Initiation: an Interview by Anni Albers

Anni Albers, Photograph of Anni Albers card weaving at Black Mountain College. Anni Albers taught Weaving and Textile Design at Black Mountain College from 1933-1949. Courtesy The North Carolina State Archives

Anni Albers, Photograph of Anni Albers card weaving at Black Mountain College. Anni Albers taught Weaving and Textile Design at Black Mountain College from 1933-1949. Courtesy: The North Carolina State Archives

One of the first things I found at the very beginning of Black Mountain Research was an interview of Anni Albers conducted 1968 July 5, by Sevim Fesci, for the Archives of American Art, in New Haven, Connecticut. Albers speaks of her educational background; Paul Klee as a teacher; color in weaving; techniques and materials; Peruvian and European textiles; her “sound-absorbing” textile designed for the Bauhaus auditorium; and her weaving workshop at Black Mountain College. Weaving for Albers is a practise of connecting various forms of art production and crossing the boundaries of separated disciplines like painting and architecture. This understanding of weaving is crucial for my understanding of research based learning processes.

Listening to Anni Albers I close my eyes and imagine her immediate presence in a classroom, in a studio or in the dining hall of Black Mountain. The presence of her voice brings her alive for a uncanny instant, revealing an invisible but audible portrait of herself:

Listen to an extract of the interview:

For me the crucial part of the interview is in this section:

SEVIM FESCI: Yes. And then you came to Black Mountain?

ANNI ALBERS: To Black Mountain College. During the start and rise of the Hitler period we received a letter at Berlin which said, “Will you consider coming to Black Mountain College? It’s a pioneering adventure.” And when we came to that point we both said, “That’s our place.” And it turned out to be a very interesting place because it gave us a freedom to build up our own work. Josef built up his whole teaching there and his whole color work which has nothing to do with anything we had left behind in Europe. I built up a weaving workshop and got into teaching and developed teaching methods that . . . .

SEVIM FESCI: What is your method of teaching? How do you . . . ?

ANNI ALBERS: Well, maybe it’s an exaggerated term to call it “method” at all. But I tried to put my students at the point of zero. I tried to have them imagine, let’s say, that they are in a desert in Peru, no clothing, no nothing, no pottery even at at that time (it has been now proved that archaeologically textiles have come before pottery), and to imagine themselves at the beach with nothing. And what do you do? There are these fish at the Humboldt Current, marvelous fish swimming by, the best in the world in fact, because of the cold current there. And it’s hot and windy. So what do you do? You wear the skin of some kind of animal maybe to protect yourself from too much sun or maybe the wind occasionally. And you want a roof over something and so on. And how do you gradually come to realize what a textile can be? And we start at that point. And I let them use anything, grasses, and I don’t know what. And let them also imagine what did they use at that point. Did they take the skin of fish and cut it into strips possibly to make longitudinal elements out of which they could knot something together to catch the fish? And get carrying materials in that way.

SEVIM FESCI: Quite a bit of imagination there.

ANNI ALBERS: Exactly. Absolutely inventing something. And gradually then we invented looms out of sticks and so on. And the Peruvian back strap loom. And once they understand these basic elements, that the Peruvian back strap loom has embedded in it everything that a high power machine loom today has. And they understand it in a completely different sense than walking into a factory and seeing these things operate because they know what is necessary and what kind of inventions have occurred in the course of history. Well, this is a very rough way of doing it. So it goes back to imagination and invention.

SEVIM FESCI: Yes. And how many years did you teach there?

ANNI ALBERS: How long? Well, we were there for 16 years. And I continued here in a free lance way. And you develop those ideas. Because I don’t think I started that way in Black Mountain. I think I started with the loom and so on. And in my two books you will find various developments of some of these ideas and how I went about it and how I developed it. So I have been working in these three areas: utilitarian fabrics, teaching, and the things in the direction of art.

SEVIM FESCI: That’s very interesting. I would like to ask you, today,  is weaving fashionable?

ANNI ALBERS: No, no. And I think also that the invention of new knitting machines comes much closer to what we need today. That is shaped fabrics for wearing. While the Peruvians had shaped fabrics in weaving and worked them in very intricate ways, but we wouldn’t think of wearing underwear woven out of heavier material and the shaping would be very difficult and awkward, while the knitting process perhaps does it now already, and probably more in the future. So weaving I think is probably a dying art in a way. Although you wouldn’t believe it seeing the millions of yards of material that are produced today. But perhaps less for wear than for interiors and so on.

SEVIM FESCI: And what would be for you a definition of weaving if somebody asked you? What does it require? A lot of discipline maybe?

ANNI ALBERS: Well, that is vague because anything needs that. I think it is closest to architecture because it is a building up out of a single element, to building a whole out of single elements.

SEVIM FESCI: Yes, I understand. Yes, it is closer to architecture than painting or sculpture.

ANNI ALBERS: Yes, because you are building up something. While painting is applied on to something. Sculpture uses a given material. But, on the other hand, sculptors today are welding very much; they are building again something out of elements. So there is an interpenetration in the various fields really.

Source: The transcript of this interview is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Anni Albers, 1968 July 5, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

by Annette Jael Lehmann, Professor for Visual Cultures at Freie Universität Berlin
and Director of Black Mountain Research