The Art Institute of Chicago is telling a very particular tale among the many exhibitions this year celebrating the centenary of the Bauhaus, the influential German art school that mixed craft and fine art and was forced to close in 1933 under the Nazi regime. The show, Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus, which opens on Saturday (3 August; until 16 February 2020) and has 50 works, traces the Bauhaus’s influence on textile art stretching across the Atlantic—including in Chicago—and spanning the 20th century, with works by artists such as Anni Albers, Else Regensteiner and Sheila Hicks.
“The Bauhaus isn’t just about 1919 to 1933 in Germany—it’s about this dispersal of artists, and their own development and progression, and their exchanges with students, and their collaborations with their colleagues and students, and the kind of reciprocal nature of all of these experiences,” says Erica Warren, the Art Institute of Chicago’s assistant curator of textiles, who organised the show. For instance, the show has works by Marli Ehrman, who studied at the Bauhaus, and US artists who then studied under her at what is now IIT Institute of Design, which is at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, such as Lenore Tawney, Julia McVicker and Angelo Testa (the only male artist on view).
Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus traces these networks through the artists’ own perspectives, eschewing descriptive wall labels for wall text of their own words. “They’re talking about one another and they’re talking about seeing each other’s work, and they’re talking about experimentation and how they’re carrying this idea from the Bauhaus,” Warren says.
The weaving workshop at the Bauhaus—the school’s longest-running workshop—did not have formal instruction when it was first established, Warren says. “The students were really trying to figure out the technology themselves.” Gunta Stölz, who eventually initiated a formal training process, “was encouraging the spirit of experimentation to continue”, and once the technology of the looms was better understood, artists were experimenting with materials and looking at their properties, including how they absorbed sound or reflected light, Warren explains.
The works on view, all but two from the Art Institute of Chicago’s own collection, offer a rich picture of 20th-century tapestry and textile production from the 1920s to 90s that demonstrate the ongoing spirit of experimentation, with materials from natural fibres like jute and cotton to synthetic fibres like rayon, with objects like embroidery hoops and rubber bands in the mix; varying techniques including weaving both on and off the loom, knotting and embroidery; patterns, abstract designs and figurative works; and objects from wall hangings to Claire Zeisler’s cascading, freestanding macramé works to fabric samples by Otti Berger, who experimented with plastic textiles at the Bauhaus and was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.
“Despite the fact that the weaving workshop had a relatively marginal position within the [Bauhaus’s] institutional hierarchy, nevertheless—and I think the exhibition will demonstrate this—it served as an incubator of aesthetic and pedagogical talent,” Warren says.