Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) was a German-born American artist and educator whose work formed the basis of some of the most influential and far-reaching art education programs of the 20th century. Accomplished as a designer, photographer, typographer, printmaker, and poet, Albers is best remembered for his work as an abstract painter and theorist. He favored a very disciplined approach to composition. Most famous of all are the hundreds of paintings and prints that make up the series ‘Homage to the Square.’ In this rigorous series, begun in 1949, Albers explored chromatic interactions with nested squares.
Painting usually on Masonite (an engineered wood product), he used a palette knife with oil colors and often recorded colors used on the back of his works. Albers’s work represents a transition between traditional European art and the new American art. It incorporated European influences from the constructivists and the Bauhaus movement, and its intensity and smallness of scale were typically European. But his influence fell heavily on American artists of the late 1950s and the 1960s. ‘Hard-edge’ abstract painters drew on his use of patterns and intense colors, while Op artists and conceptual artists further explored his interest in perception.
He studied art in Berlin, Essen, and Munich, before enrolling as a student in the basic course of Johannes Itten at the prestigious Weimar Bauhaus in 1920. The director and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, asked him in 1923 to teach in the preliminary course ‘Werklehre’ of the Department of Design to introduce newcomers to the principles of handicrafts, because Albers came from that background and had appropriate practice and knowledge. In 1925, Albers was promoted to Professor, the year the Bauhaus moved to Dessau. At this time, he married Anni Fleischmann who was also a student there. His work in Dessau included designing furniture and working with glass. As a younger art teacher, he was teaching at the Bauhaus with artists including Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. Klee was the so-called form master who taught the formal aspects in the glass workshops where Albers was the crafts master; they cooperated for several years.
With the closure of the Bauhaus under Nazi pressure in 1933, Albers emigrated to the United States. He joined the faculty of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he ran the painting program until 1949. At Black Mountain, his students included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ray Johnson, and Susan Weil. He also invited important American artists as Willem de Kooning, to teach in the summer seminar. Weil remarked that, as a teacher, Albers was ‘his own academy’ and said that Albers claimed that ‘when you’re in school, you’re not an artist, you’re a student,’ though he was very supportive of self-expression when one became an artist and began his or her journey. Albers produced many woodcuts and leaf studies at this time.
In 1950, Albers left Black Mountain to head the Department of Design at Yale University, where he expanded the nascent graphic design program (then called ‘graphic arts’), hiring designers Alvin Eisenman, Herbert Matter, and Alvin Lustig. Richard Anuszkiewicz and Eva Hesse were notable students. Albers worked at Yale until he retired from teaching in 1958. Albers also collaborated with Yale professor and architect King-lui Wu in creating decorative designs for some of Wu’s projects. Among these were distinctive geometric fireplaces for the ‘Rouse’ (1954) and ‘DuPont’ (1959) houses, the façade of Manuscript Society, one of Yale’s secret senior groups (1962), and a design for the Mt. Bethel Baptist Church (1973). Also, at this time he worked on his structural constellation pieces. In 1963, he published ‘Interaction of Color’ which presented his theory that colors were governed by an internal and deceptive logic. Also during this time, he created the abstract album covers of band leader Enoch Light’s Command LP records.