Once in every generation, there comes an intellectual who defines that generation. The great Josef Albers undoubtedly falls into this category for his outstanding contributions to the world of art, colors, and flamboyance. The influence he had in the 20th century still reverberates through the art world to this day.
Josef Albers was not just an artist, though. He was much more than that. He was an established craftsman, a renowned thinker, and an outstanding teacher. He had the ability to appreciate beauty even in places where none appeared. He had the unique quality of being able to discern colors unlike any other. He was the master, after all!
Such was his extensive reach and magnetic influence that some of the most prominent constants in modern art were derived from his thoughts, ideas, and works. A fantastic educator, Josef Albers had a life full of exhilarating experiences that have inspired countless people for generations.
Who was Josef Albers?
Josef Albers was a man of conviction. His astute nature and unbelievable efficiency lead him to use his own art as a foundation to explore the many theories of design and colors. After all, as claimed by his biographer Charles Darwent, he was “arguably the most important teacher of art in the 20th century.”
From the early 1900s, influenced by Bauhaus (more on Bauhaus later in this biography) to merge handicrafts and art, Albers studied among cradle-crafters and weavers. It was here that he designed his first geometric abstractions, utilizing smooth planes to evoke three-dimensional shapes. He was excellent at maintaining this institution’s shifting political views and artistic priorities.
Josef Albers was a pioneer; however, he was not given his deserved recognition and acclaim due to others taking the credit for mimicking his works. His entire life was heavily surrounded by influential names of those times. His teachers were the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter and art theorist, and Paul Klee, the German artist and draughtsman. The great American graphic artist and painter Milton Ernest “Robert” Rauschenberg was one of his beloved disciples. Even his wife Anni Albers was a coveted printmaker and textile maker.
Clearly, the magnetic aura that he emanated was worth experiencing firsthand, hence the involvement of such remarkable figures with him during and after his lifetime. Let us take a thorough look at the extraordinary life of Josef Albers and get inspired by the innumerable achievements of this great maestro!
Quick facts about Albers
- Born: March 19, 1888, in Bottrop, Westphalia, Germany
- Died: March 25, 1976 in New Haven, Connecticut, United States of America
- Spouse: Anni Fleischmann Albers
- Occupation: Artist and Educator
- Prominent works: “Two Portals” (1961), “Wrestling” (1977), “Homage to the Square” (1949-1976)
- Notable quote: “I prefer to see with closed eyes”.
Josef’s birth and contemporary Germany
Born on the 19th of March, 1888, in beautiful Bottrop, Westphalia, Germany, Josef Albers was a local for many years. The time of his birth was unique as it was the Feast of Saint Joseph. During that era, it was a convention that couples baptize their newborns in honor of the saint. The baby was baptized as Franz Albers, although the first part of the name never really took off and was dropped soon afterward. By the age of eleven, he was known as Josef Albers.
His father, Lorenz Albers, was a distinguished carpenter, house painter, and handyman. His mother, Magdalena Albers, came from a family of forgers, metalworkers, and blacksmiths. This played a significant role in young Josef’s upbringing as he was heavily influenced by creative crafts of this sort. A major part of his adolescence involved hands-on training in plumbing, wiring, and engraving glass, which earned him credibility and confidence in the treatment, styling, and manipulation of various crafting elements.
The Albers were typical, ardent Roman Catholics. During the time of Josef’s birth, the German Empire was ruled de facto by the province of Prussia, which was openly against Roman policies and legislature. An all-out Kulturkampf, or fight of cultures, persisted in regions like Bottrop during that period of time.
The fact that Josef’s name was derived from the Catholic Emperor of Austria instead of the Prussian Protestant Kaiser during these trying times was a resolute statement by the Albers. In fact, this was the Year of Three Emperors (locally known as “das Dreikaiserjahr”), which signified the shift of power from the conservative Wilhelm I to the retrogressive Wilhelm II, the former’s grandson. This was a change that played a key role in the psychological development of a young Josef Albers.
Early academic career
Due to him belonging to a family of hard-working, erudite personalities, Josef always knew he had the teaching gene in him. He trained to become a teacher between 1905 and 1908 in Büren, Westphalia. After attaining his credentials, he went on to teach students in many primary schools in and around Westphalia from 1908 to 1913.
He received his first certification for teaching art after successfully completing a course in Berlin at an institution called Königliche Kunstschule. This took him around two years to finish and finally ended in 1915. Albers mastered lithography in the city of Essen, Germany, where he also attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.
He remained in Essen for three more years until 1919, where he served in the Kunstgewerbeschule as a printmaker—his father’s old job. It was during this phase of his formative years that he acquired stained-glass-making skills with the help of Johan Thorn Prikker, a Dutch painter, designer, and decorator.
While at it, Josef achieved his very first official work, named Rosa Mystica ora pro-Nobis. This was an iconic stained-glass window customized and designed for the church in Essen. Josef excelled at it with ease.
By 1919, he shifted back to Munich in order to continue his education at the Königliche Bayerische Akademie der Bildenden Kunst. Notable historical figures like Franz Stuck (German sculptor and architect) and Max Doerner (German painter and restorer) were among the many elite scholars teaching in that institution during that time. Josef derived great value from this and went on to work closely and learn from the aforementioned dignitaries.
Life in Bauhaus
Albers enrolled at the world-renowned Bauhaus in Weimar when he was 32 years old in the year 1920. Founded by Walter Gropius, one of the pioneers of modernist architecture, Bauhaus was a school dedicated to exploring the connection between technological aspects of society and art while also highlighting contemporary architecture’s integration with handicrafts and fine arts.
Josef Albers joined Bauhaus as a pupil in the fundamental course or Vorkurs of Johannes Itten and continued his education for a couple of years until 1922. Soon afterward, his outstanding dexterity and immense commitment to work earned him a spot among the respected faculties of the school. His initial job as a prestigious Bauhaus-journeyman was to make stained glass and run the Bauhaus glass workshop.
This was one of his prime ambitions. Walter Gropius (founder and director) assigned him the department of design’s fundamental course Werklehre as his first-ever subject to teach. This was a basic course for new inductees.
Five years after joining Bauhaus, in 1925, Albers received a promotion and attained the designation of full professor. He was just beginning to settle down when the institution had to be abruptly moved to Dessau—a location that went on to become world-famous because of the Bauhaus.
After shifting to Dessau, Josef started to take up more work than his peers anticipated. In addition to working with stained glass, he also began designing various types of modernist furniture. He polished his skillset with the help of colleagues like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Oskar Schlemmer, who were legends of their own genres of art. In fact, Klee and Albers collaborated on a lot of glass projects in the years to come. Their combination was so marvelously effective that people started calling Albers and Klee “crafts master” and “form master” respectively.
It was during his time in Bauhaus that Josef Albers met his future wife Anni Fleischmann, who was a student at that time. They fell in love and got married in 1925. The incredible affection they had for each other always kept them together. It took the unfortunate demise of Josef Albers on March 29, 1976, for them to finally be separated. Anni Albers herself led a successful life with many innovations and contributions to art to boast about. She was a renowned textile designer and printmaker.
Time in Black Mountain College
In the year 1933, the historic Bauhaus had to shut down for good under pressure from the Nazis. All the artists and aspirants went their own separate ways shortly afterward, with many of them leaving the country in search of institutions as good as Bauhaus, if not better.
The Albers moved to the United States. They were offered respected positions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City by the architect Philip Johnson, who was the curator at that time. Josef obtained the designation of the head of the painting school in Black Mountain College. Located in North Carolina, this was an established institute completely suited to the attributes of Josef. In fact, Black Mountain College forms a significant part of the life of Josef Albers. He served as the department head until 1949.
From literature and painting to architecture and dance, the Black Mountain College specialized in them all. The academic curriculum was heavily unorthodox and neoteric, but that is exactly what innovators like Josef Albers truly relish. The course he taught was so significant for the students that it was one of only a couple of courses that were mandatory for all pupils of the institute.
The school’s goals were broad: to stimulate and encourage creative individuals in any discipline pursuing any form of career. The emphasis on the conformity of art to day-to-day life, as well as its associative and synergetic approach to art-crafting, fascinated visionary students and instructors in every field, including engineering and drama.
Albers’ plan was to integrate his experience from Bauhaus into the core of Black Mountain College. However, upon arriving, he became intrigued by the progressive ideologies that he was experiencing for the very first time in his life. John Dewey, the great American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, truly mesmerized Josef by his straightforward nature and addiction to experiments.
In fact, Dewey visited many of Josef’s classes in Black Mountain College as a guest lecturer between 1935 and 1936. Willem de Kooning, the Dutch-American abstract expressionist, was also a frequent guest instructor in his classes during this time.
During all his years of teaching here, Josef never stopped developing his own skills and attributes. He kept on creating new art to support his theories regarding unconventional aesthetics. One of his most prized possessions, the Variant or Adobe series, was first developed during this time.
It was indeed a telling work of art. The staggering variety of visual effects that were obtained simply by the use of color, positioning, and shape was truly spectacular. His varying experimentation garnered positive reviews and gradually started leading him to prominence. He hosted more than 20 events in the United States, where he showcased a variety of his work to the audience. Most of his creations on display included graphic art, oil paintings, drawings, and glass work.
Josef Albers’s time at Black Mountain College was a time of personal development. He polished his skills and also helped his students do the same. One of his famed students, Susan Weil, once quoted Josef saying, “When you’re in school, you’re not an artist, you’re a student.”
Yale University and final years
The final stage of his academic career began in 1950 when he joined Yale University, located in New Haven, Connecticut. He began this final journey as the head of the department of design. One of his compelling contributions to the institution was the development of the budding graphic design (graphic arts) program. He hired expert designers like Herbert Matter, Alvin Eisenman, and Alvin Lustig to help him out. He continued to modify and develop the curriculum followed by the university until his retirement in 1958. Even at Yale University, he taught some of the best minds of that era, including Neil Welliver, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Jane Davis Doggett, and Eva Hesse.
Afterward, during his fellowship at Yale in 1962, the Graham Foundation for the Advanced Studies of Fine Arts offered him a hefty grant for a comprehensive display of his precious work, followed by a lecture on art. He also took part in numerous projects by collaborating with architect King-Lui Wu, who was also a professor at Yale University. Some of their best collaborative works include the blueprint for Mt. Bethel Baptist Church in 1973, the exterior of the Manuscript Society in 1962, the unique fireplaces for the Rouse house in 1954, and a similar structure for the DuPont house in 1959.
Walter Gropius, Josef’s old teacher, colleague, and friend, offered him the chance to design an artistic mural for Harvard University’s Graduate Center. After that, he went on to craft more murals, with notable ones being the Manhattan at the Pan Am Building in 1963, the Two Portals at the Time and Life Building in 1961, and the Wrestling at Seidler’s Mutual Life Center in 1977.
Josef also played a major role in the music industry. He designed the psychedelic album arts of the Command LP records by Enoch Light. He did the same for Terry Snyder and his 1959 all-stars album known as Persuasive Percussion. The design was unique and represented independent particles of light gas trying to escape to the unknown.
In 1973, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences named him a Fellow, which was major respect at that time, and still is. Even after that, Josef Albers never really stopped writing or painting. He spent his final years in New Haven with his wife until his death three years later in 1976.
The entire life of the great Josef Albers was filled with remarkable moments that have gone down in history. The following sections mention the most significant ones.
Homage to the Square
After leaving Black Mountain College in 1949 and joining Yale University, he began his life’s greatest work: Homage to the Square. He spent over two decades experimenting with the idea of integrating colorful, solid squares in innumerable prints and paintings.
Albers themed his drawings in a unique manner by nesting overlying squares which created a sensational effect. It was something the world had never seen before and was Albers’s personal signature and subject of research. The idea of generating three-dimensional images on a flat plane was truly remarkable indeed.
Homage to the Square was a massive milestone in the career of Josef Albers as it garnered him a colossal amount of positive reviews. People lauded his exquisite sense of design and striking ability to depict those thoughts on the canvas. Homage to the Square traveled to numerous locations in the world, including Mexico, the United States, and South America.
Interaction of Color
Josef Albers wrote the monumental piece of literature Interaction of Color in 1963. Until it was published, people had never experienced such thorough research on color combinations and had no idea of the infinite effects that can be achieved when playing with colors. The general perception changed drastically. Students and educators began seeing art from a completely different viewpoint. Ideas like Color Field Painting and Minimalism were especially affected and inspired by Interaction of Color.
While speaking about this noble work of his, Josef once mentioned that color “is almost never seen as it really is.” He also went on to claim that “color deceives continually.” He suggested that in order to truly grasp the meaning and significance of different color combinations, observation, experimentation, and hands-on experience are crucial.
Josef had an interesting habit of listing the varnishes and colors of particular manufacturers on the rear surfaces of his paintings and notable works. These were the watermarks of past generations. He implemented these signatures with the colors being used in the paintings, making the overall picture look absolutely natural. The mammoth shift from European to American art during that period was truly remarkable—something in which Josef Albers played a major role.
Hard-edge artists who were focused on abstract paintings looked up at him as a source of inspiration. The value of individual perception in art was never as strongly felt as from the time of the great Josef Albers.
Interaction of Color came out as a very limited edition, with only 2,000 copies printed, including 150 plates of silk screen. However, the importance of this tantalizing piece of work is available on a lot of online platforms nowadays.
Best quotes of Josef Albers
Josef Albers lived an illustrious life and has been a role model for millions of aspiring artists worldwide to this day. Over the years, he has said some wise words that still resonate around the corners of art halls and architectural institutions. Below is a list of some of his most famous quotes:
- I prefer to see with closed eyes.
- I’ve handled color as a man should behave. You may conclude that I consider ethics and aesthetics as one.
- It’s the only dish I serve my craziness for color in.
- Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.
- Ah, the creative process is the same secret in science as it is in art. They are all the same absolutely.
- I’m not a talker. I’m a formulator.
- Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature.
- Traditionally art is to create and not to revive. To revive: leave that to the historians, who are looking backward.
- Every perception of color is an illusion; we do not see colors as they really are. In our perception, they alter one another.
- If one says “red” (the name of a color) and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.
- Color deceives continuously.
- A thing is never seen as it really is.
- Color is like cooking. The cook puts in more or less salt, that’s the difference!
- One line plus one line results in many meanings.
Criticisms of Josef Albers
The indifferent nature of Josef’s works leads many critics to question his approach to art. Albers implemented very unique methods that had more science than art, as claimed by them. The watermarks he used to provide on the backs of his drawings were also not accepted very well, more because it was new than because it was unimpressive. In fact, one critic by the name of Clement Greenberg defamed Josef’s works by claiming that they had the “inability to rise above merely decorative motifs.”
In 1981, after Albers’ death, Alan Lee declared that the former’s works were fallacious and misleading; especially the fact that “colors deceive continually.” Lee came to this conclusion after carefully scrutinizing four aspects of Albers’s perception of color. These included subjects like tonal relations, subtractive and additive mixing, the Weber-Fechner law, and overlying contrasts.
Lee believed that Albers had made a grave error while relating color deception with aesthetics. He could not fully grasp the whole scenario and thus could not relate to the depths of human thinking. He chose to prefer Edwin H. Land’s color theory over Albers’ and even went so far as to challenge his concepts on the global field. Dorothea Jameson finally rejected all of Lee’s claims with sufficient proof and restored the honor of Josef Albers that he truly deserved.
All of Josef Albers documentation and paperwork from 1928 to 1970 were given away to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution during his final years. He created a non-profit organization called Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, with the tagline saying “the revelation and evocation of vision through art.”
The foundation still stands today and is maintained by the initial management. Many of the couple’s memorable works of art are still on display at this venue. It “includes a central research and archival storage center to accommodate the Foundation’s art collections, library and archives, and offices, as well as residence studios for visiting artists.” Some of his creations were so popular that the director Nicholas Fox Weber had to import identical replicas to serve the massive public demand.
The life of Josef Albers was truly remarkable and inspiring. He was a man who knew no limits. Most of his works were either controversial or unfortunate to not have been appreciated enough—at least during his lifetime. He was a true pioneer and has left worthy examples for later generations to follow.