Josef Albers - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Poet, Sculptor, Teacher, and Theoretician
New Haven, CT, USA
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.
Albers initially jointed the Bauhaus as a maker of stained glass and in 1922, as a Bauhausgeselle (journeyman), he was charged with running the Bauhaus glass workshop. In 1923 he began to teach the Vorkurs, a basic design course. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, he became Bauhausmeister (professor), teaching alongside fellow artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. In addition to working in glass and metal, he designed furniture and typography.
After the Nazis forced the Bauhaus to close in 1933, the architect Philip Johnson, then a young curator at the Museum of Modern Art, secured positions for Albers and his wife Anni Albers at the experimental art school, Black Mountain College, where he headed the painting program from 1933 to 1949.
Black Mountain College was a liberal arts college with an innovative and progressive curriculum that repositioned the study and practice of art from the margin to the center of the undergraduate program, and Albers's preliminary art course in materials and form was one of only two courses required of all students, regardless of major. Although Black Mountain's focus was not the training of professional artists, the emphasis placed on the centrality of art to everyday life, and its integrative and collaborative approach to art-making, attracted creative students and faculty in every media, from painting and literature to dance and architecture. Albers brought the theories and teaching methods of the Bauhaus to Black Mountain, but he was influenced in turn by the progressive educational philosophy of American philosopher John Dewey, with its emphasis on experimentation and direct experience as central to the learning experience. Dewey spent several extended residencies at Black Mountain College in 1935-36 and was a frequent guest in Albers's classes.
While teaching at Black Mountain College, Albers continued to develop his aesthetic theories through his art practice. He began the Variant/Adobe series (c. 1947), which systematically explored the range of visual effects made possible by subtle variations in color, shape, and positioning. He also mounted more than 20 solo shows in various media in American galleries, including glass work from the Bauhaus period, as well as graphic art, drawings, and oil paintings.
In 1949 Albers left Black Mountain College to serve as the chairman of the Design Department at Yale University from 1950 to 1958 where he taught Richard Anuszkiewicz and Eva Hesse. While lecturing at Yale, Albers began his most famous body of work, the series Homage to the Square, an exercise on the optical effects of color within the confines of a uniform square shape.
After retiring from Yale in 1958 at the age of 70, his former teacher and colleague Walter Gropius invited Albers to design a mural for the interior of the new Graduate Center at Harvard University. This led to other important mural commissions, including Two Portals (1961) at the Time and Life Building and Manhattan (1963) at the Pan Am Building, both in New York.
In addition to painting, printmaking, murals, and architectural commissions, Albers published poetry, articles, and books on art theory. His best-known book, Interaction of Color, was and is still a widely used text in art education and has recently been reissued by Yale University.
Late Years and Death
After leaving Yale University in 1958, Albers continued to teach, giving guest lectures at colleges and universities throughout the country. An exhibition of Homage to the Square, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, traveled from 1965 to 1967 to parts of South America, Mexico, and the United States. In 1971 Albers was the first living artist to be honored with a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Albers lived and worked in New Haven, Connecticut, alongside his wife and fellow artist, Anni Albers, until his death on March 25, 1976.
The Legacy of Josef Albers
Albers's most profound impact on the history and practice of modern art was his transformation of art education and pedagogy, which he believed was the key to developing a future audience for art. Central to this pedagogy was a non-dogmatic, un-hierarchical, "scientific" approach based on observation and experimentation. As a teacher his stated goal was to "open the eyes," of students by disrupting ingrained habits of perception and considering forms apart from their conventional associations, reduced to their basic characteristics (line, shape, material, color). His strategies of "defamiliarization," such as drawing with the non-dominant hand, mirror writing, exploring optical illusions, and representing "negative" spaces, sharpened visual observation, precision, and awareness and are now an accepted part of the academic training of visual artists.
Of course, this approach to modernism was practiced by highly prominent students such as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, Ray Johnson, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Eva Hesse, and John Chamberlain.