Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
2 E 91st Street, New York City
October 1, 2004 – February 27, 2005
“Josef and Anni Albers: Design for Living” at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is a tour de force of what I’ll call ‘restrained intimacy’. Both were students at the Bauhaus where they took the best their teachers had to offer, and through their intense dialogue with one another created something no artistic movement could contrive: actual love of material form.
Viewers are likely drawn to one or the other of this couple: They couldn’t appear to be more yin/yang, male/female. Bet the truth is, they both show a great deal of slippage when broken down in such terms. One remembers Josef for his ominously dull and fascinating “Homage to the Square” series that he made after coming to America; the curators decided to omit those works in favor of emphasis on his early design and furniture works. While at first looking overtly rectangular and manly, Albers as a furniture designer looks like a handmade and more austere version of Marcel Breuer. His rectangular forms seem to predict Donald Judd, only his emphasis on intimate detailing makes me feel as if Judd would have dreamt these objects as opposed to have made them. Anni Albers is known for her quilts, but really her target is painting. While at the Bauhaus she was encouraged to take weaving instead of painting. It seems obvious to me, that she never really stopped painting. Her tapestries, supremely rich in color and form, are a shockingly powerful, in their sense of efficacy that seems to have left the Bauhaus imitators in the dust. As both an advance on the Klee’s whimsy and as a precursor to minimalism, Anni Albers was by no means feminine and quaint.
But what really makes this show work is the comparison between these two artists. The curators have done an excellent job balancing them. The first room is dominated by Anni’s weavings, including two outrageous masterpieces (1925 and 1926). Through color and form, there exists no painting equal to the power of Anni’s subtle shifts in fabric. This is balanced with Josef’s asymmetrical brick fireplace (1955) and a few pieces of early furniture. While there is a cute play back and forth between these two in asymmetries, the real kick lies in the next room where we see the basic color scheme of Anni’s wall hanging (1925) reappear in Josef’s set of four stacking chairs (1927).
The comparisons get even more striking when in the next room we have Josef’s early glass designs paired with Anni’s watercolor design drawings. This is the room where the most surprises lay. Josef’s glass works look almost bohemian and funky such as in “Grid Picture” (1921) and “Park” (1924). Anni in her two rug designs from 1927, a psychedelic interplay of shapes and forms that let loose her unbridled sense of sheer creativity. While Josef in “Upward”, a glasswork from 1926, draws from Anni’s subtle forms and imbues it a sense of cool restraint. And as revolutionary as Anni was with weaving, Josef explorations with glass are similarly ‘touchy-feely’.
The last large room is filled mostly with Josef’s furniture and design objects, many dating from a commission for the Mollenhoff apartment in Berlin. They are surrounded by Anni’s later tapestries as screens, set up to look like paintings in an apartment. Again, there is an extraordinary merger of the two sensibilities. There is also a standout display of Anni’s handmade jewelry, made out of simple industrial materials: ribbons, washers, paperclips and bobby pins. Josef’s bed and night tables from 1927 really did it for me. In such simple details such as the night table round handles turned inward to face the bed, one really gets the sense of intimacy and sensitive feelings present in both these artist’s oeuvre.
The curators here have given us a special gift in this show, and that is quite simply, the Albers’ sensitive gift of love.