bauhaus
imaginista
Article

Andean Weaving and the Appropriation of the Ancient Past in Modern Fiber Art

Lenore Tawney, Shield IV, 1966
Courtesy of Lenore Tawney Foundation.

Ancient and indigenous textile cultures of the Americas played a critical role in the development of the work of fiber artists who came of age in the U.S. in the late 1950s and 1960s. Anyone who has studied fiber art of this period, myself included, knows this well. They openly professed an admiration for traditions ranging from Navaho weaving, to the use of the backstrap loom in Mexico and Central America, to the ancient weaving techniques of Peru.

All T'oqapu Tunic, Inca, Late Horizon 1450–1540, Dumbarton Oaks.

Contained within the well-known details of Anni Albers’ personal and professional biography as a Bauhaus émigré is another story of migration—of the ideas, influences, materials, and practices defining the Bauhaus that traveled with her to the United States in 1933, when she and her husband Josef resettled near Asheville, North Carolina to teach at Black Mountain College. Alongside the institution’s ambition to reconcile the art/craft divide, its innovative pedagogical model, and the distinctive language of modernist abstraction Albers and her fellow Bauhauslers brought to their new roles as teachers and designers in the U.S., she also carried with her an abiding interest in Andean weaving, a broad designation that includes textiles from various societies and time periods, including the Wari, Tiwanaku, and Pachacamac groups (500–900 C.E), the Ica, Chimu, and Chancay groups (900-1400 C.E), and the Inca society (1438–1534). Although it may appear out of context for a Bauhaus-trained weaver and designer of modern textiles, Albers was introduced to Andean weaving while still a student at the school, and it remained an important touchstone for her work throughout her career. In the U.S., she continued to share her knowledge about and enthusiasm for Andean weaving with her students and colleagues, and beginning in 1935, she would expand this interest to include Pre-Columbian and Meso-American textiles and sculpture through frequent trips to Mexico and the American Southwest.1

Ancient and indigenous textile cultures of the Americas—Andean weaving included—also played a critical role in the development of the work of fiber artists who came of age in the U.S. in the late 1950s and 1960s. Anyone who has studied fiber art of this period, myself included, knows this well. Artists such as Sheila Hicks, Alice Kagawa Parrott, Lenore Tawney, Ed Rossbach, Ruth Asawa, Claire Ziesler, and Kay Sekimachi, to name just a few of the pioneers of the field, openly professed an admiration for traditions ranging from Navaho weaving, to the use of the backstrap loom in Mexico and Central America, to the ancient weaving techniques of Peru. Like Albers, they studied examples from these textile traditions in museum collections and anthropological publications, encountered indigenous weavers through travel, acquired material for teaching and study purposes, and in unique ways replicated, appropriated, translated, incorporated, or otherwise drew inspiration from ancient and living textile traditions in the Americas for use in their own work.

One way to make sense of this abiding interest on the part of a younger generation of US-based artists working with fiber is to view it as a feature transmitted through Albers and other Bauhauslers, and thus representative of the spread of the Bauhaus’s influence beyond the school’s ambit. Sheila Hicks, for instance, presents a good example of a young artist in Albers’ immediate orbit in the mid-1950s, who developed a rich relationship with Andean weaving and other textile techniques that continue to inflect her work to this day. Yet evidence suggests Hicks’ interest in Andean textiles was already in a nascent form by the time she was introduced to Albers while a student at Yale.2 I’ll return to this evidence in a moment. I mention it at the outset in order to highlight that the lines of influence comprising this aspect of fiber practice in the US are more complex than they first appear, complicating the notion of a straightforward generational mode of transmission from Albers to a younger cohort. I can’t do justice to this complexity in the space allotted here, but it is my hope that this essay, which brings together research on this topic from many different sources, will catalyze a comprehensive examination of the prevalent and often vexed relationship between modern artists working in fiber and the ancient (or living) indigenous weavers of the Americas.3 After an introduction to Albers’ connections to ancient American textiles in order to provide context, I will briefly touch upon the work of Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, and Ed Rossbach in light of their interest in similar material.

In 1965, Albers published her now famous book On Weaving with a dedication “To my great teachers, the weavers of ancient Peru.”4 She was 66 years old at the time and had nearly 50 years behind her as a weaver and textile designer. As the dedication reveals, Andean weaving played a significant role in her development as an artist working in fiber, and the text itself repeatedly positions Andean weaving at the center of her argument for weaving as an art form.

Uncu, Inca 1450–1550, Chimbote, Peru, © Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, photo: Sandra Steiß. 

Anni Albers, Wall hanging, 1926, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

In this passage Albers asserts a connection between Andean weaving and the Bauhaus mantra of “truth to materials,” or medium specificity, expressing a prominent strain of her thinking regarding the value of this work for the modern artist, who conceives of textiles as a medium of art rather than merely an applied craft. The passage also highlights how Albers used the Andean example to rewrite the prevailing historical narrative surrounding weaving, including the value of European tapestry, which in 1965 when On Weaving was published, was in the midst of a major revival in Western Europe, one that privileged the French medieval tapestry tradition.5 Here, however, against the backdrop of most every form of weaving—which Albers discredits as decorative—Andean textile serves as an alternative, originary moment to which the modern artist might return in order to move forward.

In her expert and definitive study of the influence of Andean and Meso-American weaving on Anni Albers’ formation as an artist at the Bauhaus and its continued impact on her work in the U.S., Virginia Gardner Troy addresses the constellation of cultural forces out of which the artist’s commitment to Andean textiles developed.6 Key factors included access to major collections of Andean objects in German museums; published archeological reports and studies documenting Andean weaving techniques and design; and the prominence given to “primitive art” in German Expressionist circles, a category that implicitly includes Andean textiles. The racism inherent to the primitivist discourse that pervaded avant-garde artistic circles in the early twentieth century is well documented, especially as it pertains to the German context, where the non-European artist, projected as a “primitive other,” was regarded as a model of the creative individual working intuitively and directly with materials—free from the conventions of “civilized” European art.7

Along with cave paintings, threads were among the earliest transmitters of meaning. In 
Peru, where no written language ... had developed even by the time of the Conquest in the sixteenth century, we find ...one of the highest textile cultures we have come to know. Other periods in other parts of the world have achieved highly developed textiles, perhaps even technically more intricate ones, but none has preserved the expressive directness throughout its own history by the specific means. In this light we may reevaluate what we have been made
to think of as the high points of the art of weaving: the famous great tapestries of the Gothic, the Renaissance, the Baroque; the precious brocades and damasks from the Far East; the Renaissance fabrics. Tremendous achievements in textile art that they are, they play first
of all the role of monumental illustrations or have decorative supporting roles to play. They
are responsible, I think, for textiles being relegated to the place of a minor art. But regardless
of scale, small fragment or wall-size piece, a fabric can be great art if it retains directness of communication in its specific medium.8

Gunta Stölzl and Marcel Breuer, African chair, 1921, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018.

Perhaps less well-known is the extent to which this primitivist discourse shaped the thinking of the Bauhaus at Weimar, in, for instance, Johannes Itten’s pedagogical exercises meant to foster or recover an instinctual creativity in his students, as well as contemporaneous debates over the reconciliation of art and craft. Within the Weaving Workshop at Weimar, the general Bauhaus appreciation for non-European art, albeit viewed through the primitivizing lens mentioned above, was complemented by an elevation of the Andean weaver to the status of an artist who controlled the weaving process from design through production, in contradistinction to the European division of labor between the artist/designer and weaver/craftsperson. Equally powerful was the idea of the Andean weaver operating in a cultural context where textile production was imagined as fully integrated into a way of life rather than holding a subordinate position within a hierarchy of the arts.

Margarete Willers, Slit tapestry, 1922, Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.

Gardner Troy also illuminates the ways in which Andean weaving helped shape the discourse around hand-woven textiles at the Bauhaus in its Weimar phase, a period that Albers retrospectively characterized as “dabbling in a kind of romantic handicraft.”9 The classic example is the throne-like African Chair (1921), a collaboration between architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer and weaver Gunta Stölzl. Stölzl produced an Expressionist-inspired tapestry upholstery for the chair, conceived to evoke non-European forms of abstraction and composition influenced by her exposure to non-Western art, Andean weaving included. Similarly, in another example from this period at Weimar, Margarete Willers’s untitled slit tapestry (1922), appropriates an Andean fish motif frequently reproduced in German publications.

In 1925 the Bauhaus moved to Dessau and the institution underwent a pronounced shift towards design for industry, but as Troy demonstrates, this shift was not an end to “primitivism in the weaving workshop—just the appearance of a different model that remained rooted in the Andean textile.”10 In this new context, it was the “structure of the [Andean] fabric itself that was often taken as the primary organizing principle at the formal level” for Bauhaus weavers.11 For Albers and her peers, for whom structure was a modernist concern wrapped up in the quest for a legitimating medium specificity for weaving, Andean multi-ply weaves were particularly compelling as they produced designs through an interpretation of interlocking layers of the textile wedded materially to each other as opposed to compositions perceived to be more surface oriented. Instead of the direct appropriations of Andean design motifs typical of the Weimar Weaving Workshop, Troy details how Albers and other weavers at Dessau turned to the analysis of the multi-ply structures of Andean textiles, as well as the way Andean weavers repeated, mirrored, and inverted the square geometric patterns known as topacu on the tunics. Albers’ signature double and triple weaves from this period are prime examples of her translation of Andean multi-ply techniques, and Troy surmises that the well-known Andean “checkerboard” patterned tunics were also a major influence.12

When Albers resettled in the United States, she encountered a country already caught up in a revival of interest in the ancient art of the Americas fostered by a range of federal, cultural, and corporate programs and initiatives undertaken between the U.S. and Mexico.13 In the cultural sphere, this included archeological digs sponsored by both governments, a general increase in tourism to Latin America, traveling exhibitions of Meso-American art, as well as exhibitions such as MoMA’s American Sources of Modern Art (Aztec, Mayan, Incan), which paired modern art with ancient art of the Americas, a strategy also employed within German Expressionist circles (who exhibited Andean works), and one that would have been familiar to Albers.14 However, the interest in ancient and indigenous textile traditions of the Americas in the United States dates back even earlier, to the design reform program of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), initiated by an in-house team of anthropologists and curators in 1915.15 This project made the museum’s textile collections available to designers and students through study rooms, exhibitions, lectures and publications, with the objective of spurring the creation of a national design language derived from indigenous design of the Americas. In fact, the program’s nationalist agenda fostered a wholesale appropriation of indigenous design. While morally insensible by contemporary standards, the didactic publications associated with the program were the first to circulate in the U.S., providing detailed aesthetic, anthropological, and technical information about textile traditions of the Americas, Andean weaving included.

Wilhelm Gretzer collection, Uncu, Chancay 1300–1450, Marquez, Peru
Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Photo: Lena Bjerregaard, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE.

When Albers resettled in the United States, she encountered a country already caught up in a revival of interest in the ancient art of the Americas fostered by a range of federal, cultural, and corporate programs and initiatives undertaken between the U.S. and Mexico.16 In the cultural sphere, this included archeological digs sponsored by both governments, a general increase in tourism to Latin America, traveling exhibitions of Meso-American art, as well as exhibitions such as MoMA’s American Sources of Modern Art (Aztec, Mayan, Incan), which paired modern art with ancient art of the Americas, a strategy also employed within German Expressionist circles (who exhibited Andean works), and one that would have been familiar to Albers.17 However, the interest in ancient and indigenous textile traditions of the Americas in the United States dates back even earlier, to the design reform program of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), initiated by an in-house team of anthropologists and curators in 1915.18 This project made the museum’s textile collections available to designers and students through study rooms, exhibitions, lectures and publications, with the objective of spurring the creation of a national design language derived from indigenous design of the Americas. In fact, the program’s nationalist agenda fostered a wholesale appropriation of indigenous design. While morally insensible by contemporary standards, the didactic publications associated with the program were the first to circulate in the U.S., providing detailed aesthetic, anthropological, and technical information about textile traditions of the Americas, Andean weaving included.

As in the German context, archaeologists and cultural anthropologists played crucial roles in the appreciation of non-European weaving and other textile traditions of the Americas in the United States, and these early efforts by the AMNH to disseminate research about their textile collections represents one such example. Scholars were joined by advocates of hand weaving, constituting what scholar and curator Rebecca Klassen has called a “medium specific information network” about weaving traditions and techniques19 This network was in place long before Albers’ arrival, and by the mid-1930s she had begun contributing to it as a teacher, hand weaver, and writer.20 One of the most important figures (and competitor to Albers) in this regard is Mary Meigs Atwater (1878-1956), whose efforts from the 1920s onwards, were instrumental to the American revival of hand weaving. In addition to being a weaver, Atwater was an influential spokesperson, whose research and writing was disseminated through a correspondence course, as well as numerous publications documenting historic weaving patterns of the Colonial period, styles particular to the Appalachian region, as well as so-called “rare weaving techniques,” a category that included weaves used throughout Central and South America, among other regions. Beginning in the 1930s, her contributions to the periodical, The Weaver, included information about Peruvian, Bolivian, Navaho, and Mexican weaves. Her article about the French ethnologist Raoul d’Harcourt’s seminal 1934 publication on ancient Peruvian textiles, Les textiles anciens du Pérou et leur techniques (an essential source for weavers well into the late twentieth century), appeared in The Weaver in 1936.21

Atwater’s emphasis on the preservation of historic weaves and weaving as a leisure pursuit put her at odds with Albers’ pursuit of weaving as a design profession and art form, and in her writing for The Weaver, among other venues, Albers emphasized Bauhaus priorities regarding structure and directness of expression. While both viewed Andean and other textile traditions of the Americas as valuable technical and aesthetic resources for the hand weaver, they differed in their understanding of how to use those sources in the present. For Atwater the recuperation, preservation, and replication of historic weaves was a legitimate objective, while for Albers, textiles of the past were studied as a catalyst for modernist innovation. Even so, anecdotal evidence suggests that Atwater’s instructional texts about Andean and other non-European weaving techniques were regularly consulted by the generation of weavers who came to fill the ranks of the American fiber art movement.22

No doubt, artists such as Ed Rossbach, Sheila Hicks, and Lenore Tawney were familiar with Atwater’s research and writing. Equally important to them, as to Albers in Germany, were museum collections and scholars and curators of Andean and Meso-American art. In New England, Hicks found a teacher and mentor in the archaeologist Junius Bird, the world-renowned scholar of Andean textiles, who was Curator of South American Archaeology at AMNH (a painting major while attending Yale, Hicks would write her undergraduate thesis on Andean textiles with Bird as an advisor), while on the West Coast, Ed Rossbach, a professor at the University of California Berkeley campus from 1950 to 1979, was a regular visitor to the research archives and ethnological collections amassed by cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber for the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and also consulted the research and study collection of his predecessor, Lila O’Neale in (what was then) the Department of Decorative Arts. Kroeber and O’Neale were both experts in Andean textiles.23

Lenore Tawney, Mask, 1967, Courtesy of Lenore Tawney Foundation.

Hicks was first introduced to Andean weaving as an undergraduate at Yale University, while attending a course on Latin American Art taught by the art historian George Kubler, a specialist in Pre-Columbian Art. As she recalls:

"When I was at Yale studying painting with Josef Albers and pre-Columbian civilizations with George Kubler, the content, and particularly the structures of pre-Columbian textiles really fascinated me ... The rigor and sophistication the Peruvian creators put into controlling how their threads intertwined in three dimensions were [sic] compelling. It was even more intriguing than the Bauhaus program!"24

In the same passage, she also mentions Raoul d’Harcourt’s study as an important influence: “This book by d’Harcourt encouraged me to try my hand very freely at intertwining my threads, giving me permission, as it were, to follow in the footsteps of those artisans to explore my own games and the creation of a universal language.”25 Hicks took Kubler’s course in 1954. It was around this time that Josef Albers introduced her to Anni, who aided her in her early experiments on the loom. Letters to Junius Bird from both Hicks and Albers in the mid-1950s regarding their individual research projects (Albers herself took Kubler’s course in 1952) reference one another, suggesting a collegial relationship based on a shared interest in Andean weaving.26

Hicks continued her exploration of Andean weaving on research trips throughout South America between 1957 and 1959, expanding her knowledge of weaving traditions and techniques. After moving to Mexico in 1959 upon the completion of her MFA, she continued developing her practice as a weaver. The influence of Andean textile culture appears in her work from this period in numerous ways. For instance, her four selvage works made with a single thread, such as Blue Letter or Ancient Writing, reference the ingenuity of Andean technique as well as displaying her interest in Mayan hieroglyphics.27 Hicks’ work also makes indirect reference to the Peruvian funerary practice called the “mummy bundle,” in which the deceased is placed in a basket and wrapped in multiple layers of textiles tied with sashes.28 The bundle form as well as wrapping techniques appeared in her work throughout her career. More generally, the cords, tassels, and stacked additive components like those comprising The Evolving Tapestry or The Principle Wife are also connected to her appreciation for fringe and other non-woven finishing techniques typical of Andean textiles, while also referencing Meso-American and Pre-Columbian ruins.29 She has confirmed “during research visits in 1958–1959, I was able to photograph indigenous weavers and pre-Inca archeological sites. Like the classes I took at Yale, the discovery of the landscapes of these archeological sites is still an inspiration for me.”30 This interest in Andean weaving extended to her design work as well. One of the most relevant examples for the purposes of this essay is the woven yardage she produced for a suit she made (and wore) based on the checkerboard or square pattern typical of Incan tunics, illustrated in d’Harcourt’s Les textiles anciens du Pérou et leur techniques. She discusses this pattern in her undergraduate thesis in a passage illustrated by d’Harcourt’s reproduction, as well as a small weaving from the Minimes series titled Inca Chinchero.31

Ed Rossbach, Young Hercules, 1967, Museum of Arts and Design, New York, gift of the artist, 1992 PHOTO: Ed Watkins, 2007.

Lenore Tawney, who studied under two Bauhaus émigrés—László Moholy Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1946, and later, the weaver Marli Ehrman—turned to Andean weaving technique in the creation of her breakthrough sculpted free-hanging “Woven Forms” such as Orinoco (1967) Rebecca Klassen has addressed the numerous ways Tawney’s knowledge of Andean weaving is reflected in her practice, noting the titles of Tawney’s work often reference nationality and culture, or are sometimes “based on her associations with a chosen technique,” as in the double weave used in the panel titled Peruvian from 1962.32 “Peruvian”-ness was also extended to include the knots and fringes that start and terminate the Woven Forms and many other works. This connection was noted by curator Paul J. Smith in his catalog essay for the exhibition Woven Forms at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 1963, and it also appears in Jack Lenor Larsen’s remarks about Tawney’s work in Beyond Craft: The Art Fabric, where he replaces “Peruvian” with the term “pre-Columbian.”33 “From her study of pre-Columbian art,” he wrote, “Tawney felt that finish might be the most detailed, most labored part. One typical result was the knotted top knots.”34

Tawney’s melding of cultural references extended to the incorporation of found material within her work, giving her weaving a generalized “non-western” or “ethnographic” look. For instance, on a trip to Peru in 1965 she acquired beads that were used in Shield IV (1967), although she referred to them as “pre-Columbian.” Other works from the same series—all with the title Shield, conjuring archaic/tribal associations—incorporated shells, feathers, whelk egg cases, and porcupine needles. Tawney’s trip to Peru was one of many that occasioned encounters with indigenous people, art forms, and world-views different from her own, fueling her process. In another essay penned by Larsen regarding Tawney and artistic inspiration, he remarked that, “Travel, to her, means perspective, and a reorientation of values necessary as an antidote to some of the culturally deadening aspects of American life.”35 This is reflected in Tawney’s own writing, in which she expresses a longing for an alternative way of being in the world reflective of broader countercultural desires for a reconnection to nature associated with indigenous cultures, wherein creative practice is seamlessly integrated into life. For instance, in a journal entry labeled “Native Amer. Art—Indian” she wrote:

"In the world of the Indian the secular was sacred; even commonplace artistic practices, as decoration of utilitarian ware, repr[esent] a celebration of man’s unity w. nature. ...The use of fur & hide, leathers & quills,
teeth & talons, rocks & clay & body ptg. gives the message that the
divine force imbues all natural forms."36

Ed Rossbach, Basket with Handle, 1966, Museum of Arts and Design, New York, gift of the Johnson Wax Company, through the American Craft Council.

Tawney’s integration of beads and natural materials into her weaving allowed her to annex Andean weaving and Native American aesthetics for her own work, linking it cross-culturally and trans-historically with indigenous textile traditions. Hicks, too, understood the textile as a universal language, but in the sense that fiber allowed her to work across media, from painting to sculpture to architecture. By contrast, Ed Rossbach also thought about textile culture in global terms, minus Tawney’s romantic primitivism, or Hicks’ conception of her wide-ranging practice in terms reflecting a Bauhaus-inflected universalism.

While attending the University of Washington, Ed Rossbach studied with German émigré Johannes Molzahn, a graphic designer with ties to the Bauhaus’ early period.37 In addition, he too wrote his undergraduate thesis on Andean textile techniques, supervised in part by the anthropologist Carolyn M. Osborne.38 Between Molzahn, Osborne, and his own predilection for a trial and error method of making, in his work Rossbach cultivated a distinctive relationship to ancient and indigenous textile traditions, including Andean weaving. In particular, there are two aspects of Rossbach’s work that relate to this interest: his use of the ethnographic fragment as a model, and the centrality of basketry to his fiber practice.

With regards to this first aspect, take Young Hercules (1967), an object that replicates the shape and imagery of a fragment of Coptic tapestry belonging to a museum collection, but at a greatly enlarged scale. Moreover, the work is not constructed using a tapestry weave but what he referred to as a Peruvian looping technique. Rossbach was known for his practice of researching and replicating techniques, and the learning-by-doing method characteristic of this work and many others is often coupled with a playful and irreverent tone, by virtue of his use of anachronistic techniques and incongruous modern materials that refuse any claim to historic authenticity.

Rossbach was also an expert in basketry. He published three influential books on the topic, chronicling the history of the field as well as its renaissance among fiber artists of the 1970s and 80s.39 Rossbach’s interest in baskets dates to the early 1940s when he attempted to replicate historic examples of Aleut basketry encountered while stationed at an Airforce base on Adak, in the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska. While unsuccessful, he returned to the genre as a professor at the UC Berkeley. There he had access to a vast collection of Native American basketry to support his research-inspired artistic practice. Rossbach was open about how “the ‘ancient’ look or the ‘used’ look of a few of my baskets and raffia panels derived ... from looking at anthropological specimens ... I do think, now, that it related me and my work to the whole history of textiles.”40

Rossbach introduced this global perspective in his book, The New Basketry, which attributed the renaissance of basket-making within fiber art circles to a rejection of the loom and the designer-craftsman model that weavers of his generation had aspired to:

The focus of hand-weaving shifted in the fifties from what the machine could do to what the machine could not do. The new weavings were self-sufficient. their justification was not in a possible influence on something else, any
more than the justification of the pursuit of handweaving was, as the Bauhaus once thought, in its providing structural training for work in architecture. Weavers concentrated on processes that were most conspicuously hand processes. Those processes which have resisted mechanization had a special appeal.41

He coined the term “fiberworkers” to describe how a new generation of fiber artists were no longer wedded to the designer-craftsman ideal, connecting this development to the emergence of a global textile culture. Rossbach’s The Disintegration of the Bauhaus (1967), another fragment-like work utilizing an “off loom” technique of knotless netting that pulled to pieces the precision and order of the modernist grid, thematized this shift in priorities.

In The New Basketry Rossbach also homed in on an element of fiber art of the late 1960s and 70s that I’ve touched upon in the work of Hicks and Tawney but which also applies broadly to the fiber art of the period, especially the way Andean or indigenous textile practices served as a source material. “In the new work,” he wrote, “beginnings and endings were suddenly important ... Emphasis was on edges, bindings, knottings, and fringes ... For guidance in solving problems of beginnings and endings handweavers turned to the work of nonindustrialized parts of the world, and to the fabrics of certain ancient cultures.”42 Questions of beginnings and endings occurred for the first time to artists working in fiber off the loom (or, for Tawney, working experimentally on the loom), because the loom was an instrument that largely obviated the questions of how to start or finish a work. As Rebecca Klassen argues, however, beyond functioning as examples for the expansion of technique, “To some degree, ‘off-loom’ methods were synonymous with the ‘primitive’—not just in the sense that they are seen as comparatively low-tech, rudimentary (although they could be used in complex ways), or direct processes—but in the sense that they originated from and were still used by ‘primitive’ cultures.”43

Andean weaving and other textile traditions of the Americas offered a range of resources to artists of the fiber art movement, as they had to Anni Albers and her fellow weavers at the Bauhaus. To name two of the most obvious, the Andean textile provided a model of ingenuity touted as unsurpassed in the history of textiles, helping weavers in their quest to expand knowledge of technique, and—by virtue of being distanced in time and place—valorized the medium of fiber, offering the modern artist a connection to an ancient past in which textiles were presumed to hold a place of cultural centrality. These elements—which intertwine elements of genuine aesthetic reverence for textile traditions of the Americas and more problematic forms of identification with the figure of the ancient and/or indigenous weaver—highlight the appropriation of the ancient past as an instrument in modernism’s allegiance to the present.

Ed Rossbach, The Disintegration of the Bauhaus, 1967, Museum of Arts and Design, New York, gift of the artist, 1992, photo: Ed Watkins, 2007.

●Footnotes
  • 1 On the subject of Anni and Josef Albers numerous trips to Latin America, see Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye and Michael D. Coe: Small-Great Objects. Anni and Josef Albers in the Americas, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven 2017.
  • 2 Sheila Hicks was introduced to Anni Albers in 1954.
  • 3 In providing this context, I am particularly indebted to the research of Virginia Gardner Troy and T’ai Smith on Anni Albers, Rebecca Klassen on Ed Rossbach and Lenore Tawney, and Joan Simon and Whitney Chadwick on Sheila Hicks. For a richer and more complete picture of the centrality of Andean textiles to the development of fiber art in the twentieth century, read their works in this order: Virginia Gardner Troy: Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles. From Bauhaus to Black Mountain, Ashgate, London 2002; T’ai Smith: “The Event of a Thread,” in: Rike Frank and Grant Watson (eds.): Textiles; Open Letter, Sternberg Press in collaboration with Generali Foundation and Museum Abteiber, Berlin 2015, pp. 36-47; Rebecca Klassen: Constructions: U.S. Fiber Artists and Pre-Columbian Peruvian Textiles, M.A. Thesis Bard Graduate Center, New York 2011; Joan Simon: “Unbiased Weaves,” in: Joan Simon and Susan C. Faxon: Sheila Hicks. 50 Years, Yale University Press and Addison Gallery of American Art, New Haven 2010; and in the same volume Whitney Chadwick: “Ancient Lines and Modernist Cubes.” See also, Grant Klarich Johnson’s review of the exhibitions “Sheila Hicks: Free Threads, The Textile and its Prehispanic Roots 1954-2017 & Liflines” at the Museo Amparo, Puebla, Mexico, and the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, respectively, https://brooklynrail.org/2018/04/artseen/Sheila-Hicks-Free-Threads-The-Textile-and-its-Prehispanic-Roots-1954-2017and-Sheila-Hicks-Lifelines (7/5/2018).
  • 4 Anni Albers: On Weaving, Wesleyan University Press, Wesleyan University Press 1965; Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford 2017.
  • 5 On the subject of the post-war tapestry revival in Europe, see Kay Wells: Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry between Paris and New York, forthcoming, Yale University Press, New Haven 2018.
  • 6 Virginia Gardner Troy: Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles. From Bauhaus to Black Mountain, Ashgate, London 2002.

  • 7 On the subject see, among others, Jill Lloyd: German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity, Yale University Press, New Haven 1991.
  • 8 Ibid, p. 50.
  • 9 Oral history interview with Anni Albers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, (July 5th, 1968).

  • 10 Troy, p. 66.

  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 Ibid.
  • 13 On this cultural moment see Helen Delpar: The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations Between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL 1992, and Barbara Braun: Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art, Harry N. Abrams, New York 1993.

  • 14 Museum of Modern Art: American Sources of Modern Art (Aztec, Mayan, Incan), Museum of Modern Art, New York 1933.

  • 15 On the subject of this noteworthy but problematic initiative to create a national design style see Ann Marguerite Tartsinis’ study: American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915-1928, Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York 2013.
  • 16 On this cultural moment see Helen Delpar: The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations Between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL 1992, and Barbara Braun: Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art, Harry N. Abrams, New York 1993.

  • 17 Museum of Modern Art: American Sources of Modern Art (Aztec, Mayan, Incan), Museum of Modern Art, New York 1933.
  • 18 On the subject of this noteworthy but problematic initiative to create a national design style see Ann Marguerite Tartsinis’ study: American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915-1928, Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York 2013.
  • 19 See Rebecca Klassen: Constructions: U.S. Fiber Artists and Pre-Columbian Peruvian Textiles, M.A. Thesis, Bard Graduate Center, New York 2011, Chapter 1.

  • 20 Beginning in this period Albers’ produced unique wall hangings, known as the “pictorial weavings,” whose compositions were often inspired by the architecture and design motifs of Pre-Columbian monuments as well as the landscape of New Mexico and the Hispanic weaving traditions of the region. On the subject see Gardner Troy.
  • 21 Mary Meigs Atwater: “Some Ancient Peruvian Textiles,” in: The Weaver, March 1936, p. 26.
  • 22 For instance, in my conversations over the years with artists identified with the fiber art movement, Atwater’s Byways in Handweaving: An Illustrated Guide to Rare Weaving Techniques is frequently cited as an important source of information and inspiration.

  • 23 O’Neale was also a curator at the Museum and had written a dissertation under Kroeber on Native American basketry. For a full history of the tradition of fiber art and scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley see Ira Jacknis: “A Berkeley Home for Textile Art and Scholarship, 1912-79,” originally presented at the Textile Society of America’s 9th Annual Biennial Symposium in 2004, https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/448/ (7/5/2018). On Kroeber and O’Neale’s professional biographies and research see Klassen: Consructions, p. 47f. In addition to the many publications they individually contributed to the field they also co-published a comparative analysis of over 650 coastal pre-Columbian Peruvian textile, Textile Periods in Ancient Peru, vol. 28, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, University of California Press, Berkeley 1930.

  • 24 Clément Dirié (ed.): Sheila Hicks: Apprentissages, JRP/Ringier, Zurich 2017, p. 30.

  • 25 Ibid, p. 31.
  • 26 These letters are housed in the American Museum of Natural History’s Anthropology Archives’ correspondence files, Box 141, Folder 4.

  • 27 Hicks discusses the four-selvage technique in Sheila Hicks: Apprentissage, p. 30. On this type of cloth see Elena Phipps: The Peruvian Four-Selvaged Cloth: Ancient Threads/New Directions, The Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles 2013.
  • 28 The Paracas culture (B.C.E. 800-1 C.E.) is best known for its cemeteries of burial or mummy bundles. Located on the southern coast of Peru, these cemeteries had ideal climate conditions for mummification and the preservation of the textiles that were part of the bundles.

  • 29 See Simon and Chadwick, op cit. for more on these connections.
  • 30 Dirié: Sheila Hicks, p. 31.

  • 31 See Hicks’ suit in Joan Simon: “Unbiased Weaves,” in: Simon: Sheila Hicks, p. 101.
  • 32 Klassen: Constructions, p. 113.

  • 33 See Paul J. Smith: Woven Forms, Museum of Contemporary Craft, New York 1963, n.p.

  • 34 Constantine and Larsen: Beyond Craft, p. 267.

  • 35 Jack Lenor Larsen: “Lenore Tawney—Inspiration to Those Who Want to Develop Their Artistic Potential,” in: House Beautiful, March 1962, p. 177.

  • 36 Lenore Tawney, as cited in American Craft Museum: Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective, Rizzoli and the American Craft Museum, New York 1990, p. 67.

  • 37 Osborne, with the help of students at the University of Washington, Rossbach included, had begun a project to translate Raoul d’Harcourt’s Textiles anciens du Pérou et leurs techniques. Rossbach’s thesis, titled Some Contemporary Implications of Ancient Peruvian Textiles, came out of his work for the project in deciphering the structures and diagrams of multi-layered textiles so that the translators could interpret them in English. See “Oral history interview with Jack Lenor Larsen,” 6-8 Feb. 2004, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • 38 See Ed Rossbach: The Nature of Basketry, Schiffer Publishing, West Chester 1973, Baskets as Textile Art, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York 1979, and The New Basketry, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York 1980.

  • 39 See Ed Rossbach: The Nature of Basketry, Schiffer Publishing, West Chester 1973, Baskets as Textile Art, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York 1979, and The New Basketry, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York 1980.

  • 40 As quoted by Nancy A. Corwin and Rebecca A.T. Stevens: “Rossbach in Context,” in: Ed Rossbach: Ed Rossbach: 40 Years of Exploration and Innovation in Fiber Art, Textile Museum, Washington, D.C. 1990, pp. 139-140.
  • 41 Rossbach: The New Basketry, p. 35.

  • 42 Ibid, p. 57.
  • 43 Klassen: Constructions, p. 67.
●Author(s)
●Latest Articles
●Article
Don’t Breathe Normal: Read Souffles! — On Decolonizing Culture

The need for a synthesis of the arts and, with this, a change of pedagogical principles, was not only present at the beginning of the twentieth century (forces that prompted the Bauhaus’s foundation), but after WWII as well, during the “Short Century” of decolonization. . This second modern movement and its relation to modernism and the vernacular, the hand made, and the everyday was vividly expressed through texts and art works published in the Moroccan quarterly magazine Souffles, published beginning in the mid-1960s by a group of writers and artists in Rabat, Casablanca and Paris. → more

●Article
Common Threads — Approaches to Paul Klee’s Carpet of 1927

Paul Klee’s Carpet, 1927, creates a conundrum for scholars as it does not neatly fit the existing theoretical models concerning how European artists engage with non-Western art and culture, while at the same time opening up exciting new avenues for inquiry. → more

●Article
Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles

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. Albers almost single-handedly introduced weaving students to this ancient textile art through her writing and her artistic work.  → more

●Article
Teko Porã — On Art and Life

Cristine Takuá is an indigenous philosopher, educator, and artisan who lives in the village of Rio Silveira, state of São Paulo, Brazil. She was invited to present a contemporary perspective on questions and tensions raised by interactions between the indigenous communities and the mainstream art system, as well as to address Brazil’s specific social and political context. → more

●Article
The Bauhaus and Morocco

In the years when Western nations were committed in new projects of partnership, with what was then called the “Third World”, young artists and students from the Maghreb had grown up in the passionate climate of the struggle for independence, were talented, open to modernity, and eager to connect with twentieth-century international art movements, which were different in production and spirit from colonial ideology and culture. → more

●Article
Memories

I was sixteen years old when I undertook my first journey into finding a professional vocation, first in Asilah, then in Fez followed by Tétouan. 1952. Tangiers was, to me, an open book, a window on the world. The freedom of seeing, of discovering and of feeling, of weaving the narratives of my dreams. → more

●Artist Text
Research Project by Kader Attia

Looking into the history of objects, into their original practical and social function as well as into the circumstances of their transition to European and other countries of Western civilization, the artist Kader Attia aims at conveying the full identity of the objects and to follow the traces of their disappearance that still can be discovered today and call for repair. → more

●Video
kNOT a QUIPU — An Interview with Cecilia Vicuña

In this recorded interview, Vicuña describes how after she first learned about quipu, she immediately integrated the system into her life. Quipu, the Spanish transliteration of the word for “knot” in Cusco Quechua, is a system of colored, spun and plied or waxed threads or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. They were used by the Inca people for a variety of administrative purposes, mainly record-keeping, and also for other ends that have now been lost to history.  → more

●On-site report
Weaving Reflections — On Museology and the Rematriation of Indigenous Beings from Ethnological Collections

One primary question leading up to the bauhaus imaginista workshop and symposium had concerned the extent to which Bauhaus artists had been culturally informed by and subsequently appropriated Indigenous art. This essay examines ethnographic and natural history museology and how Indigenous cultures are perceived, translated and exhibited through Westernized perspectives that are informed by a philosophical subject-object divide. → more

+ Add this text to your collection!