Josef Albers


Josef Albers


1888 (Bottrop, Germany)-1976 (New Haven, Connecticut)


Associated with


The Bahaus

Black Mountain College

Yale University





"Josef Albers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum"



ART TIMES May 1988


IF DIVERSIFICATION is often the undoing of a minor talent, this retrospective of Josef Albers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (March 25 thru May 29) shows how it can strengthen and eventually serve to focus the mature vision of a master.  The first major retrospective of Albers's work, this exhibition of about 250 pieces (covering his output from 1914 to 1976) allows for a long view of the man and his oeuvre. What we get here is the complex and arduous struggle which occupied Albers from roughly his 25th to his 60th year and which culminated in the deceptive simplicity of his Homage to the Square, a series of well over a thousand paintings executed during the final twenty-five years of his life and which earned him the epithet, "the square man."


A small poem that Albers wrote in his Poems and Drawings (Wittenborn, 1961), rather neatly sums up his philosophy:


Easyto know

that diamondsare precious

goodto learn

that rubieshave depth

but moreto see

that pebblesare miraculous.


A quiet, self-effacing man, Albers had the self-discipline and single-minded dedication to eschew the popular, the easy paths to fame and success, and to follow his own lead. Ignoring the "diamonds" and "rubies" already discovered by others and capitalized upon in the art world, Albers sought the "pebbles," the often over-looked elemental qualities of art that lent it its universality, its endurance.  Eventually, Albers would decide that it was color or, more properly speaking, light that in the final analysis was the building block of art.


Born in 1888 in Bottrop, Germany, Josef Albers was most proud of his inheritance of an appreciation for and fine sense of craftsmanship derived from his father, a laborer in the Ruhr River region, and his mother, the daughter of a line of blacksmiths.  Throughout his life, he never strayed far from the belief that, at bottom, craft preceded "art."  An early beginning in the usual academic art schooling did not long hold Albers from going his own way. His drawings of 1915-18, after his return from the Konigliche Kuntschule in Berlin, show an early predilection for minimal statement.  Technically precise, they show a no-nonsense, spare rendition of the essential elements of his subjects.  Although detail would present no problem to this most competent draftsman, he preferred to keep his work as simple as possible.  Throughout, it is difficult to "see" Albers in his work.  Thoroughly detached, he allowed for no interference of non-aesthetic considerations to encumber his art.


Albers's affiliation with the Bauhaus is a well documented period of his life; everyone knows that he spent more time there than did anyone else (from 1920 to 1933). From his beginning as a student (who almost was dropped because of his refusal to study wall painting), through his being asked to set up a new glass workshop (on the strength of his work with glass shards he was gleaning from the town dump) and on through to his becoming a master and assistant director, it is clear that the Bauhaus was as good for Albers as he was for it. One can easily see that the Bauhaus's famous dictum of "Less is More" was in complete harmony with Albers's own bent.  His influence on other artists both here, and later at the Black Mountain college in North Carolina and, finally, at Yale, is also well known.  Albers brought to his teaching the same dedication that he brought to his art; again, his sense of craft and technique served him well in his methods of instruction. It was the Nazi closing of the school in 1933 that led to Albers's emigration to the United States.


The exhibit well documents Albers's output over the years including paintings, works on paper, glass assemblages and constructions, furniture, photographs and photo-collages.  If, as I have noted, there is an amazing diversification in Albers's work, one can yet follow the path of simplification he took.  And, once he settled upon his study with color, one can see the same single-minded diligence to craft that would occupy and guide him until his death.


Although Albers did not acknowledge any great debts to any of his contemporaries or for that matter to any of his predecessors he did admit that it was Cézanne who made the largest impact on his sensibilities.  If we can see some hint of this influence in some of his earlier work, it is undoubtedly most seen in his grasp of Cézanne's innovations with color and his pioneering efforts of using it to suggest depth.


It was the series Homage to the Square that brought Josef Albers to wide public attention and was, in fact, the core of his one-man retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971. This, incidentally, was the first such honor given to a living artist at that institution.  It was in this series that Albers brought the full powers of his study of color (light) into sharp focus.  The square form (called "platters" by Albers) was chosen since it would offer the least interference with his wish to "serve up" to the viewer's attention the interaction of color combinations.  It was also the Homage to the Square series which lay at the heart of his course on color at Yale and which served as the basis for his book, Interaction of Color,  published in 1963.