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White Gray Black

Josef Albers (American, born Germany. 1888–1976)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Painter, printmaker, sculptor, designer, writer and teacher. He worked from 1908 to 1913 as a schoolteacher in Bottrop and from 1913 to 1915 trained as an art teacher at the Königliche Kunstschule in Berlin, where he was exposed to many current art movements and to the work of such Old Masters as Dürer and Holbein. His figurative drawings of the next few years, which he kept hidden and which were discovered only after his death (many now in Orange, CT, Albers Found.), show that he applied these influences to his consistent concern with the simplest and most effective means of communicating his subject; he drew rabbits, schoolgirls and the local landscape in as dispassionate and impersonal a manner as possible. After his studies in Berlin he returned to Bottrop and from 1916 to 1919 began his work as a printmaker at the Kunstgewerbeschule in nearby Essen. In 1919 he went to Munich to study at the Königliche Bayerische Akademie der Bildenden Kunst, where he produced a number of nude drawings and Bavarian landscapes (Orange, CT, Albers Found.)

In 1920 Albers attended the preliminary course (Vorkurs) at the recently formed Bauhaus in Weimar, where he designed stained glass, furniture, metalwork and typography (see Alviani, pp. 18–21) as well as architecture. He was among the first students to be appointed a master (in 1925) and was one of the most influential teachers of this renowned course. He was deeply involved with technical mastery and with abstract form, particularly in his glass assemblages; the first of these, such as Untitled (Window Picture) (589×553×213 mm, 1921; Washington, DC, Hirshhorn), were made from broken bottle fragments found in the city dump in Weimar, while later works were made from sand-blasted multi-layered glass in precise, right-angled, abstract forms and pure, radiant colours in careful arrangements, for example Factory (c. 1925; New Haven, CT, Yale U., A.G.).

Albers was the longest-serving member of the Bauhaus when it was closed under pressure from the Nazis in 1933, and he was among the faculty members who agreed with its Director at the time, Mies van der Rohe, that the school be shut down. Albers and his wife (2) Anni Albers, whom he had married in 1925, were asked in the same year to teach art at the newly formed Black Mountain College in North Carolina on the recommendation of Philip Johnson at MOMA in New York; they remained there until 1949, and Albers became one of the best-known and most influential art teachers in the USA. He also continued his foray into printmaking, notably in a series of woodcuts and linoleum cuts of 1933–44 (see Alviani, pp. 30–46), and pursued abstract painting in a highly innovative way. During this period he first developed the idea of producing series of paintings in standard formats but different colours, for example Bent Black (B) (1940; Washington, DC, Hirshhorn) and Bent Dark Grey (1943; New York, Guggenheim). In 1947 he began a large series of rectangular abstractions entitled Adobes, for example Variant: Inside and out (1948–53; Hartford, CT, Wadsworth Atheneum) and Variant (1948–52; Bottrop, Albers Mus.), in which he often used equal quantities of five different colours in a precisely calculated geometric arrangement. It was in these and related works that he first developed a rather mechanical, emotionless technique to achieve highly poetic results.

In 1950 Albers was appointed chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University, New Haven, CT, a post he retained until 1958, although he remained there as visiting professor until 1960. His students there and previously at Black Mountain College included Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland and Richard Anuszkiewicz. His teaching of colour at Yale led to the publication of his renowned treatise Interaction of Color (1963), a book that was later translated into eight languages as one of the major tools of art teaching throughout the world. In it Albers investigated the properties of colour (for illustration see Colour interaction and colour pls VII and VIII), including the illusory ability of opaque colours to appear translucent and overlapping, which he had begun to explore in 1950 in his best-known series of works, Homage to the Square, on which he was occupied until his death. These were exhibited all over the world and were the basis of the first one-person show given to a living artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1971). Works from this series, of which Albers did over 1000, are in the Josef Albers Museum (opened 1983) in Bottrop, Germany, as well as numerous public collections (e.g. New Haven, CT, Yale U., A.G.; New York, Guggenheim; Berlin, N.G.; Paris, Pompidou). Each consists of either three or four squares of solid planes of colour nested within one another, in one of four different arrangements and in square formats ranging from 406×406 mm to 1.22×1.22 m. In these paintings, and in related prints and tapestries, Albers explored effects of perception, such as the apparent oscillation between the flat surface design and an illusion of movement across or into space and the interaction of adjacent colours to produce effects of modulation and tonal variation.

Albers painted the Homages in a precise arrangement and under laboratory-like conditions, always working on the rough side of Masonite (wood fibreboard) panels, primed with at least six coats of white liquitex. Under a careful arrangement of fluorescent lights (bulbs arranged warm/cool/warm/cool over one work table, warm/warm/cool/cool over another), he worked on each painting in alternate light conditions, applying unmixed paints straight out of the tube with a palette knife, often starting with the centre square and working outwards. However systematic and even mechanical their execution, these paintings remain mysterious and enormously varied in mood and colour.

On his retirement from Yale, Albers continued to live near New Haven and to paint, monitor his own exhibitions and publications, write, lecture and work on large commissioned sculptures for architectural settings, many of which were based on a series of drawings and engravings entitled Structural Constellations (see Alviani, pp. 72–84). Such works as Repeat and Reverse (stainless steel, 1.98×0.91 m, 1963; New Haven, CT, Yale U., A. & Archit. Bldg) dominate major open spaces in cities as far afield as Sydney and Münster and the insides of such important New York skyscrapers as the Pan Am and Time-Life buildings. Whatever their basis, all of Albers’s work points to the beauty of simple geometry and technical proficiency and to ‘the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect’, which the artist regarded as one of the major goals of his art.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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