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How Bauhaus's Textile Workshop Influenced American Art

  • Sheila Hicks Rug
July 24, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The formation of Bauhaus was perhaps one of the crucial moments in the art and culture of the interwar period. Based on the aesthetic form with utilitarian function and perceived as a hub for radicalism and experimentation, the school offered various courses, providing a specific chance to the students to develop both as craftsmen and intellectuals. After the Nazis took power in 1933, the school was instantly recognized as a problematic facility and was shut down, so a large number of the Bauhäusler fled to the United States where they continued to perfect their practices and teach governed by the school’s theories.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bauhaus, The Art Institute of Chicago decided to organize an exciting exhibition titled Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus focused on the significance and the contribution the acclaimed German art school’s textile workshop made on modern and contemporary American art. Around fifty works by pioneering women who dispersed their knowledge and extended the domains of experimentation in the new environment such as Anni Albers, Otti Berger Claire Zeisler, Gunta Stölzl Lenore Tawney, Else Regensteiner, Ethel Stein, and Sheila Hicks will be on display.

Left Claire Zeisler - Free Standing Yellow Right Anni Albers - Study for Six Prayers
Left: Claire Zeisler – Free Standing Yellow, 1968. Gift of David Lawrence Fagen, Richard Rees Fagen, and Edward A. Fagen in memory of Mildred and Abel Fagen / Right: Anni Albers – Study for Six Prayers: No. IV, 1965/66. Harriott A. Fox Fund. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The New Horizon

The majority of the Bauhäusler settled in Chicago, where they started teaching at the current Institute of Design at IIT, established under the name New Bauhaus by László Moholy-Nagy in 1937.

For instance, Else Regensteiner was a professor and later director of the weaving department from 1945 to 1971, and she was a leading figure in adapting the functional styles of the Bauhaus to cloth, while Tawney, Zeisler, and Angelo Testa studied at the school under master weaver Marli Ehrman.

Left Ethel Stein - White Pinwheel Right Claire Zeisler - Hanging
Left: Ethel Stein – White Pinwheel,1990. Gift of the artist. © Ethel Stein / Right: Claire Zeisler. Hanging, 1950/91. Gift of Joan Binkley.

The Significance Of Innovation

When speaking about the Institute of Design, it is mandatory to perceive its activity in a broader context of American art currents of the time. Together with the Black Mountain College and Yale University, nurtured experimentation in materials which implies a dialog raised between the Bauhaus artists and their American peers and students.  In joined efforts, they aimed to articulate the very notion and role of weaving and textiles in a broader sense of the art world and the market.

The material explorations included working with leather, modern metallic thread, plastics cellophane, glass ornaments, feathers, pieces of slate, and rubber bands, as well as elements of painting and printmaking.

Left Anni Albers - Orange, Black and White Right Else Regensteiner - Glowing City
Left: Anni Albers – Originally produced by the Bauhaus Workshop. Orange, Black and White, 1926/27 (produced 1965). Restricted gift of Mrs. Julian Armstrong, Jr. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Right: Else Regensteiner – Glowing City, 1980s. Gift of Helga Sinaiko.

Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus at The Art Institute Chicago

The upcoming exhibition will certainly reflect upon the emancipatory processes nurtured in the groundbreaking school which empowered women to pursue their paths equally to men; it will also show how the skills and experiences gathered in the progressive environment of pre-WW II Germany enriched the American culture space and pushed new generations of artists to experiment further.

The Assistant Curator of Textiles Erica Warren, who organized the exhibition, stated the following:

The relationships and affiliations between artists are elucidated through the juxtaposition of works of art, which makes evident their shared approaches to design, materials, techniques, and forms. I hope the show will give visitors a view of the great sense of possibility that unites the works and that continues to resonate within the art world.

Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus will be on display at The Art Institute of Chicago from 3 August 2019 until 16 February 2020.

Featured image: Sheila Hicks – Produced by V’SOSKE. Rug, about 1965. Gift of Sheila Hicks.