catches us and asks us to be formed. We are finding our language, and as we go along we learn to obey the rules and limits of the material. Ideas flow from it to us and though we feel to be the creator we involved in a dialogue with our medium. The more subtly we are tuned to our medium, the more inventive our actions will become. Not listening to it ends in failure. (Years ago I once asked John Cage how he started to find his way. “By chance” was the answer.) Students worry about choosing their way. I always tell them “you can go anywhere from anywhere”.
From Material as Metaphor (1982)
La Luz 1 was given as a gift to the sculptor Richard Lipport who visited Black Mountain College just before the Albers left for Orange, Connecticut. Lipport gave Anni Variations within a Sphere No.6. Sadly this No.6 of a series of 10 seems to be missing, but here is Nos 1-5 shown above.
With La Luz Anni Albers appears to have started a new phase in her weaving that was to continue for several decades. It is in this period that the other two pieces were made that I aim to explore and discuss : City and Code. But that’s in the future . . .