Perhaps it's my fault in being a man, but I get the feeling sometimes even women don't totally realize how far female artists have come in the past century. At a time when they may even outnumber their male counterparts, I think we all have a tendency to overlook just how far they've come in leveling the creative playing field even during our lifetimes. Annie Albers is an interesting example. She was born Annelise Fleischmann in Berlin exactly 100 years ago, which makes her a convenient barometer for measuring women's role in the arts. At the age of twenty-two, she found her way to the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, one of the few art schools or any stature where women were even admitted at the time. The Bauhaus was notable for having an extremely liberal overview of the fine arts and crafts, and their interrelationship to industrial design and production. It was also probably the closest thing around to our current concept of women as being the equal of men in the arts. Anni completed the grueling foundations course, but despite the institution's egalitarian leanings, was barred from architecture, wall painting, and furniture workshops because the course of study was considered too demanding for their fragile physiques. Instead, she found herself seated behind a loom.
Anni Fleischmann became a Bauhausfrau. She married the painter Josef Albers who was thirteen years her senior. They were an odd match. She was the daughter of a Jewish furniture manufacturer, he the Catholic son of a skilled laborer from the coal-mining Ruhr Valley. They both remained with the Bauhaus, her work with the weavers workshop laying the groundwork for much of what we consider modern textile design fundamentals of this century. Bauhaus concepts tended toward simple rectilinear design, which made them a perfect match for the rectilinear qualities imposed by looms upon woven textiles. She brought the "less is more" Bauhaus mantra to her weaving, while employing subtle elements such as knots, twists, or irregularities, and materials such as raffia, fiberglass, jute, horse hair, harnessmaker's thread, metal thread, foil, Lurex, and plastics in her work. Today, weaver's take all these things for granted.
In 1933, as Hitler closed the Bauhaus, Anni and her husband were invited by American architect, Phillip Johnson, to emigrate to the United States where they spent sixteen years teaching at the fabled Black Mountain College near Asheville N.C. Later they moved to Connecticut where Josef Albers taught at Yale until his death in 1976. Anni Albers had her first one-woman show in 1949 at the Museum of Modern Art, the first textile artist ever to be so honored. She continued to design and weave fabrics of all kind until her death in 1994 at the age of 94. Her life was a living, breathing testament to the changing place of women in the arts all around the world. Today, many of her designs are still commercially available. A show of her work, with some items dating as far back as her student days at the Bauhaus during the 1920s, is currently running at the Jewish Museum in New York through August 20, 2000.