Form through Colour

Form through Colour: Josef Albers, Anni Albers & Gary Hume
Somerset House
June 5 - August 31, 2014

Somerset House, a grand neoclassical building in central London, boasts a courtyard ice rink during the winter months and no less than 55 child-friendly fountains during the summer. Each autumn it is the venue for London Fashion Week. But it is also a house—vast though it may be. This fact provided context for Form through Colour: Josef Albers, Anni Albers and Gary Hume, an exhibition of textiles for the home displayed (June 5–August 31, 2014) in several interlinking rooms that still contain period details, such as fireplaces.

In collaboration with The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Christopher Farr (the eponymous contemporary rug company), the textiles on exhibit are for sale. Placed alongside historically significant archival materials, such as Anni Albers’s writings on weaving, the atmosphere suggests scholarly intentions rather than clever marketing. While some of the artworks and designs were originally intended to be textiles, much of it—including Josef Albers’s color studies interpreted as woven tapestries—was not. British artist Gary Hume may seem out of place, but in person he feels like a comfortable fit with the Albers. Hume’s door paintings were first exhibited in 1988, a series purchased by renowned collector Charles Saatchi. Here, 13 of Hume’s hand-knotted door rugs are displayed on the wall, offering tasteful muted color studies. They are undeniably sellable product, and this exhibition acts as the launch.

The link between all three exhibitors is their limited edition textiles, now available through Christopher Farr. But Josef Albers’s famed treaties Interaction through Colour (1963), alluded to in the exhibition title, is a further connection. Hume, in fact, cites the influence the book had early in his career. The curious gap is that the colors of these textiles are the result of a very different production process. Hume’s originals used high-gloss house paint. Where color created the optical illusion of depth in his paintings, weaving presents different possibilities—and limitations. Hand-knotted pile is trimmed to create the basic circle and oblong shapes, but the cut ends of the wool absorb rather than reflect light. The effect is not a disappointment, just completely different.

A room filled with reproductions of Anni Albers’s textiles suspended from the ceiling provided a useful solution to the challenge of displaying cloth yardage. With space to walk between, the room struck a rare balance of enveloping the viewer while providing just enough breathing space to take in each pattern.

Hybrids of commerce and culture, art and design, gallery and showroom, are present throughout. Such crossovers can be engaging—as long as they do not stray into product placement. Textiles are gaining recognition in the worlds of art, design, and craft, but their value is still far less than deserved. Intentionally distancing ourselves from the commercial realities of production and consumption would be naïve, but we also need to be aware of what we are seeing.

A venue such as Somerset House, with the venerated Courtauld Institute of Art across the courtyard, gives an air of authenticity to the surroundings. But this show is quite a different fish. Christopher Farr is selling the content, which is presented alongside an engaging display of archival material on loan from the Albers Foundation. I would wager that this exhibition strategy will become more familiar to us as cultural venues are held increasingly accountable for their own revenue generation. In reality, the value of textiles, as design or art, are inextricably linked to the realities of their production. What we are seeing is not a contradiction in terms, as long as we know the facts.

The Surface Design Journal Fall 2014: 60-61.