The prints of Anni Albers: line involvements

  Julia Greenstreet, Curatorial Assistant, Kenneth Tyler Collection, reflects on the prints of Anni Albers – one of the 20th century’s most influential textile artists and a brilliant printmaker.

Anni Albers (1899 – 1994) began her career as a weaver and only turned to printmaking when she was in her sixties. At the core of both her textiles and prints are a set of fundamental principles established during her years at the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop which guide her creative process and approach to making. Albers’s is an art based on the pursuit of universality and timelessness, anonymity rather than individualism, an intimate knowledge of and respect for materials and techniques, and a playful sense of order and balance.

Much like her introduction to weaving as a young artist, Albers’s first encounter with printmaking was not planned. Her career in the graphic arts began with a serendipitous visit in 1963 to Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Los Angeles, an institution at the forefront of a revival in fine art printmaking which was taking place in the United States at that time. It was not an interest in lithography that brought Albers there, but rather her husband Josef, who was working at Tamarind as a Fellow and whom she would often accompany. Aware of Albers’s talents as a textile artist, Tamarind’s Director June Wayne encouraged her to try lithography for herself.

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’[1] 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.’[2] 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.

After 1963, Albers never again worked on a weaving herself (although she did occasionally design textiles).[3] Over the course of a prolific career spanning 40 years, textile design and appreciation had blossomed at her hands, however for Albers it was time to take on a new challenge and she focussed solely on printmaking until her death in 1994. She worked with Ken Tyler for the first time at Gemini GEL in 1970, marking the beginning of what was to become a fruitful, close collaborative relationship with the master printer.
    

A central tenet of Albers’s artistic philosophy is a Bauhausian commitment to anonymity over individualism. The reasoning behind this was that by denying the presence of the artist to create a ‘form unburdened by dominantly individual traits of the planner,’[4] and not dictated by fashions or trends, universal and timeless beauty could be attained. This is what Albers wanted for her art and design, whether in weaving or print. Lasting art is located in the process, an idea she articulated best in 1947 when she wrote:

The more we avoid standing in the way of the material and in the way of tools and machines, the better chance we have that our work will not be dated, will not bear the stamp of too limited a period of time and be old-fashioned some day…And it will outlast fashions only if it embodies lasting, together with transitory, qualities.[5]

Albers’s pursuit of anonymous form and her fascination with machines and technology was perfectly aligned with the mechanical processes of print, which could produce works of a highly polished, industrial aesthetic. Ken Tyler had a reputation for ‘technical wizardry’ and for producing prints of the highest quality; his workshop was a state-of-the-art facility with the best presses and expert staff, and his in-depth knowledge of print technology combined with his sense of adventure made him the perfect printer for Albers.

The first series Albers made with Tyler was Triadic. These works feature the triangle, a key, recurring motif in Albers’s oeuvre. All three are made from the same master design, but printed in different colour palettes, or in the case of TR III, embossed onto a silkscreened gold ground. Lithography allowed Albers to create triangles of perfect linearity, which must have given her quite a kick after years of employing not-quite-straight triangles in her weavings.
    

As a student Albers was greatly influenced by Goethe’s Metamorphosis of plants,[6] which explains the structure of organisms as being made up by repeated yet varied like units. Albers came to define weaving as the ‘building up out of a single element, to building a whole out of single elements,’[7] much like architecture. She utilised this approach in her printmaking too; in the Triadic series triangles function as individual units from which a whole composition is built.

These works are interesting for the way in which they achieve balance and harmony without relying on formula or symmetry. Taking her cue from structures of the natural world, Albers ultimately aims to create order in her art, but an order, ‘in a not too obvious way, an order puzzling to the onlooker, so that he will return again and again […] mystery is what draws us to art.’[8] It is this mystery that intrigues and makes us want to take another look.

Albers experiments with texture in TR III, where embossing is used to create a sculptural surface of raised and lowered planes. In doing so the artist brings some of the tactility and texture of her woven work to screenprinting, which is an inherently flat medium. She continued this idea in the 1978 series Mountainous, produced by embossing white paper with incised copper plates. These works have an airy, open quality which is emphasised by the absence of colour. A hallmark of Albers’s graphic work is an ambiguous relationship between figure and ground and these works are wonderful examples of that push and pull.

While Albers always maintained a self-effacing approach to art making, her works are nevertheless personal expressions reflecting a reality, and in the title of this series – Mountainous – she evokes the Andean mountains or monumental ancient sites in Mexico which she had visited so many times. Rather than relying on representational imagery to convey meaning, Albers uses abstract visual forms.

In 1976 Albers visited Ken Tyler at his new workshop in Bedford Village, New York. At Tyler’s suggestion, Albers – now in her late seventies – tried etching for the first time. The resultant Triangulated intaglios series features etching and aquatint, two common intaglio techniques. Triangulated intaglio III uses both, with solid black triangles in aquatint balanced against subtle areas of etched dots. Albers organises these elements within the pictorial field contained by the embossed edge, which is created during the printing process. This edge was a feature of intaglio that Albers particularly liked as it provided a process-based solution as to how to focus and contain her designs. She has stated that the printing was as important to her artwork as the initial design concept,[9] emphasising the significance of process to her work.
          

          

Triangulated intaglio IV and Triangulated intaglio II are based on the same design but IV was printed in red ink in the opposite areas to where black appears in II, switching the figure-ground relationship entirely and consequently producing two distinct results. In Triangulated intaglio VI the tessellated shapes of the other works are replaced by a maze-like line design, showing just how versatile and inventive Albers could be within the confines of the grid.

   

[1] Paul Klee, quoted in Nicholas Fox Weber, ‘Anni Albers to date’ The woven and graphic art of Anni Albers (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press 1985) p 19.

[2] Anni Albers, from an interview with Gene Baro, Anni Albers (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum 1977) p 7

[3] Richard S. Field, ‘Anni Albers: prints and drawings’ The woven and graphic art of Anni Albers (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press 1985) p 131

[4] Anni Albers, On weaving (London: Studio Vista Ltd. 1966) p 78

[5] Anni Albers, ‘Design: anonymous and timeless’ Magazine of Art vol.40 no.2 February 1947, pp 51-53.

[6] Nicholas Fox Weber, Anni Albers’ Anni Albers (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum 1977) p 12

[7] Oral history interview with Anni Albers, 1968 July 5, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[8] Anni Albers, from an interview with Gene Baro, Anni Albers (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum 1977) p 8-9

[9] Nicholas Fox Weber, ‘Anni Albers as a printmaker’ The prints of Anni Albers: a catalogue raisonné, 1963-1984 (Bethany, Connecticut: The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation 2009) p 18

Josef Albers

Earlier this month Vogue Australia contacted us for permission to use two of our fabulous Josef Albers prints for their January 2013 issue. This got us thinking about the unique relationship that Kenneth Tyler shared with Albers, and below we have compiled some candid shots to accompany a brief history of the artist and master printer’s working relationship. 

 

Tyler and Albers first worked together at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop. When Tyler moved to Los Angeles in 1965 to set up his own print workshop and publishing house – Gemini GEL – Albers’ White line squares was the first print project. This series develops Albers’ colour theories and his unique application of the colour spectrum to images of geometric abstraction. The addition of a precise, white line creates the appearance of four-colours, although only three inks are used. The perfectly registered, luminous lithographs became Tyler’s ‘calling card’ to attract other major artists to the studio, and Albers generously donated a large percentage of the proceeds to fund further projects.

 

 

When, in 1973, Tyler moved to the east coast to establish Tyler Graphics Ltd in BedfordVillage, the inaugural project was again devoted to Albers. Gray instrumentation I, a portfolio of colour screenprints interspersed with text pages written by Albers, was produced in 1974. The series was a remarkable feat, achieving a level of precision that had not been seen in screen-printing before. The crisp, clear colours were inspired by leaves, twigs, scraps of paper and other found materials that Albers requested Tyler match in ink, exactly. The subtle tonal differences in each print required hours of laboured colour-proofing: each of the inks was printed directly onto white paper with no overlap or overprinting. The exercise required a perfect system of colour-matching and a perfect system of registration, which Tyler turned to photographic techniques to achieve.

In the two years that followed, Tyler and Albers collaborated on three further screenprint portfolios: Gray instrumentation II; Mitered squares; and Never before. Never before, which develops ideas that Albers had started exploring twenty-seven years earlier in the 1949 painting Indicating solids, was completed in 1976, just weeks before his death.

The Tyler candid photography collection

The votes are in! You asked for more candid photographs from behind the scenes, so we thought we would begin with an overview of this unique collection.

The Tyler candid photography collection contains thousands of rare candid photographs of artists at work in the  Tyler workshops, as well as in their own studios. The collection is an invalubale resource for students, teachers, scholars and fans of printmaking, providing a unique insight into the working methods of Tyler and his dedicated workshop staff.

Candid photography is shot without the staged lighting, backdrops and poise of professional photographic portraits, so it captures the action of the workshop in a spontaneous and unobtrusive way. The result is like a glimpse into a private photo album, and gives an understanding of the collaborative nature of the printmaking process, characterised by many complex, labour-intensive techniques – but also by happy accidents.

The collection of photographs was compiled over decades by Ken and Marabeth Tyler, and given exclusively to the National Gallery of Australia in 2002. Hundreds of images from the collection have been digitised and made available in photo-essay format on our Tyler website and we are beginning to add albums to our newly created Facebook page.

We are working continuously to digitise new material, so if there is an artist or project you are particularly interested in please let us know!

Below you will find a slideshow selection of images from the collection.

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The Center for Contemporary Graphic Art and Tyler CollectionArchive

The Center for Contemporary Graphic Art and Tyler Collection Archive (CCGA) is a sister institution to the National Gallery of Australia’s Kenneth Tyler Printmaking Collection, located in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture. Following the tragedy of the Tohoku-Kanto earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear threat, we are very pleased to report that all staff members are safe. The CCGA building sustained some damage and is currently closed; our thoughts and best wishes are with the CCGA staff and their families as they face this difficult time.

With four words to illuminate their aspirations – collecting, seeing, thinking, and creating – the CCGA was opened on April 20, 1995. The centre houses a complete collection of the prints produced by at the Tyler Graphics Ltd. workshops on the East Coast of the United States of America from 1974 until 2001. The centre also supports a range of research and exhibition programs.

                        

The design and construction of the CCGA was a collaborative effort. The project was overseen by Landscape International (San Francisco, CA), while the building was designed by architects from Ed2 (San Francisco, CA) with detailed design by Katagiri Architects and Engineers (Japan). With its sleek lines and functional beauty, the building typifies the mid-90s trend towards a Modernist revival in architecture. The grounds, by landscape-architectural firm SWA Group (San Francisco, CA), are a perfect complement to the building and provide a space for peaceful reflection. 

Since the opening exhibition Graphic vision: Kenneth Tyler Retrospective Exhibition: Thirty Years of Contemporary American Prints in 1995, CCGA has maintained an intensive exhibition schedule, staging at least three – and often four – shows per year. In 1996 American Prints today: 1st Exhibition of Prints from the Tyler Graphics Collection Archive showcased the great diversity of Tyler’s workshops and the artists who worked there. Juxtaposing the bold geometric work of Ellsworth Kelly, the lyrical still-lifes of Ed Baynard, eclectic early works of Frank Stella and the organic prints and three-dimensional screen of Steven Sorman – along with many others – the exhibition demonstrated the breadth of CCGA’s collection and set the high-standard of exhibitions to come.

      

This exhaustive exhibition was followed in 1997 by The Graphics of James Rosenquist for which the artist visited the CCGA and participated in forums and public programs.

                     

The Graphics of James Rosenquist featured the hyperrealist Welcome to the Water Planet series. In this series Rosenquist’s experience as a billboard painter and designer is clear: larger than life lipsticks and fantastical depictions of vegetation and outer space in a dazzling array of lurid colours belie his concern with the state of the planet earth. Alongside the artworks themselves images and video documenting the innovative paper-pulp project were shown. You can read more about the Water Planet project on the NGA’s Kenneth Tyler Collection website here: http://nga.gov.au/Rosenquist/Default.cfm

      

Many other artists from the Tyler Graphics Collection Archive have been the subject of comprehensive solo exhibitions at CCGA – Robert Motherwell, David Hockney and Roy Lichtenstein – to name but a few. For a full exhibition history visit: http://www.dnp.co.jp/gallery/ccga_e/exhibition/list.html.

                                                          

An exhibition featuring the prints of Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly and others entitled The World of Geometric Abstraction was on display at the CCGA when the earthquake struck, and it is hoped that visitors may soon be able to access this again. As well as their rigorous program of Tyler Graphics Ltd. based shows, the CCGA is dedicated to promoting local contemporary artists. Print Art Today in Fukushima is scheduled for September of this year and we at the National Gallery of Australia sincerely hope that this event will take place despite the tragedy that has befallen Japan and its people.

Emilie Owens, April 2011

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