American Painter, Poet, Sculptor, Teacher, and Theoretician
New Haven, CT, USA
Summary of Josef Albers
Josef Albers was instrumental in bringing the tenets of European modernism, particularly those associated with the Bauhaus, to America. His legacy as a teacher of artists, as well as his extensive theoretical work proposing that color, rather than form, is the primary medium of pictorial language, profoundly influenced the development of modern art in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.
- Albers's 1963 book Interaction of Color provided the most comprehensive analysis of the function and perception of color to date and profoundly influenced art education and artistic practice, especially Color Field Painting and Minimalism, in the 20th century.
- His series Homage to the Square, produced from 1949 until his death, used a single geometric shape to systematically explore the vast range of visual effects that could be achieved through color and spatial relationships alone.
- Albers's art and theories were widely disseminated to generations of artists and art-school faculty through his teachings at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale University, and they provided the theoretical basis for the development of non-objective art during and after the age of Abstract Expressionism.
Biography of Josef Albers
Josef Albers was born March 19, 1888, in Bottrop, Germany. From 1905 to 1908 he studied to become a teacher in Buren, teaching in Westphalian primary schools from 1908 to 1913. After attending the Konigliche Kunstschule in Berlin from 1913 to 1915, he was certified to teach art. Albers studied lithography in Essen and attended the Academy in Munich. In 1920 at the age of 32, Albers entered the Bauhaus, a school in Weimar that was committed to exploring the relationship between the arts and technological society and emphasized the integration of architecture, fine art, and craft.
Important Art by Josef Albers
In 1942 Josef Albers embarked on a series of zinc plate lithographs entitled Graphic Tectonics, a title that references both the solidity of geological matter and movement. While he is best known for his color studies, much of Albers non-sculptural work prior to the 1950s was monochromatic and focused on unmodulated linear and geometric relations, spatial ambiguity, and the perception of dimension, creating "maximum effect from minimum means." This series of works was completed while he taught at Black Mountain College as part of his continued exploration of optical illusions and arrangements of lines that generated conflict between perception (what one sees) and cognition (what one knows).
Homage to the Square is the signature series of over 1000 related works, which Albers began in 1949 and continued to develop until his death in 1976. Such sustained attention to a single aspect of painting reflects his conviction that insight is only attained through "continued trying and critical repetition." This early work exemplifies his basic approach to exploring the mutability of human perception and the range of optical and psychological effects that colors alone can produce depending on their position and proximity. Albers chose a single, repeated geometric shape, which he insisted was devoid of symbolism, to systematically experiment with the "relativity" of color, how it changes through juxtaposition, placement, and interaction with other colors, generating the illusion of attraction, resistance, weight, and movement. As in his earlier monochromatic and linear studies, this series explores the potential of static two-dimensional media to invoke dynamic three-dimensional space.
After retiring from Yale in 1958 at the age of 70, Albers's former teacher and colleague, Walter Gropius, invited Albers to design a mural for the interior of the new Graduate Center at Harvard University, leading to other important mural commissions. Two Portals at the Time and Life Building, pictured here, features alternating polished nickel and bronze squares, surrounded by alternating bands of tan and white glass, to suggest receding planes, providing the illusion of depth on a flat surface.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Josef Albers
- Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for LivingBy Nicholas Fox Weber, Martin Filler, and Paul Warwick Thompson
- Josef Albers: To Open Eyes: The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and YaleOur PickBy Frederick A. Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz
- Josef Albers: Formulation: ArticulationBy Josef Albers and T.G. Rosenthal
- Interaction of ColorOur PickBy Josef Albers and Nicholas Fox Weber
- Poems and DrawingsBy Josef Albers and Nicholas Fox Weber
- Despite Straight LinesBy Josef Albers
- Josef Albers: A RetrospectiveOur PickBy Josef Albers
- Josef Albers Prints 1915-1970By Jo Miller
- Interacting with Color: Josef Albers Comes to the iPadBy Beryl Gilothwest / Art in America / August 14, 2013
- The Square in the Raw: Josef Albers' Unguarded MomentsOur PickBy Thomas Micchelli / Hyperallergic / August 25, 2012
- Harmony, Harder Than It LooksOur PickBy Holland Cotter / The New York Times / July 26, 2012
- Josef Albers: A Crash Course on How to See SquarelyBy Jamie Simon / Smithsonian Magazine / February 17, 2010
- Seeing the Bauhaus through a Ketchup BottleOur PickBy Nicholas Fox Weber / ARTnews / October 1, 2009
- Interview with Josef Albers conducted by Sevim Fesci in New Haven, ConnecticutArchives of American Art / Smithsonian Institution / June 22,1968
- Valerie Fletcher on Maximum Effect from Minimum Means: Josef AlbersAt the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden / April 6, 2010
- Josef Albers designed many album covers for musician Enoch Light's records
- Interaction of Color iPad App, based on Josef Albers's writings