Biography of Josef Albers, Modern Artist and Influential Teacher

josef albers
Hannes Beckmann / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 4.0

Josef Albers (March 19, 1888 - March 25, 1976) was one of the most influential art educators of the 20th century in Europe and the United States. He used his own work as an artist to explore theories of color and design. His Homage to the Square series is one of the most extensive and influential ongoing projects undertaken by a prominent artist.

Fast Facts: Josef Albers

  • Occupation: Artist and Educator
  • Born: March 19, 1888 in Bottrop, Westphalia, Germany
  • Died: March 25, 1976 in New Haven, Connecticut
  • Spouse: Anni (Fleischmann) Albers
  • Selected Works: "Homage to the Square" (1949-1976), "Two Portals" (1961), "Wrestling" (1977)
  • Notable Quote: "Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature."

Early Life and Career

Born into a German family of craftsmen, Josef Albers studied to become a schoolteacher. He taught in the Westphalian primary schools from 1908 to 1913 and then attended the Konigliche Kuntschule in Berlin from 1913 to 1915 to earn certification to teach art. From 1916 to 1919, Albers worked as a printmaker at the Kunstgewerbeschule, a vocational arts school in Essen, Germany. There, he received his first public commission to design stained-glass windows for a church in Essen.

josef albers grassimuseum windows
Grassimuseum Windows in Leipzig, Germany. Frank Vincentz / Wikimedia Commons / GNU Free Documentation License

Bauhaus

In 1920, Albers enrolled as a student at the famed Bauhaus art school, founded by Walter Gropius. He joined the teaching faculty in 1922 as a maker of stained glass. By 1925, Albers was promoted to full professor. In that year, the school moved to its most famous location in Dessau.

With the move to a new location, Josef Albers began work on furniture design as well as stained glass. He taught at the school along with other prominent 20th-century artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. He cooperated with Klee for many years on glass projects.

josef albers armchair
Armchair designed by Josef Albers (1927). Tim Evanson / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 2.0

While teaching at the Bauhaus, Albers met a student named Anni Fleischmann. They married in 1925 and remained together until Josef Albers' death in 1976. Anni Albers became a prominent textile artist and printmaker in her own right.

Black Mountain College

In 1933, the Bauhaus closed due to pressure from the Nazi government in Germany. The artists and teachers who worked at the Bauhaus dispersed, many of them leaving the country. Josef and Anni Albers emigrated to the United States. Architect Philip Johnson, then curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, found a position for Josef Albers as head of the painting program at Black Mountain College, a new experimental art school opening in North Carolina.

Josef Albers PaceWildenstein Gallery
Josef Albers work at the PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York. Brad Barket / Getty Images

Black Mountain College soon took on a very influential role in the development of 20th-century art in the United States. Among the students who studied with Josef Albers were Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. Albers also invited prominent working artists like Willem de Kooning to teach summer seminars.

Josef Albers brought his theories and teaching methods from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain College, but he was also open to influence from the ideas of American progressive education philosopher John Dewey. In 1935 and 1936, Dewey spent extensive amounts of time at Black Mountain College as a resident and frequently appeared in Albers' classes as a guest lecturer.

While working at Black Mountain College, Albers continued to develop his own theories about art and education. He began what was called the Variant/Adobe series in 1947 that explored the visual effects created by subtle variations in color, shape, and position.

Homage to the Square

josef albers blue secret ii
Blue Secret II (1963). Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 4.0

In 1949, Josef Albers left Black Mountain College to chair the Design Department at Yale University. There he began his best-known work as a painter. He started the series Homage to the Square in 1949. For more than 20 years, he explored the visual impact of nesting solid-colored squares in hundreds of paintings and prints.

Albers based the entire series on a mathematical format that created the effect of overlapping squares nested within each other. It was Albers' template for exploring the perception of adjacent colors and how flat shapes might appear to be advancing or receding in space.

The project earned significant respect in the art world. In 1965, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized a traveling exhibition of Homage to the Square that visited multiple locations in South America, Mexico, and the United States.

© 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation; used with permission
Josef Albers (American, b. Germany, 1888-1976). Scherbe ins Gitterbild (Glass Fragments in Grid Picture), ca. 1921. Glass, wire, and metal, in metal frame. Photo Tim Nighswander/Art Resource, NY. © 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 1963, Josef Albers published his landmark book Interaction of Color. It was the most complete examination of color perception yet, and it had a massive impact on both art education and the work of practicing artists. It particularly influenced the development of Minimalism and Color Field Painting.

Later Career

Albers retired from Yale University in 1958 at age 70, but he continued to teach giving guest lectures at colleges and universities around the country. In the last 15 years of his life, Josef Albers designed and executed major architectural installations around the world.

He created Two Portals in 1961 for the entry to the Time and Life building lobby in New York. Walter Gropius, Albers' former colleague at the Bauhaus, commissioned him to design a mural named Manhattan that decorated the lobby of the Pan Am Building. Wrestling, a design of interlocking boxes, appeared on the facade of the Seidler's Mutual Life Center in Sydney, Australia in 1977.

josef albers wrestling
Wrestling (1977). Whitegost.ink / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 4.0

Josef Albers continued working at his home in New Haven, Connecticut, until his death at age 88 in 1976.

Legacy and Influence

Josef Albers powerfully impacted the development of art in three different ways. First, he was an artist himself, and his explorations of color and shape laid the groundwork for generations of artists to come. He also presented disciplined shapes and designs to viewers with countless variations on a theme that had varying emotional and aesthetic impact.

Second, Albers was one of the most gifted art educators of the 20th century. He was a key professor at the Bauhaus in Germany, one of the most influential architecture schools of all time. At Black Mountain College in the U.S., he trained a generation of modern artists and developed new techniques of teaching art putting the theories of John Dewey into practice.

Third, his theories about color and the ways that it interacted in the perception of viewers influenced countless artists around the world. The art world's appreciation for the work and theories of Josef Albers became evident when he was the subject of the first solo retrospective of a living artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1971.

Sources

  • Darwent, Charles. Josef Albers: Life and Work. Thames and Hudson, 2018.
  • Horowitz, Frederick A. and Brenda Danilowitz. Josef Albers: To Open Eyes: The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale. Phaidon Press, 2006.