At the time Anni Albers wrote On Weaving in 1965, few discussions of Andean textiles “as art” had appeared in weaving textbooks, but there were numerous publications, many of which were German books published between 1880 and 1929, that documented and described their visual and technical properties.1 Albers almost single-handedly introduced weaving students to this ancient textile art through her writing and her artistic work. Her basic premise – formed when she was a student of the Bauhaus, and still highly relevant today – was that modern textile workers, both in industry and in art, should thoroughly study the forms and structures of Andean textiles because these textiles represent “a standard of achievement that is unsurpassed” in the field of textile design and production.2
Albers was extremely inventive and articulate in the way she connected Andean textiles with contemporary notions of truth to materials and the interconnectedness of structure and design. At the same time, she was acutely aware of the semantic function of thread and textiles within the context of artistic language. Through her continuous investigation of thread as a carrier of meaning, not simply as a utilitarian product, she created art that she believed functioned within the context of visual language, practiced by her ancient Andean predecessors.3
In On Weaving, Albers reveals her fundamental approach to art and design: namely that Andean textiles were the standards by which one could most completely understand the possibilities of fiber as a medium for creative expression. Indeed, Albers believed that Andean textiles were "the most outstanding examples of textile art [from which] we can learn most."4 Using Andean textiles as her guides, Albers developed an innovative approach to the teaching, practice, and understanding of weaving in the twentieth century, paving the way for the medium of fiber to be included in the fine arts mainstream. Anni Albers, artist, teacher, writer, and collector, held a unique position as an intermediary between the ancient past and the modern machine age by applying the lessons she learned from the visual and structural language of Andean textiles to the needs and sensibilities of her time.
Albers was among many artists and writers working during the first decades of the twentieth century who studied the material culture of non-European societies. The Western interest in so-called "primitive" art and the discourse of primitivism during this period was complex and far-reaching, involving, in part, the supposition that “primitive” art – the handmade art produced by small-scale pre-industrialized cultures – was both useful and artistically designed according to fundamental social and spiritual beliefs.5 This was in contrast to the perceived uselessness and poor design of much European art, especially decorative art. “Primitive” art was perceived by theorist Wilhelm Worringer and members of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter as authentic and pure, untainted by mechanical contrivance or conventional illusionistic devices, and that the visual form of this art was inherently abstract.6 “Primitive” art and practice represented a significant alternative to traditional European artistic conventions, and thus it was studied, its abstract motifs borrowed, and its handmade production processes emulated in an attempt to revive and understand the basis of human creative processes and visual forms. Textiles played an important role in these theoretical and artistic explorations.