Josef Albers

Josef Albers (1888-1976) was one of the leading artists and art and design teachers of the 20th century. His emphasis was on color as a medium in its own right.

Josef Albers was born in 1888 in Bottrop in the Ruhr District of West Germany. After receiving his education at the Teachers' Training School in Langenhorst and then at the Teachers College in Büren, he began his career as a teacher in the primary grades in the public school of Bottrop. His interest in art began with a visit to Munich and its museums and galleries in 1908. By 1913 he had completed his first abstract painting, and soon after he mastered the art of printmaking, especially woodcuts and lithographs.

In 1920 Albers became a student at the Bauhaus in Weimar, founded by Walter Gropius, and remained as a teacher when the Bauhaus was relocated first to Dessau and then to Berlin. During his years at the Bauhaus, both as an artist and as a teacher, Albers was concerned with the interrelationship of the fine and applied arts. Thus he taught furniture design and calligraphy in addition to painting and drawing. Among his designs was the first laminated wood chair intended for mass production. He used commercial methods to produce glass paintings and collages, as well as stained glass windows for architectural use. In his glass paintings of the 1920s Albers explored variations in optics and perception—both concerns that would be of great importance in his art as well as his teaching.

On the recommendation of the Museum of Modern Art, Josef and Anni Albers (also an artist, whom he married in 1925) were invited to teach at the newly-founded Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He became the first of the Bauhaus teachers to leave Germany, in the fall of 1933. Albers was a mature and accomplished artist when he arrived in America, and soon after he began an active lecture and seminar tour. Through these numerous public appearances and academic presentations, his ideas and methods reached a wide audience and ideas developed at the Bauhaus were brought to the United States.

Albers left Black Mountains College in 1949 and became chairman of the Department of Art at Yale University in 1950. Here he began his well-known series of paintings and prints to which he gave the title Homage to the Square. Albers' format for these works—a structure of three or four squares superimposed over one another according to precise ratios—allowed him to explore the optical and perceptual qualities of color in a neutral, non-representational manner. The squares represent only squares; they do not refer to objects in the natural world. Within this apparently limited format he demonstrated the endless and changing effects and relationships when different colors are combined. Color was allowed to function as a medium in its own right, rather than as a means to describe or refer to natural objects. The individual and his perceptions became Albers' subject. He rejected scientific and theoretical interpretations of his work, insisting that his interest lay in the magical properties of color, or color as a means of aesthetic revelation.

Until the mid-1960s Albers was known primarily as one of the leading teachers of art and design in the United States. Then in 1965 his work was included in the important and popular exhibition titled "The Responsive Eye," presented by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As a result of this exhibition the beauty of his paintings and prints was recognized and the historical importance of his experiments with perception was acknowledged. From then until his death in 1976 Albers' work was exhibited throughout the world, and he received numerous honorary degrees and awards.

In 1963 Albers had published Interaction of Color, the major statement of his artistic philosophy. The book is dedicated to his students, and the chapters explain problems to the reader and offer a series of visual exercises in the same way that Albers would present his ideas in the classroom. Interaction of Color represents Albers' legacy as a teacher and as an artist, the summation of a long and distinguished career.


Further Reading on Josef Albers

Albers published his philosophy of art in an important and influential book, Interaction of Color (1963). Another major discussion of his art is F. Bucher, Josef Albers: Despite Straight Lines. An Analysis of His Graphic Constructions (1961). His paintings and prints are discussed in numerous exhibition catalogues from museums throughout the world. His contributions to the art of the 20th century are also discussed in major texts on modern art, such as H. H. Arnason, Modern Art (1977).