The Union of Fine and Practical

Joseph and Anni Albers at the Busch-Reisinger through the summer

LINE, COLOR, texture are among the artist's most basic tools. Usually they are means to the ends of representation, statement or expression. Rarely are they so joyfully acknowledged and celebrated as ends in themselves as they are in the works of Josef and Anni Albers. The Albers and their students at Black Mountain College are the subject of an eclectic exhibition at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, an exhibition which draws on nearly forty years of artistic production to reveal the creative energy and inquisitive imagination of two of the finest masters of abstract design.

The Albers--she a tapestry designer, weaver, printmaker, he a painter, designer of furniture and stained glass and an investigator of color phenomenon--were students and then teachers at the now-legendary Weimar Bauhaus. There they joined a movement that had proclaimed in 1919, "There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman." In 1933, when the Albers were invited to teach at North Carolina's Black Mountain College, a progressive artistic community, they brought with them a faith in the artistic potential of the machine and a determination to erase the distinction between the fine and applied arts.

The works on exhibit at the Busch-Reisinger, whether utilitarian or purely aesthetic in purpose, support Anni Albers's statement that, "The good designer is the anonymous designer ...the one who does not stand in the way of his material." The screenprints, lithographs, textile samples, paintings--even Josef Albers's photographs and his silver holders for ice tea glasses--show an overriding concern with the impersonal qualities of formal design.

The language the Albers use, straight lines and geometric figures arranged with such machine-like precision that evidence of the artist's hand is almost totally effaced, would threaten to create a world so cerebral and austere that it would seem to be sterile were it not for the extraordinary sensitivity of each artist to the nuances of color and--particularly in the works of Anni Albers--texture.

It is the weaving samples, upholstery materials and tapestry pieces of Anni Albers and her students which provide the unexpected delights of this exhibition. The fabric swatches, taken out of context, isolated and framed against white backgrounds, lose their identity as functional objects and become complements to the two-dimensional prints of Josef Albers. The interweaving of threads, the alternation of horizontals and verticals, the contrast between the soft haze of nubbly fibers and the smooth sheen of tightly woven threads become pure formal design. One notices, as one would probably never think to do when looking at a dress or chair cover, the range of colors, weights, twists of threads natural and man-made that have been deliberately arranged to create an almost infinite variety of patterns. The fabrics take on an incredibly sensual quality that belies the mechanical method by which they were produced. Because they are juxtaposed with the cloth pieces, the graphic prints are seen as magnifications of the patterns that had been created by the interweaving of threads.


In contrast to the Albers, who rarely use curved lines, circles or non-geometric forms, their students often choose to dramatize the formal qualities of rhythm and movement. The black and white studies of triangles and spirals and the word designs on newsprint of Ruth Asawa, the best of the Black Mountain students whose work is shown, have a jagged irregularity and a pulsating energy that contrasts with the pristine order and elegance of her teachers' works.

Asawa learned from the Albers a new way in which to perceive the basic tools of design. In one of the poems used to punctuate the series of prints and paintings, Josef Albers speaks of art as "essentially purpose/and seeing (schauen) that form demands/multiple presentation/manifold performance." In this display of the works of Josef and Anni Albers we are treated to a glorious wealth of multiple presentation that affirms the creative intelligence of the artists.