Made With a Weaver's Eye
With London's Tate Modern announcing an upcoming retrospective survey of the work of the Bauhaus-trained artist and weaver Anni Albers, it appears that I am offered a timely opportunity to signal where I am going to be heading with this newly launched blog. In several ways what follows is intended to serve as a keynote post to 'A New North' as I consider here the blurring of the distinctions between the terms 'art' and craft' over recent years.
In what follows I shall be considering the work of the renowned hand-weaver Anni Albers alongside that of the British modern artist Bernard Cohen, whose work I have come to know quite intimately over the past decade or so. While the recently announced upcoming Albers retrospective at Tate Modern will bring together some of Albers' most important works, many of which will be shown in the UK for the first time, Cohen's output as a painter was also the subject of a modest Tate Spotlight survey at Tate Britain earlier this year, running for six months, from December, 2017.
One of the reasons for showing the work of Albers at Tate Modern, it has been stated by the museum, is to recognise her significance as a textile artist who has made 'a pivotal contribution to modern art and design'. The move also alerts us to Tate Modern's decision to make a much wider commitment to artists working in textiles in the future, too, however, and that is something to be applauded for reasons that I hope will become clear below. As for Cohen, the context for exhibiting a number of his paintings at Tate Britain recently, primarily related to his contribution to modern art in the British context, and marked a resurgence of interest in his work over recent years. That I choose to bring these two artists together on one page here is for the reason that I see strong linkages between them; points of contact, if you like, between two people from very different backgrounds and very different points in time.
And yet... let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Is this blog that I have titled 'A New North' not supposed to be about 'my commitment to the promotion of the arts and crafts of the Northern Highlands of Scotland'? Well, yes and no. It's not quite that clear-cut: If I appear to already be betraying the very clear remit that I set myself in establishing this blog, my hope is that what follows will serve as some qualifying remarks of a more general nature that I may return to in the future – particularly with regard the contexts for our understanding of those somewhat hazy, or ambiguous terms 'art' and 'craft' that are so often set in opposition to each other, regardless of 'location'.
WHERE ART AND CRAFT COLLIDE
Since I first heard that Tate Modern was to stage a major retrospective of work by Anni Albers, I have returned to images of her work frequently, primarily to remind myself of precisely why it is that she is considered just so important. The more I have done so, however, the more I have encountered what I see as core motifs that in the past I have attributed to Bernard Cohen's painting as uniquely his – 'painterly signatures' in the work of a singular artist, as it were. Certainly, I have seen many of Cohen's concerns when constructing his paintings to be closely related to what we might consider an eclectic response to 'craft' sources and methods and, in the broader context, Cohen himself has recognised and commented upon this, also, as we shall see. Indeed, perhaps we should begin here by considering two specific images; one created by Albers in 1947, the other by Cohen in 1962. Both of them, it should be noted, are titled Knot.
From the perspective of Tate Modern's interest in showing the work of Albers, it is said that she combined 'the ancient craft of hand-weaving with the language of modern art, finding within the medium many possibilities for the expression of modern life,' but in consideration of the images above, can we also invert that sentence and claim that Cohen thinks like a hand-weaver, too, and has conversely combined the language of modern art with the ancient craft of weaving? If it seems a little far-fetched at this stage, then so be it, as I'll introduce other images as we go.
Nonetheless, despite the obvious differences in the images above, what we see in both are interwoven bands of colour, seemingly tangled in a haphazard fashion. In both, the colours are red, yellow and blue, although there is greater colour variation in Cohen's painting and certainly greater sense of the artist's gestural mark making on the canvas. If there are differences in the handling it appears largely derived from the medium used, however – Cohen's Knot is painted in oil on canvas, and he blends the colours in ways that Albers cannot; gouache is a medium that allows for this only up to a point.
Of course, the eagle-eyed reader will immediately observe that the images that I juxtapose above are, of course, both examples of 'visual art', not craft, in the sense that Albers' Knot of 1947 was never intended to be woven – we assume it is what it is; a graphic work in gouache on paper. This much is perhaps true, but maybe we should look a little deeper at where she was going with this.
Albers, it is claimed, held a long-standing interest in the relationship between textiles and architecture, for example – something that she refined in writing via her essay titled The Pliable Plane (first published in Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal, 4, 1957), a text in which she called for, ‘a new understanding between the architect and the inventive weaver’. Although Albers' interest in interdiscilpinarity went further than merely an interest in the possible linkages of textile art with architecture, as she wrote in that essay:
If the nature of architecture is the grounded, the fixed, the permanent, then textiles are its very antithesis. If, however, we think of the process of building and the process of weaving and compare the work involved, we will find similarities despite the vast difference in scale. Both construct a whole from separate parts that retain their identity, a manner of proceeding, fundamentally different from that of working metal, for instance, or clay, where parts are absorbed into an entity. This basic difference, however, has grown less clearly defined as new methods are developing, affecting both building and weaving, and are adding increasingly to fusion as opposed to linkage.
The key to what Albers was about here is in her mention of 'process', and certainly in her desire to open up the 'processes' of making in a multidisciplinary way (something that Cohen too might be seen to share in terms of his tendency towards constant and ongoing experimentation and reinvention with each painting that he begins). To understand how Albers came to arrive at her investigations into the fusion of weaving with other forms of 'creative work', we first need to consider something of her history here, too.
ANNI ALBERS & BERNARD COHEN – THE BACKSTORY
Born in Berlin at the turn of the century, Anni Albers (née Annelise Fleischmann) became a student at the Bauhaus in 1922, immersing herself in a world that was populated by other 'greats' of the period such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and the man who would become her husband; her fellow student, Josef Albers, whose name she assumed when they married in 1929. At the Bauhaus, women were actively discouraged from learning disciplines such as painting at this time, however, and for this reason, she began weaving as her primary means of expression, utilising the resources of the school’s weaving workshop where traditional hand-weaving was slowly being redefined as 'modern art'.
With the rise of Nazism in 1933, Anni and Josef Albers left Germany for the USA, where they soon began teaching at the experimental Black Mountain College, North Carolina, founded that year by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, and others. From the USA, she was to make frequent visits to Mexico, Chile and Peru, and over time she assembled an impressive collection of artefacts from a wide range of ancient cultures that were to have a significant influence upon the development of her work and career throughout her life.
Among the faculty at Black Mountain College were the sculptor Ruth Asawa, the architect Walter Gropius, choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and a host of other artists and writers who were embracing the multidisciplinary ethos of the College; Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Allen Ginsberg, to name but a few. From within the multidisciplinary melting pot of Black Mountain College, Albers would come to present a new vision for modern art that owed much to her Bauhaus education. Over time the field of reference in her ongoing development as an artist would draw upon source material from Africa and Asia, also, and it seems there was no point of cross-cultural reference that she excluded from her research.
Contemporaneously to Anni Albers' output during the 1950s (by which time she had moved to New Haven, Connecticut, following Josef Albers' appointment to the new Department of Design at Yale University) Bernard Cohen was a young emerging British artist, working in the very different socio-cultural circumstances of war-torn London that was still undergoing reconstruction. For a few years he was to feel some clear affinity with Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, Jean Dubuffet, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí (he has stated that all had some impact on him to a greater or lesser degree), but it is fair to say, that this was during a period when he was still finding his own 'voice' as an artist. When Cohen's breakthrough finally came, it was to arrive in 1958 with exhibitions at the Midland Group Gallery, Nottingham, and Gimpel Fils, London, both of which indicated the development of a visual vocabulary that drew primarily upon American Abstract Expressionism of the period.
Relatively soon after this, however, with the seminal Situation exhibition of 1960 that pulled together a number of artists identified by the art critic Lawrence Alloway, for a brief time Cohen found a place within a select group of British abstract artists who were showing large-scale works (among them the painters Gillian Ayres, Peter Coviello, Robyn Denny, and Gordon House, as well as the sculptor William Turnbull), but the work he exhibited as part of the Situation group represented a considerable departure from his more gestural work of the late-1950s (above). For Cohen, his own contribution to the Situation group would be a body of work with recurring portal and lintel motifs, and proscenium-like compositions that highlighted his move away from gestural abstraction or, to apply another style-label of the period, his 'action painting.' The work that he showed at the RBA gallery in London as part of the Situation group might be described as far 'tighter', more controlled, and evidence of more formal (though not formulaic) concerns.
Though Cohen has often played down the impact that the first Situation exhibition of 1960 had, it was from this point onwards that he can clearly be identified as a painter whose career would be one of constant experimentation and a frequently voiced antagonism to establishment thinking. Nonetheless, by 1962, the Situation exhibitions had toured Britain, sponsored by that establishment body, the Arts Council, and by the winter of that year had reached as far north as Aberdeen Art Gallery, as is indicated from a clipping from Aberdeen's Evening Express newspaper (December 14, 1962). It is beyond the scope of this text to trace Cohen's development as a painter between 1958 and the mid-1960s in detail, beyond giving the brief backgrounding that I have, however, and instead I want to return to those apparent correspondences in the 'arts' of painting and weaving that might be detected in many of Cohen's later works, and those of Albers too. What interests me here is the clear influence upon Cohen during the early-1960s of what might be described as 'woven forms', for as I shall argue, they often seem to have had their precursor in the work of Anni Albers, whether this was coincidental or not.
ALBERS, COHEN, & THE WOVEN MOTIF
Cohen, himself, has stated explicitly in interviews that I have conducted with him, that weaving has had a direct influence upon his art for decades, and in many ways, it continues to do so. Like Albers, too, he has developed this interest through his research into the weaving and pattern making of ancient cultures, much as she did before him. Where from Yale, Albers had ventured forth to Mexico, Chile, Peru and elsewhere, much later, when Cohen found himself teaching at the University of New Mexico, he too developed an ongoing interest in ancient and indigenous cultural motifs that increasingly entered his work as recurring thematic concerns. As he said in my first interview with him in 2006,
I learned something tremendously important from a woman in New Mexico. She’d lived with Navaho weaving all her life, and I asked her, how do you tell a great weaving from another? "It’s nothing to do with the pattern", she replied, "it’s to do with the weave. If the tension is equally taught in every square inch of the weave, then you know you’ve got a great weaving, and what is woven into it will therefore be great." And I thought, that’s just like painting! Every square inch of the painting must have that tension, both pictorially and in terms of the way the canvas is stretched too!
In that same interview, Cohen was at pains to illustrate just what a distraction the 'art' and 'craft' debate can represent, too. 'I have a great love of things that human beings have made – visual things; some of which are utilitarian, some are made for aesthetic pleasure.' As he continued:
I have a great love of weaving; Navaho weaving for example, and Mimbres pottery too; I love painting of all kinds from all countries; but something happened in the earliest part of the twentieth century – the Duchampian thing about what was, and what was not, a work of art. It was an absolute red herring. I don’t give a toss whether it’s considered a work of art or not. A great deal of what has gone on throughout the last century is to do with that debate and has nothing really to do with human beings making things. I’m only interested in what human beings make and why they make them. As a painter, I am constantly learning, but what I’m not learning from is that quite recent phenomenon called ‘art’. ‘Art’ is a business. 'Art' employs people.
Of course, while this is true for some, things are never quite that simple, and a brief digression here is warranted, I think. The art industry that Cohen has alluded to is, of course, integral to facilitating the ability of younger artists to develop their practice – for example, providing financial assistance to secure the physical space to do so (as well as the time required to see through periods of experimentation) – and however much one might think oneself outside of 'the establishment' that Cohen abhors, the visual arts 'business' is very much founded on a symbiotic relationship between those of the centre and those who consider themselves outside it, or as other.
In the 1960s, for example (a period that Cohen recalls as a time of increasing antagonism among both he and several of his peers to 'the art establishment taking over'), a new establishment was emerging too, and one that he was, in a sense, very much a part of when he was, for example, judging the Northern Young Contemporaries exhibition of 1965 (see the Illustrated London News feature below). Indeed, in the Illustrated London News report below, several young artists of the time speak eloquently of the need to be recognised and supported by establishment bodies to see through the development of their work during the early stages of their careers.
Contemporaneously with Cohen's own emergence as an artist who had won sufficient establishment recognition to not just be valued for his input in judging the work of an upcoming generation of younger artists, but also to be selected to show at the Venice Biennale in 1966, the mid-1960s saw a further development in his work that embraced what appears to be ever-greater complexity than anything he had previously made. If Bernard Cohen can be described as anything, it is probably as an artist who is constantly on the move in terms of his experimental interests.
Works such as the appropriately titled In That Moment (1965) evidence a continuing fascination with the interwoven themes that had first appeared in his painting Knot, three years earlier, and again one might observe similarities here with the simpler yet nonetheless powerful interest in the interplay of order, chaos, and pattern by Albers. The main difference in the examples below, however, is that here the composition from Albers is not realised in the form of a simple graphic work in gouache on paper, but instead, a woven nylon rug!
As we see above, there are formal concerns that appear shared by these two artist/makers of different generations and socio-cultural backgrounds then, and for whom process is often all (in Cohen's case the style-label often applied to his work by art critics and art historians has been 'Process Art'). The only real difference between the objects above, if there are any beyond those that largely relate to the limits of media used, rests with the the way original works of art (including In That Moment) are first marketed as cultural commodities and then later historicized as singular artefacts of value, whereas as rugs generally tend not to be (though they sometimes may).
It may sound simplistic, yet it appears that it is with a weaver's eye that both of these works have come into being, and ultimately this is what I am driving at: Following a period in which Cohen had sought to fully explore to the fullest the most authentic options he felt were open to him as a painter, it seems as though there was no longer an option but to accept, possibly intuitively at first, that he did indeed, paint with a weaver's eye. That said, perhaps only recently can this be argued with some authority, largely with the benefit of hindsight when viewing Cohen's regular reconnoitres into the field of, say, experimental printmaking, too. Let us now consider the art of printmaking and the interplay of that discipline with the broader output of both artists, therefore.
THE WEAVER'S EYE VERSUS AN EYE FOR PATTERN
Printmaking is an art form that Cohen has regularly returned to with astonishing success in his collaboration with master printmakers such as the Colorado-based Bud Shark or, prior to that and closer to home, with both Chris Prater and Peter Kosowicz. Albers herself turned to printmaking throughout much of her later career, too, and as Julia Greenstreet, Curatorial Assistant of the Kenneth Tyler Collection reflects on Albers' first point of contact with lithography:
This proved to be a watershed moment in the artist’s career; Albers was instantly seduced by the possibilities of printmaking. After 40 years of weaving, Albers could ‘take a line for a walk’ like never before. She said of this period, ‘I found that, in lithography, the image of threads could project a freedom I had never suspected.’ The artist’s joy in this newfound freedom is evident in her first print edition, the Line Involvements suite of six lithographs. These works are uncharacteristically painterly and loose in structure, featuring billowing washes for the ground and dynamic arabesques created by thread-like forms. With the flourish of a painter the ground was created by etching with acid, applying crayon with a rag, or streaking with lithographic tusche.
For an artist who, from her time at the Bauhaus, was dissuaded from studying painting on the basis of her gender, it must indeed have come with a sense of total liberation. Albers' Line Involvements II (1964) is near contemporaneous with Cohen's paintings of the period that again display such a stark similarity, reinforcing the sense that these two artists of different generations, cultural experience, and gender, nonetheless have at times shared a hugely similar interest with regard the matter of what they make, and more loosely still, the 'subject' of that 'matter'. Although the compositional formats of their work may differ greatly, the placement of knotted lines or traces in Albers' Line Involvements II are placed in juxtaposition with ethereal, monochromatically graded shapes that resemble something not dissimilar to what one might find when looking into a microscope in a biology lab.
Now compare the above with Generation (below), a painting made by Cohen just two years earlier. I have written elsewhere of this painting in detail, but I want to say something about it here when juxtaposed with the above print from Albers' Line Involvements series.
Firstly, Cohen's Generation of 1962 is a substantial work in egg tempera and oil on linen, not a print, but what do we make of it? The title, Cohen recalls, was arrived at somewhat serendipitously, thanks to the intervention of the sociologist Basil Bernstein during the hanging of Cohen's first solo exhibition at John Kasmin’s gallery in 1963. "Bernard is stuck for a title for this painting," Kasmin had announced to Bernstein, and "Generation" was Bernstein’s quick-witted response – but what did Bernstein see that provoked such a quick-fire titling of a painting he had just encountered? Prominent in the picture are several black lines that sit neither within the picture nor on its surface. They are very much a part of that period in which Cohen was experimenting with knotted lines or forms in his paintings, and Generation was created in the same year that he had painted Knot, too.
If we read it according to its formal characteristics, then Generation is clearly a near-monochromatic work of depth, much like Albers' image above. It is a work of subtlety and ethereal beauty, also, even though it might be read in its complex socio-cultural context too; that is, against the historical background and spirit of those times in which molecular, cellular, and genetic research emerged in the form of new advances in biophysics (to offer just one possible contextual back-story to Bernstein’s thinking, though probably not Cohen's). The understanding of a new molecular world? Maybe. 1962, remember, was also the year that Crick, Watson, and Wilkins jointly received their Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on nucleic acids and the discovery of the structure of DNA.
'Generation' is a painting that possesses a near-disorienting ability to shift effortlessly along the spectrum of scale. There is a sense that we are at once looking down into a Petri Dish, and out to the cosmos, and the painting teases the viewer in its refusal to be pinned down.
There is insufficient space here to consider the work in much more detail (and as noted I have done that elsewhere, anyway), but those backgrounded cellular-forms in Generation that are airbrushed onto the linen, seem at once to be both formal devices to be followed by Cohen's over-painted black lines, which in turn, appear to tentatively contain an ephemeral skin of near-translucent white paint at the heart of the picture. Generation is, in short, a painting that in its apparent reference to self-replicating structures (do I mean organisms here?) and a near-disorienting ability to shift effortlessly along the spectrum of scale (there is a sense that we are at once looking down into a Petri Dish, and out to the cosmos) teases the viewer in its refusal to be pinned down.
Certainly, it offers the opportunity for us to engage in what Wittgenstein would have referred to as Aspect Seeing – that is, to view language and its expressions according to a multiplicity of readings (or 'aspects') at any one time. Like so many of Cohen’s works, Generation must ultimately remain an enigma that dissuades and disrupts any attempt to fix it in the mind – or crack the code – however. Hard though we might try, it confounds any attempt to unpick it, and we must, therefore, accept that it merely is what it is.
That Generation is near contemporaneous with Albers' Line Involvements suite is fascinating, however. It might seem far-fetched to even suggest that Generation anticipates Cohen's prints of some forty or fifty years later, such as his series of six lithographs titled Place Games (2011), but I cannot help but feel that the recent prints that Cohen has produced deal with similar concerns; albeit according to his current signature of hard-edged architectonic and isometric compositional devices. In recent prints that he has made, the overlaying of dominant linear traces, which flow over and under more ethereal shapes and gradated colour formations, can be tracked back to works such as Generation and are evidence of an ongoing interest in the very themes he was exploring in the early 1960s, simultaneously with Albers.
If there is a hint of departure between these two artists, it lies in the fact that, increasingly, Albers moved away from the ethereal towards pure design compositions that would be in good company if exhibited alongside the most notable Op Art artists of the mid- to late-1960s, whereas Cohen (although also abandoning the ethereal as he applied it in Generation) retains his fascination with the interweaving of form, shape and colour, investigating the ever more complex possibilities that lithography allows him (compare the images above to catch my meaning with regard a divergence of interest here).
Where in his painting Cohen has at times headed in the direction of pure monochrome work even, for a period jettisoning chroma altogether, he has similarly retained a sense of 'pictorial depth' in what he has produced. Albers, meanwhile, went in the other direction, producing powerful works (as one would expect from a master pattern designer), but patterns they are, nonetheless, resting squarely on the picture plane and not inviting the viewer in, beyond the dizzying optical illusions that she creates. Again, compare the images below, and you will understand my meaning, I am sure.
There are exceptions with Albers, of course, but in the main, the strongest work that she produced in her later years is that which is about surface, colour and shape. Similarly, there are exceptions to the case I have argued with regard Cohen, but then we should expect nothing less from a painter for whom every work is a starting over, and the inventing of new problems that in the studio he must solve. In years to come, we may view Cohen's work differently, or realise new contexts for understanding what he is about as an artist, but his recent Tate Spotlight exhibition (4 December 2017 and 3 June 2018) only prodded the surface here and provided a few hints with regard what we might find when we do finally get to assess the most important works from his entire output, elsewhere, elsewhen, in the form of a major retrospective survey in years to come.
With the Albers retrospective now scheduled for autumn at Tate Modern, however, it is not long to wait for the opportunity to really take stock, in her case. Ambitious retrospectives such as the one that is planned, inevitably function according to the historicizing process, and it is that which facilitates most our ability to make informed judgements on the work, able as we are to view the artist's contribution from a historical distance, and as a whole. While I firmly believe that Cohen is currently producing some of the best work that he has made for decades, only time will tell if I am correct on that score.
What I do know for sure is that the announcement that Tate Modern is to now make a greater commitment to artists working with textiles is a significant step forward. For too long there has been an unwarranted division between art and craft, often with the fine arts occupying a privileged position over those referred to as the applied arts. Certain artists have sought to offer fingerposts to what the future may look like if this division is finally jettisoned – Grayson Perry who is now known not just for his ceramic work but tapestries also is a good example here, and I'm guessing that his work and that of others working with ceramics and textiles now, too, may have some part to play in Tate Modern widening its field of interest with regard specific media – but if we genuinely want to understand the thinking behind this, it is probably wise to end with a repetition of those words uttered by Cohen in 2006:
A great deal of what has gone on throughout the last century is to do with that debate and has nothing really to do with human beings making things. I’m only interested in what human beings make and why they make them. As a painter, I am constantly learning, but what I’m not learning from is that quite recent phenomenon called ‘art’.