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Artists Josef Albers

Josef Albers

American Painter, Poet, Sculptor, Teacher, and Theoretician

Movements: Bauhaus, Geometric Abstraction

Born: March 19 1888 - Bottrop, Germany

Died: March 25 1976 - New Haven, CT, USA

Quotes

"Art is revelation instead of information, expression instead of description, creation instead of imitation or repetition. Art is concerned with the HOW, not the WHAT; not with literal content, but with the performance of the factual content. The performance - how it is done - that is the content of art."
Josef Albers
"Any ground subtracts its own hue from the colors which it carries and therefore influences."
Josef Albers
"In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is - as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art."
Josef Albers
"Simultaneous contrast is not just a curious optical phenomenon - it is the very heart of painting."
Josef Albers
"Albers was a beautiful teacher and an impossible person ... what he taught had to do with the entire visual world ... I consider Albers the most important teacher I've ever had, and I'm sure he considered me one of his poorest students."
Robert Rauschenberg

Instead of art I have taught philosophy. Though technique for me is a big word, I never have taught how to paint. All my doing was to make people to see.

Synopsis

Josef Albers was instrumental in bringing the tenets of European modernism, particularly those associated with the Bauhaus, to America. His legacy as a teacher of artists, as well as his extensive theoretical work proposing that color, rather than form, is the primary medium of pictorial language, profoundly influenced the development of modern art in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

Key Ideas

Albers's 1963 book Interaction of Color provided the most comprehensive analysis of the function and perception of color to date and profoundly influenced art education and artistic practice, especially Color Field painting and Minimalism, in the twentieth century.
His series Homage to the Square, produced from 1949 until his death, used a single geometric shape to systematically explore the vast range of visual effects that could be achieved through color and spatial relationships alone.
Albers's art and theories were widely disseminated to generations of artists and art-school faculty through his teachings at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale University, and they provided the theoretical basis for the development of non-objective art during and after the age of Abstract Expressionism.

Most Important Art

Homage to the Square: Dissolving/Vanishing (1951)
Homage to the Square is the signature series of over 1000 related works, which Albers began in 1949 and continued to develop until his death in 1976. Such sustained attention to a single aspect of painting reflects his conviction that insight is only attained through "continued trying and critical repetition." This early work exemplifies his basic approach to exploring the mutability of human perception and the range of optical and psychological effects that colors alone can produce depending on their position and proximity. Albers chose a single, repeated geometric shape, which he insisted was devoid of symbolism, to systematically experiment with the "relativity" of color, how it changes through juxtaposition, placement, and interaction with other colors, generating the illusion of attraction, resistance, weight, and movement. As in his earlier monochromatic and linear studies, this series explores the potential of static two-dimensional media to invoke dynamic three-dimensional space.
Oil on Masonite - Los Angeles County Museum of Art
More Art Works


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Biography

Early years

Josef Albers Biography

Josef Albers was born March 19, 1888, in Bottrop, Germany. From 1905 to 1908 he studied to become a teacher in Buren, teaching in Westphalian primary schools from 1908 to 1913. After attending the Konigliche Kunstschule in Berlin from 1913 to 1915, he was certified to teach art. Albers studied lithography in Essen and attended the Academy in Munich. In 1920 at the age of 32, Albers entered the Bauhaus, a school in Weimar that was committed to exploring the relationship between the arts and technological society and emphasized the integration of architecture, fine art, and craft.

Albers initially jointed the Bauhaus as a maker of stained glass and in 1922, as a Bauhausgeselle (journeyman), he was charged with running the Bauhaus glass workshop. In 1923 he began to teach the Vorkurs, a basic design course. When the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, he became Bauhausmeister (professor), teaching alongside fellow artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. In addition to working in glass and metal, he designed furniture and typography.

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Mature Period

Josef Albers Photo

After the Nazis forced the Bauhaus to close in 1933, the architect Philip Johnson, then a young curator at the Museum of Modern Art, secured positions for Albers and his wife Anni Albers at the experimental art school, Black Mountain College, where he headed the painting program from 1933 to 1949.

Black Mountain College was a liberal arts college with an innovative and progressive curriculum that repositioned the study and practice of art from the margin to the center of the undergraduate program, and Albers's preliminary art course in materials and form was one of only two courses required of all students, regardless of major. Although Black Mountain's focus was not the training of professional artists, the emphasis placed on the centrality of art to everyday life, and its integrative and collaborative approach to art-making, attracted creative students and faculty in every media, from painting and literature to dance and architecture. Albers brought the theories and teaching methods of the Bauhaus to Black Mountain, but he was influenced in turn by the progressive educational philosophy of American philosopher John Dewey, with its emphasis on experimentation and direct experience as central to the learning experience. Dewey spent several extended residencies at Black Mountain College in 1935-36 and was a frequent guest in Albers's classes.

While teaching at Black Mountain College, Albers continued to develop his aesthetic theories through his art practice. He began the Variant/Adobe series (ca. 1947), which systematically explored the range of visual effects made possible by subtle variations in color, shape, and positioning. He also mounted more than 20 solo shows in various media in American galleries, including glass work from the Bauhaus period, as well as graphic art, drawings, and oil paintings.

In 1949 Albers left Black Mountain College to serve as the chairman of the Design Department at Yale University from 1950 to 1958 where he taught Richard Anuszkiewicz and Eva Hesse. While lecturing at Yale, Albers began his most famous body of work, the series Homage to the Square, an exercise on the optical effects of color within the confines of a uniform square shape.

After retiring from Yale in 1958 at the age of 70, his former teacher and colleague Walter Gropius invited Albers to design a mural for the interior of the new Graduate Center at Harvard University. This led to other important mural commissions, including Two Portals (1961) at the Time and Life Building and Manhattan (1963) at the Pan Am Building, both in New York.

In addition to painting, printmaking, murals, and architectural commissions, Albers published poetry, articles, and books on art theory. His best-known book, Interaction of Color, was and is still a widely used text in art education and has recently been reissued by Yale University.

Late Years and Death

Josef Albers Portrait

After leaving Yale University in 1958, Albers continued to teach, giving guest lectures at colleges and universities throughout the country. An exhibition of Homage to the Square, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, traveled from 1965 to 1967 to parts of South America, Mexico, and the United States. In 1971 Albers was the first living artist to be honored with a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Albers lived and worked in New Haven, Connecticut, alongside his wife and fellow artist, Anni Albers, until his death on March 25, 1976.

Legacy

Albers's most profound impact on the history and practice of modern art was his transformation of art education and pedagogy, which he believed was the key to developing a future audience for art. Central to this pedagogy was a non-dogmatic, un-hierarchical, "scientific" approach based on observation and experimentation. As a teacher his stated goal was to "open the eyes," of students by disrupting ingrained habits of perception and considering forms apart from their conventional associations, reduced to their basic characteristics (line, shape, material, color). His strategies of "defamiliarization," such as drawing with the non-dominant hand, mirror writing, exploring optical illusions, and representing "negative" spaces, sharpened visual observation, precision, and awareness and are now an accepted part of the academic training of visual artists.

Of course, this approach to modernism was practiced by highly prominent students such as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, Ray Johnson, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Eva Hesse, and John Chamberlain.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Josef Albers
Interactive chart with Josef Albers's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Piet Mondrian
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Wassily Kandinsky
Kazimir Malevich
Johannes Itten

Friends

Walter Gropius
Anni Albers
Paul Klee

Movements

Suprematism
Futurism
Bauhaus
Constructivism
Expressionism
Josef Albers
Josef Albers
Years Worked: 1915 - 1976

Artists

Robert Rauschenberg
Cy Twombly
Richard Anuszkiewicz
Eva Hesse
John Chamberlain

Friends

Anni Albers
Willem de Kooning
Elaine de Kooning

Movements

Pop Art
Color Field Painting
Geometric Abstraction

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Josef Albers

Books
Websites
Articles
Audio
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living

By Nicholas Fox Weber, Martin Filler, and Paul Warwick Thompson

Josef Albers: To Open Eyes: The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale

By Frederick A. Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz

written by artist
Josef Albers: Formulation: Articulation

By Josef Albers and T.G. Rosenthal

Interaction of Color

By Josef Albers and Nicholas Fox Weber

Interacting with Color: Josef Albers Comes to the iPad

By Beryl Gilothwest
Art in America
August 14, 2013

The Square in the Raw: Josef Albers' Unguarded Moments

By Thomas Micchelli
Hyperallergic
August 25, 2012

Harmony, Harder Than It Looks

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
July 26, 2012

Josef Albers: A Crash Course on How to See Squarely

By Jamie Simon
Smithsonian Magazine
February 17, 2010

Valerie Fletcher on Maximum Effect from Minimum Means: Josef Albers

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
April 6, 2010

Josef Albers's Homage to the Square: Aurora

Michael Murawsk at Kemper Art Museum

An Iconic Book Reimagined: Josef Albers' "Interaction of Color"

Yale University - July 29, 2013

Color in Context: Revisiting Albers

With Anoka Faruquu at Yale University - October 12, 2013

Bauhaus
Bauhaus
Bauhaus
Bauhaus is a style associated with the Bauhaus school, an extremely influential art and design school in Weimar Germany that emphasized functionality and efficiency of design. Its famous faculty - including Joseph Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - generally rejected distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and encouraged major advances in industrial design.
ArtStory: Bauhaus
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, Color Field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
ArtStory: Color Field Painting
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
ArtStory: Minimalism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Paul Klee
Paul Klee
Paul Klee
The Swiss-born painter Paul Klee worked in a variety of styles, including Expressionism, geometric abstraction, and collage. His most famous works have a mystical quality and make use of linear and pictorial symbols.
ArtStory: Paul Klee
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Wassily Kandinsky
Anni Albers
Anni Albers
Anni Albers
German designer and textile artist Anni Albers was the wife of Josef Albers and an influential artist in her own right. Her work reflects the Bauhaus design ethos, where she studied before moving to the United States.
Anni Albers
Richard Anuszkiewicz
Richard Anuszkiewicz
Richard Anuszkiewicz
American artist Richard Anuszkiewicz developed the geometric investigations of his teacher Josef Albers in new directions. He was a primary leader of the Op Art movement.
Richard Anuszkiewicz
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse was a major New York artist whose sculpture, assemblage, and installation brought issues of feminism and the body into Minimalism's formal vocabulary. She is heralded as one of the quintessential Post-Minimalist artists.
ArtStory: Eva Hesse
Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius
The German architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar Germany. Along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern architecture.
Walter Gropius
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
ArtStory: Robert Rauschenberg
Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly
Cy Twombly is an American artist whose large-scale paintings incorporate writing, scrawls, and graffiti on their surfaces. He combines the gestural quality of Abstract Expressionism with a contemporary interest in language and registers of meaning.
ArtStory: Cy Twombly
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
ArtStory: Donald Judd
Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson was an American collagist, performance and conceptual artist who is commonly associated with the Pop art movement. Johnson worked closely with other Pop pioneers such as Warhol, Twombly and Rauschenberg, and famously created many collages that incorporated text.
Ray Johnson
John Chamberlain
John Chamberlain
John Chamberlain
John Chamberlain is best known for his sculptures made of crushed and twisted automobile parts, works that bring the formal qualities of Abstract Expressionist painting into three dimensions.
ArtStory: John Chamberlain
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric abstraction refers to nonobjective art that is based on reductive and geometric principles. At its purest, it seeks to strip art down to its most fundamental shapes and lines. Artists in many different movements and time periods have worked in this mode.
Geometric Abstraction
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neo-plasticism.
ArtStory: Piet Mondrian
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was one of the founding fathers of architectural Modernism. Utilizing modern materials and mass production strategies, his buildings rejected surface ornament in favor of a sleek and imposing geometry.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
ArtStory: Kazimir Malevich
Johannes Itten
Johannes Itten
Johannes Itten
Swiss expressionist painter and color theorist Johannes Itten was an influential teacher at the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany.
Johannes Itten
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
ArtStory: Suprematism
Futurism
Futurism
Futurism
Futurism was the most influential Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
ArtStory: Futurism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
ArtStory: Constructivism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany and beyond, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
ArtStory: Expressionism
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem de Kooning
Elaine de Kooning
Elaine de Kooning
Elaine de Kooning
Elaine de Kooning was an important Abstract Expressionist painter and collagist whose work combines gestural energy with formalist investigations. She was married to the famous New York painter Willem de Kooning.
ArtStory: Elaine de Kooning
Pop Art
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
ArtStory: Pop Art