Exhibition explores Anni and Joseph Albers’ love for ‘Small-Great Objects’

“Small-Great Objects: Anni and Josef Albers in the Americas,” a new exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, examines the many resonances between the art-making and art-collecting strategies of the Alberses, two of the most influential figures of 20th-century modernism.

Between 1935 and 1967, the couple made numerous trips to Mexico and Peru, and amassed a large collection of ancient artworks from the region. The exhibition looks at these objects in depth and considers how Anni and Josef’s collection supported their aesthetic sensibilities and teaching practices. In addition to Prehispanic objects, the show gathers together dozens of works that the couple made, including textiles, paintings, works on paper, and rarely studied photographs that Josef took at archaeological sites and museums. Demonstrating the Alberses’ deep and sustained engagement with ancient American art, “Small-Great Objects”explores a meaningful dimension of the couple’s creative vision.

Anni and Josef’s passion for the art and culture of the ancient Americas was first piqued while the couple was still living in Germany, where they encountered Prehispanic ceramics and textiles in museums and publications. In 1922 Anni was a student at the Bauhuas in Weimar, Germany, when she met Josef, then the head of the Bauhaus glass workshop. A decade after they met, the Nazi Party rose to power, and the couple was forced to flee the country. They received an invitation from Theodore (Ted) Dreier to teach at Black Mountain College, a newly formed, progressive art school located in the hills of North Carolina, and in November 1933 they immigrated to the United States. Two years later, the Alberses arranged a trip to Mexico with Ted and his wife, Barbara (Bobbie), and the two couples visited Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Acapulco.

This was the first of many trips that Anni and Josef took together through the Americas, and on subsequent journeys they frequently wrote letters to the Dreiers detailing their travels. This correspondence, now housed at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, in Bethany, Connecticut, forms the archival backbone of the exhibition.

Anni and Josef began collecting Prehispanic objects and textiles during these excursions to Mexico. In the preface of her 1964 book “Pre-Columbian Mexican Miniatures,” Anni described an episode in which she was given the opportunity to purchase either a live goat or small ceramic figurine; she went with the latter. In addition to collecting on the road, they also purchased objects from art dealers in the United States and abroad. Over a period of 30 years, they amassed a large and varied group of artworks that today exist as three separate collections: approximately 1,400 Prehispanic objects now at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the more than 100 textiles that comprise the Yale University Art Gallery’s Harriet Engelhardt Memorial Collection, and the Alberses’ private collection of textiles and ceramic figurines, now held at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

This exhibition, on view through June 18, weaves together objects from all three of these collections and organizes them according to geographic location, emphasizing the stylistic differences between their sites of origin and retracing Anni and Josef’s itinerary. The Alberses traveled through Mexico on numerous occasions, revisiting favorite places such as Mexico City and Oaxaca, and they also ventured out to the Yucatán Peninsula and eventually farther south to Peru. Over time, they embedded themselves in the social fabric of Mexico City: they visited the Museo Anahuacalli with Mexican artist Diego Rivera; they exhibited Josef’s paintings alongside those of Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida; and Josef taught courses at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

For Anni and Josef, Mesoamerican and Andean objects were anything but “primitive”; rather, they were modern in their materiality and geometric abstraction, and they provided inspiration for the Alberses’ own work. When seen alongside Josef’s photo-collages depicting scenes from Mexico, the artist’s “Variant/Adobe”series of the 1940s and 1950s — a predecessor to his more famous “Homage to the Square”paintings of the 1960s and 1970s — is rooted in the architecture of Oaxaca. Techniques that Anni used in her weavings, including the leno weave in “Thickly Settled”(1957), find an antecedent in the Andean textiles she collected.

The title of the exhibition comes from a quote in Anni’s book “Pre-Columbian Mexican Miniatures,” in which she praised “small-great objects” such as handheld ceramic and stone figurines. She wrote, “Today, when large size in art is carried to an absurdity, the smallness found here seems to be a special virtue, when contrasted with the arrogance of exaggerated scale.” Anni and Josef were drawn to these objects because they admired the ability of Prehispanic artists to encapsulate the human form in basic materials like clay and stone. Similarly, they marveled at the talent of ancient weavers, who used simple back-strap looms to transform cotton or wool thread into intricate patterns that are present in even the smallest Andean textile fragments.

“While Josef Albers is known the world over for both his art and his pedagogy, intimately tied to his transformative teaching at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and the Yale School of Art, less is known about what Anni and Josef accomplished together as pioneering modern artists, educators, and collectors inspired by the art and architecture of the ancient Americas,” explains Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director. “The gallery holds the largest collection of Josef’s work of any U.S. museum. Having the Alberses’ collections and archives reside in the New Haven area — at the Gallery, the Yale Peabody Museum, and the Albers Foundation in Bethany — provides an incomparable opportunity to study these artists and share their rich legacy.”

“From day one, the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation opened its doors to me and provided access to their archives and collections,” states exhibition curator Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman–Joan Whitney Payson Senior Fellow in the gallery’s Education Department. “It has been a delight to work with their team on the exhibition and book, and I am grateful for their mentorship and friendship. Michael D. Coe, the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University and Curator Emeritus of Anthropology at the Yale Peabody Museum, contributed greatly to this project with his expertise in Prehispanic art, stories of his friendship with Anni and Josef Albers, and firsthand knowledge of the Alberses’ collection. On behalf of our collaborators, the gallery is pleased to share with the public the story of Anni and Josef’s inspiring journeys.”

The exhibition was made possible by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, the Wolfe Family Exhibition and Publication Fund, and the Art Gallery Exhibition and Publication Fund. It is accompanied by a free podcast, available in the gallery space. To listen at home, visit here.

There are several programs offered in conjunction with the exhibition. All programs are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted. For more detailed programming information, visit the gallery’s calendar.

The Yale University Art Gallery is located at 1111 Chapel St. It is open Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday until 8 p.m. (September–June); and Saturday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. The gallery is closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission is free.

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