Weaving Correspondence by Kate Erin Dempsey

Anni Albers and Ray Johnson

Kate Erin Dempsey
PhD Candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin

Anni Albers, Ancient Writing, 1936, textile in rayon, linen, cotton and
jute, 149.8 x 111 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum Washington D.C. Gift
of John Young. Copyright 2011 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists
Rights Society, New York.

Ray Johnson, Untitled,
ca. 1953-4, acrylic on board, 14.5’’ x 10.25’’
© Ray Johnson Estate, Coll. of the Hudson Lanier Family

It is difficult to reconcile Johnson’s stunning early work with his mature collages. One explanation for the textile-like design of his first paintings lies in his interest in weaving, particularly the work of the textile artist, Anni Albers. Although Albers is never listed as one of Johnson’s mentors, their shared interests and the visual connections between their works suggest the likelihood of a close relationship. Thus, by delineating her passion for Pre-Columbian cultures, their shared interest in indecipherable language, and the visual similarities between their work, this paper considers Albers influence on Johnson’s works.[1]

Black Mountain College students and teachers alike were inspired by Pre-Columbian languages, particularly Maya hieroglyphs, which, at that time, were an unsolved puzzle—a secret message thousands of years old.[2] Major progress in deciphering the glyphs was not made until the 1950s, after Johnson had left the College.[3]

The fascination with Maya glyphs and Pre-Columbian cultures began in the early 1930s with Josef and Anni Albers’s first trip to Mexico. For two decades, the Alberses traveled to Latin America to take part in what Helen Delpar has called the “enormous vogue of things Mexican.”[4] With the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, the US had begun to strengthen its ties with its Southern neighbor and Mexico sought to emphasize its pre-conquest identity.[5] Archaeologists made great strides in the 1940s and 1950s, uncovering thousands of burials and presenting their findings to the eager public through publications and exhibitions.[6]

The Alberses shared their preoccupation with Pre-Columbian art with the Black Mountain community through a collection of textiles that Anni assembled for the College and a collection of miniature figures they collected. Josef employed countless photographs of their trips to Latin America in his classes and lectures. Additionally, he requested copies of significant exhibition catalogues of Pre-Columbian art for the College library.[7] On several occasions Josef arranged for traveling exhibitions to visit Black Mountain, including an exhibition of Maya art in 1937. Discouraging students from the traditional study period in Europe, Josef recommended that they instead travel to Mexico to learn from both the ancient and contemporary arts found there.[8] He believed that the ancient Americans were “THE representatives of abstract art,” and used their example to lend authority to his own work and ideas.[9]

Both Josef and Anni took what they admired in Pre-Columbian art and incorporated it into their own work. Among other things, Josef was attracted to the mixing of sculpture and architecture, figure-ground fluctuations, the interplay of solids and voids, and the use of serial imagery. Brenda Danilowitz has suggested a connection between Josef’s Homage to the Square series and his observations of “Mexico’s pre-Hispanic stepped temples.”[10] Certainly the abstract, geometric simplicity of much Pre-Columbian art resonated with Josef’s own art. For Anni, it was the technical superiority of the Andean weavers that enticed her. In a 1945 article Anni lauded ancient Peruvians as the “greatest culture in the history of textiles.”[11] She later dedicated her book On Weaving to “[her] great teachers, the weavers of ancient Peru.”[12] Virginia Gardner Troy has remarked that because so many Peruvian textiles ended up in Berlin museums in the late 19th and early 20th century rather than in North or South America, Anni had a deeper knowledge of Andean textiles by the 1930s than her American counterparts.[13] Troy therefore credits Anni as being one of the greatest early promoters of these works.

Given Ray Johnson’s love for secret or undeciphered languages, it is likely that this was an aspect that drew him to the Pre-Columbian cultures he was exposed to at Black Mountain. Johnson was part of a generation of cryptographers. Children in the 1930s and 40s gathered around the radio to listen to the adventures of sleuths including Little Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight who used their decoding devices to solve puzzles and communicate with their faithful listeners. In college, Johnson addressed text visually, beginning to experiment with graphic design and the interplay of text with image. Johnson indulged his love of codes in his mature collages, all of which are meant to communicate—but communicate without necessarily revealing one precise meaning. Each element of the composition relates to those around it just as the parts of a glyph or the letters in a word combine to express a concept. Poaching from magazines, newspapers, and books, Johnson invested images with new life—enhancing or altering their meaning entirely by arranging them in novel ways. Within Johnson’s oeuvre the same images appear in multiple contexts, taking on slightly different meanings. The collages communicate by first drawing us in with a few recognizable words or a familiar image. Johnson gives us plenty to spark our curiosity—to make us confident that there is a message to decipher.

This interest in indecipherable language was one which Johnson shared with Anni Albers, who was incredulous about the apparent lack of written language in the Peruvian cultures she so admired for their weaving. She believed that their textiles served as texts… as “their way of speaking about the world.”[14] This was an idea that she extended to all textiles to some degree and she highlighted the text-like qualities in many of her works. Troy describes Anni’s 1936 weaving, entitled Ancient Writing, as abstract yet textual:

Without actually representing particular glyphs or pictures, she evoked the idea of a visual language by grouping differently textured and patterned squares together like words or glyphs, and locking this “text” within an underlying grid… [and] set within margins….[15]

Numerous other works in Anni’s oeuvre such as Open Letter of 1958 and Code of 1962
illustrate her understanding of textiles as forms of communication. Like Johnson, Anni stressed the idea of communication over the message itself. She collected examples of all sorts of texts in non-Latin alphabets, both translated and indecipherable. Her archives contain examples of Sumerian, Japanese, Cuneiform, Arabic, and Maya writing among others. The common thread shared by all of these texts is the goal to communicate. Did Anni attempt to translate these fragments and the possible messages embedded in the Maya and Inca textiles she collected? Considering Anni’s preoccupation with the visual character of language it is more likely that she, like Johnson, was drawn to the ancient languages’ indecipherability.

Most sources on Johnson emphasize Josef Albers as Johnson’s primary influence, yet one can also see Anni’s influence in Johnson’s early paintings. Of the few works that survive from shortly after Johnson’s time at Black Mountain, many have a textile-like quality. The intricate weaving together of blocks of color and the perpendicular pattern of warp and weft are undeniable. But where did this style come from?

Josef Albers discouraged students from saving the studies they did and even went as far as suggesting students not sign their creations.[16] Johnson followed these instructions closely, burning most of his student work and early paintings in the 1950s.[17] Fortunately we do have a few examples of Johnson’s work that reflect Josef’s example. Johnson’s Three appears to be one Josef’s design or color assignments. Yet this work with its pure, geometric simplicity is a far cry from Untitled or Calm Center, with their intricate patterns of overlapping and intersecting stripes.

Ray Johnson, Three, c. 1950, Goache and collage on paper, 18’’ x 18’’, © Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Pierre Menard Gallery

While the Alberses were on sabbatical from Black Mountain in 1947, Johnson enrolled in weaving classes with Anni’s substitutes Trude Guermonprez and Franziska Mayer.[18] It seems plausible that Johnson combined the lessons he learned in Josef’s color and design courses with those he garnered from the weaving classes to develop his abstract striped style.

Though Johnson never took Anni’s class, the pervasive learning environment that made the College such a hotbed of innovation encourages me to imagine interactions between Johnson and Anni outside of the classroom—in the dining hall, on the grounds, during exhibitions of the textile collection that Anni assembled for the College, etc. Anni and Johnson’s shared interest in the visual qualities of communication supports this theory.
The importance of weaving in Johnson’s education becomes clearer in light of the astonishing resemblance between Johnson’s early painting, Calm Center, and a specific Andean royal tunic. Both works consist of a grid with each square filled with a slightly different configuration (the larger tunic does have some repetition). Dark squares quell the busy pattern around them. Is this just a coincidence, or could Johnson have seen the tunic in person or (more likely) in reproduction?

Ray Johnson, Calm Center, c. 1947-51, oil on cardboard, 28’’ x 28’’,
©Ray Johnson Estate, Courtesy Richard L. Feigen & Co.

All T’oqapu Tunic, Inca, Late Horizon, 1450-1540 CE, 35 13/16’’ x 29 15/16’’, wool, cotton (c) Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington DC

Robert Woods Bliss purchased this tunic, which is now in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, sometime between 1947 and 51. The periodical Américas published a black-and-white detail of it in 1951; it is likely that the Alberses saw the tunic in the National Gallery of Art where Bliss’ growing collection was on display from 1947-62.[19] Unfortunately, the records surrounding this tunic are limited. A similar tunic in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York appeared in Lehmann’s 1924 book on ancient Peruvian art, which several sources corroborate was in the Black Mountain College library.[20] Johnson may have also visited the Museum of Natural History during his hiatus from college in 1945 during which time he lived in New York or after the fall of 1948 when he moved there permanently.[21] Though it may be impossible to prove that Johnson saw the Dumbarton Oaks textile, the visual similarities between it and Calm Center are remarkable.

Besides its stunning visual beauty and excellent condition, Anni could have been drawn to the Dumbarton Oaks tunic for the same reason it enticed later scholars. In the 1960s and 70s, several researchers argued that the patterns on Inca tunics like this one were a form of language. Peruvian scholar Victoria de la Jara and Thomas Barthel, a German epigrapher, claimed to have deciphered part of the royal tunic.[22] Like other scholars, they tried to find a pattern in the grid and worked out various complicated mathematical schemes in order to decode it. Unfortunately, as Rebecca Stone points out, “We cannot expect Inca viewers to have made the king stand still while they diagram such an elaborate system, especially since they were not allowed to look at him directly.[23]” It is therefore unlikely that the pattern was intended to be a legible message.

While readings such as de la Jara’s and Barthel’s were quickly refuted, it is possible that Anni Albers’s understanding of Andean textiles as language followed a similar argument. But, in contrast to the scholars who tried to establish a pattern in the tunic, Troy suggests that Anni Albers and Johnson may have appreciated the variability of the grid. She writes: “I think that both Albers and Johnson appreciated the notion that these grid-based codified patterns could be arranged and rearranged by folding, flipping, and turning, thereby changing the meaning.”[24] Analogously, Johnson once described his own works similar to playing cards, reshuffled into a different story every time they are shown.[25] Regardless whether we’re interpreting the tunic as a text or not, both it and Johnson’s painting encourage the viewer to try to puzzle them out, to locate a pattern, as if there were a hidden meaning to unlock.

In conclusion, Johnson and Anni shared a fascination with the mysteries of communication. Both viewed their art as a form of communication and called viewers’ attention to this act of exchange. They relished the formal qualities of language and emphasized these in their work. Even a cursory study of Johnson’s early paintings suggests the important role that weaving played in his artistic development. Johnson’s apparent adaptation of an Andean textile in his painting, Calm Center, may reflect the influence of Anni’s admiration for the Andean weavers and, therefore, epitomizes the influence of weaving in Johnson’s early paintings. While Johnson soon moved away from his initial abstract paintings to his mature collages, the principles of weaving and communicating remain. He weaves together disparate elements, relating back and forth to form a cohesive whole like the threads in a textile or the letters of a word.

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  1. Thank you to Frederick Horowitz for his insightful comments on my paper and to Brenda Danilowitz at the Albers Foundation for her assistance with my research.
  2. Marie Tavroges Stilkind, email to the author, September 2009. Maya hieroglyphs were definitely an interest shared by many at the College in the early 1950s when Charles Olson was rector. See Mary Emma Harris, Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College, 1933-57 (Bristol: Arnolfini Gallery; Cambridge: Kettle’s Yard Gallery, 2005).
  3. For the history of decipherment of the glyphs see Michael Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992).
  4. On this topic see Helen Delpar, The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations Between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992).
  5. Virginia Gardner Troy. “Anni Albers: The Significance of Ancient American Art for Her Woven and Pedgogical Work” (PhD diss., Emory University, 1997), 126.
  6. Coe, 177; Karl Taube, The Albers Collection of Pre-Columbian Art (New York: Hudson Hill Press, 1988), 19, 135.
  7. Troy, 132.
  8. Joseph Albers, unpublished lecture 1940, quoted in Mary Emma Harris, “Joseph Albers: Art Education at BMC,” in Josef Albers: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1988), 51.
  9. Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), 13, from a letter by Joseph Albers to Willard Beatty, 29 Aug. 1940, Vol. VI, Box 4, Black Mountain College Papers.
  10. Brenda Danilowitz, “Josef Albers 1936-46: A Decade of Abstract Painting,” in Brenda Danilowitz and Heinz Liesbrock, eds. Anni and Josef Albers: Latin American Journeys (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz; New York: 2007), 93.
  11. Anni Albers, “Constructing Textiles,” in Anni Albers, On Designing (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press 1962, c1961), 12.
  12. Anni Albers, On Weaving. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1965.
  13. Troy, 99.
  14. Anni Albers interview by Richard Polsky, 1985, for the Columbia University American Craftspeople Project, “The Reminiscences of Anni Albers,” Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, 1988, transcript at the Albers Foundation, Bethany, CT., 43; cited in Virginia Gardner Troy, Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles: From Bauhaus to Black Mountain (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2002), 119.
  15. Troy, “Anni Albers.” 140.
  16. Mary Emma Harris, “Joseph Albers: Art Education at Black Mountain College” in Nicholas Fox Weber, ed., Josef Albers: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1988), 56.
  17. Muffet Jones, “Selected biographical chronology and exhibition history,” in Ray Johnson: Correspondences Donna DeSalvo, ed. (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, 1999), 203.
  18. Mary Emma Harris, “Ray Johnson at Black Mountain College,” in Black Mountain College Dossiers, Ray Johnson Issue, 1997 (No. 4), 67.
  19. Elizabeth P. Benson, “The Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art: A Memoir,” in Collecting the Pre-Columbian Past A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, October 1990. Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed. (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1993), 20-21.
  20. Troy, “Anni Albers.” 152.
  21. Jones, 202.
  22. “All-T’Oqapu Tunic,” in Andean Art At Dumbarton Oaks, Vol. 2 Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed. (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996), 463.
  23. Rebecca R. Stone, ““And All Theirs Different From His”: The Dumbarton Oaks Royal Inca Tunic in Context,” in Variations in the Expression of Inca Power: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, October 1997. Richard L. Burger, Craig Morris and Ramiro Matos Mendieta, eds., Joanne Pillsbury and Jeffrey Guilter, general eds. (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2007), 397.
  24. Troy, email to the author, September 2010.
  25. Henry Martin, “Should An Eyelash Last Forever, An Interview with Ray Johnson,” in Donna De Salvo and Catherine Gudis, eds., Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1999), 185.

A peer-reviewed publication of The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center