Josef Albers: Thinking Outside the Box

For an artist so closely associated with squares, the life of Josef Albers is cyclical. He began his career as a school teacher, then became an artist, before becoming one of the most important art educators of the 20th century.

Josef Albers and his student Norman Ives at work on "Formulation : Articulation", 1972. Photo by Jthill84/Template: John T. Hill (License CC BY-SA 4.0) (detail)
Josef Albers and his student Norman Ives at work on "Formulation : Articulation", 1972. Photo by Jthill84/Template: John T. Hill (License CC BY-SA 4.0) (detail)

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had been open for 40 years before it decided to stage an exhibition of works by a still living artist. On December 8, 1969, The Graphic Constructions of Josef Albers opened on West 53rd Street. The press release referred to Albers as a professor, a poet and a philosopher, and gave an idea of the breadth of his career:

“His work encompasses glass pictures of the Bauhaus period, drawings, oils, gouaches, wall paintings, lithographs, linocuts, woodcuts, etchings, engravings and serigraphs. His works in public collections are found in at least a dozen countries and about half of the States in this country including about sixty works in The Museum of Modern Art Collection, and his works may be found as well in commercial buildings such as the Corning Glass Building in New York.”

30 years after he had become an American citizen, it was a landmark achievement in a career with no shortage of highlights.

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1957. Sold at Phillips in 2017 for $555,000. Photo © Phillips
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1957. Sold at Phillips in 2017 for $555,000. Photo © Phillips

Josef Albers was born in the town of Bottrop in Northwest Germany in 1888. He died in New Haven, Connecticut, 88 years later. His life was a journey between countries and eras. Born 13 years before the end of the Victorian age, he died five years before Ronald Reagan moved into the White House.

Lorenz Albers, Josef’s father, was a painter – of houses. He taught his son many practical skills, from engraving to plumbing and wiring, but discouraged him from pursuing art as a career. Instead, young Albers became an elementary school teacher. Later, after taking lessons in the Royal Art School in Berlin, he was certified as an art teacher in 1915. He started to paint and make linocut prints, and became interested in stained glass. His first public commission came in 1918 when he was asked to create a stained-glass window (since destroyed) for a church in his hometown.

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In 1920, aged 32, Albers enrolled at a new school that had opened the previous year in the town of Weimar: the Bauhaus. Founded by Walter Gropius, Bauhaus’s teaching staff in those early years included Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Albers focused on stained-glass making, which he viewed as a bridge between architecture and art. It’s telling that his early work was all about light pouring through colored glass. The power of color, and the energy created by juxtaposing colors, would remain a constant in his work and become the focus of his teaching.

Josef Albers and his student Norman Ives at work on "Formulation : Articulation", 1972. Photo by Jthill84/Template: John T. Hill (License CC BY-SA 4.0)
Josef Albers and his student Norman Ives at work on "Formulation : Articulation", 1972. Photo by Jthill84/Template: John T. Hill (License CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 1925 Albers was the first Bauhaus student to be asked to join the faculty. That same year, he married a fellow student, Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischmann, known thereafter as Anni Albers. Though they were both artists (Anni focused primarily on textile arts) their only collaboration was on the Christmas cards they would send to friends each year. Their marriage would last for more than half a century.

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By the early 1930s, the Bauhaus was led by its third (and final) director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but its short history was drawing to a close. The power of the Nazis was growing and the Bauhaus was seen as a hotbed of what the Nazis termed "degenerate art". In April 1933 it was raided by the Gestapo, and later that year the faculty decided to close the school. In 1933, Albers moved to the United States.

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His emigration was helped by the architect Philip Johnson, at the time a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He helped Albers secure a job at another brand-new school – Black Mountain College, located in Asheville, North Carolina, where he would teach for 16 years.

“Under Josef Albers, Black Mountain College was an extraordinary hotbed of creative development in the 1950s,” says Loretta Howard of Loretta Howard Gallery, located in Chelsea, New York, which focuses on post-World War II American abstract art. “Albers taught alongside Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell and his students included Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland.”

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1965. Sold at Sotheby's in 2017 for £272,750. Photo © Sotheby's
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1965. Sold at Sotheby's in 2017 for £272,750. Photo © Sotheby's

Of his teacher, Rauschenberg later said: “Albers was a beautiful teacher, but an impossible person. His criticism was so devastating that I wouldn't ask for it. But 21 years later, I'm still learning what he taught me.”

After Black Mountain, Albers went on to head the art department at Yale University where he influenced another generation of important artists before retiring in 1958 at the age of 70. “One of his assignments was to send students out with a camera and look for patterns in nature,” says Howard. “This exercise became famous for its influence on photography in art. However, it is his lectures on color theory that are the most important legacy of his teaching.”

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Albers’s best-known academic work is his book Interaction of Color (Yale University Press, 1963). It has been translated into multiple languages and remains essential reading for any serious student of art or anyone striving to understand the power of color. The book begins by explaining how the name of a color means a myriad of different things to different people: “Even when a certain color is specified which all listeners have seen innumerable times – such as the red of the Coca-Cola signs which is the same red all over the country – they will still think of many different reds.”

The current highest auction price for a work by Josef Albers was in 2017 with "Homage to the Square: Temperate" from 1957, which sold for $3 million at Sotheby's. Photo © Sotheby's
The current highest auction price for a work by Josef Albers was in 2017 with "Homage to the Square: Temperate" from 1957, which sold for $3 million at Sotheby's. Photo © Sotheby's

The shifting nature of color was explored through Albers’s most famous artworks – the Homage to the Square series, which includes many hundreds of paintings and prints. He worked on them for 25 years, beginning in 1950. Typically comprising three squares of diminishing size, they exemplify Albers’s teachings about color. By putting different squares of different color alongside each other, the viewer is invited to feel the energy and interplay between them. They are, in the words of the Guggenheim, “disarmingly simple”.

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Of Homage to the Square: Apparition (oil on Masonite, 1959), the Guggenheim writes: “The series is defined by an unmitigating adherence to one pictorial formula: the square. The optical effects Albers created – shimmering color contrasts and the illusion of receding and advancing planes – were meant not so much to deceive the eye as to challenge the viewer’s faculties of visual reception.”

Albers’s own explanation for the works was simpler: “Just putting colors together is the excitement of it... The way green submits to blue, for instance, or vice‐versa. What interests me is the way they marry, interpenetrate and produce the baby, the color that is their product together.”

4 x "Study for Homage to the Square" in red. Executed between 1962 and 1969. Sold at Christie's and Sotheby's between 2012 and 2019. Photos © Christie's and © Sotheby's (collage)
4 x "Study for Homage to the Square" in red. Executed between 1962 and 1969. Sold at Christie's and Sotheby's between 2012 and 2019. Photos © Christie's and © Sotheby's (collage)

The compositional similarity of the works is intended to heighten awareness of the power of color. “They all are of different palettes, and, therefore, so to speak, of different climates,” wrote Albers in 1965. “Choice of the colors used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction – influencing and changing each other forth and back. Thus, character and feeling alter from painting to painting without any additional ‘hand writing’ or, so-called, texture. Though the underlying symmetrical and quasi-concentric order of squares remains the same in all paintings – in proportion and placement – these same squares group or single themselves, connect and separate in many different ways.”

During his Bauhaus years, Josef Albers produced some furniture. This later desk was originally produced in 1927. © Christie's
During his Bauhaus years, Josef Albers produced some furniture. This later desk was originally produced in 1927. © Christie's

Albers created the paintings by laying the canvas (or, more often, a sheet of Masonite) on a horizontal surface and using a palette knife to apply a smooth layer of paint directly from the tube. He did not mix the paint, nor did he use tape to ensure a clean straight line around each box.

In 2007, Bloomberg published an article about Albers headlined: 'When a $1 Million Painting Is a Bargain'. It asked, “Prices for works by Josef Albers are on the upswing, but will they stay that way?” The indications are good. Notable Albers auction results include $1.49 million in 2007 for Homage to the Square: Joy (1964) and, in 2015, $1.2 million for Study for Homage to the Square, R-III E.B (1970). In 2017, his Homage to the Square: Temperate achieved $3.06 million at Sotheby's, his current record.

In Josef Alber's homeland, too, high prices are achieved for his works of art. "Homage to the Square" from 1961 was auctioned in 2017 at the Cologne auction house Lempertz for $671,000. Photo © Lempertz
In Josef Alber's homeland, too, high prices are achieved for his works of art. "Homage to the Square" from 1961 was auctioned in 2017 at the Cologne auction house Lempertz for $671,000. Photo © Lempertz

While many of his masterpieces are squirreled away in private collections, or hanging in leading galleries, there are some Albers works that can be enjoyed for free: he was a great proponent of public art. One notable example was a familiar sight to commuters passing between New York’s Grand Central Terminal and 200 Park Avenue (originally the Pan Am Building, now the Met Life Building). The mural, entitled Manhattan, was described by the New York Times as “Hundreds of interlocking panels — black, white and Coca-Cola red – a mural in which geometry and meticulous precision met modernist vivacity.”

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The building had been co-designed by Walter Gropius, who knew Albers from their Bauhaus days. He commissioned the work but in 2000 it was removed and subsequently destroyed when it was discovered to contain asbestos. Thankfully, in 2019 an exact replica was restored to the building. As Nicholas Fox Weber, the Executive Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, told the New York Times: “This is what art was for him: something that could affect you, maybe give a little bit of joy to the lives of those people rushing to their trains or rushing out of the station to their workday.”

Josef Albers’s legacy is two-fold: He left behind a collection of art and also a body of ideas. As we look at his works, he’s showing us new ways to see.

“Art is not an object,” Albers once said. “Art is an experience.”

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Article by Stephen Whitlock

This is an updated version of the article originally published on March 30, 2020.

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