Josef Albers was both part of and instrumental in creating the world in which artists are taught and work today. His influence stems from his unrelenting fascination with colour. The famous series of paintings Homage to the Square is a celebration of this unique relationship. It was also a successful collaboration with Winsor & Newton, with the artist making extensive use of our Artists’ Oil Colour range.
Winsor & Newton’s global resident artist, Mathew Gibson, looks at Albers’ career and influences, from his creative origins at Germany’s Bauhaus, through to becoming head of design at Yale University and the first living artist to have a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Born in Germany in 1888, Albers trained as a school teacher before studying fine art with the salon painter Franz von Stuck in Munich. In 1920, Albers read a pamphlet about a new art school in the central German town of Weimar. It was to change his life: “I was 32, but I went to the Bauhaus,” he said later of the decision. “Threw my old things out the window, started once more from the bottom. That was the best step I ever made”.
The Bauhaus concept was breathtaking in its scope, combining art, craft, and technology. Industrial design was taught alongside painting and both were there to serve society. According to the Bauhaus director Walter Gropius: “The artist should be trained to work with industry.”
Prepare for the future
In 1925 the Bauhaus moved to Dessau and Albers was appointed professor of Vorkurs, the preparatory class. The concept of a preparatory year was an abiding innovation in education at the Bauhaus and can still be seen in the foundation years offered at art schools today. The Bauhaus would go on to develop the international style: clean lines, elegant shapes and a lack of decoration that were so influential on modern architecture and design. This was an important formative period for Albers. His engagement with transparent colour as a material, and his practical, hands-on approach to making art were to be lifelong themes.
The United States of Art
The Bauhaus, by then in Berlin, was closed in 1933 under intense pressure from the newly elected Nazi party. Albers and his wife Anni had been lobbying contacts in the US for some time and engineered a move away from Germany. They were the first of a number of artists to leave the Bauhaus and export its ideas around the world. Many leading figures followed the Albers to America.
Appointed to run the painting programme at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Albers arrived on a mission to “open eyes”. He introduced rigorous Bauhaus methods in drawing, colour and design to the previously liberal college. His new life and career in the US also prompted a move into abstract painting. In 1950, Albers began the famous Homage to the Square series. By then in his sixties, he went on to make more than 1,000 pieces.
Albers wanted there to be just one central issue in the paintings: how the colours related to each other. Many of those he listed on the back of his canvases were Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour.
Achim Borchardt-Hume** believes the book was “one of the few serious attempts to revise accepted colour theories”. It took the Bauhaus approach of emphasising process over correct answers, something taken for granted today but innovative at the time. Albers’ view is that colour is unstable and contextual, so no prescription or formula is reliable. These ideas and the book itself were widely adopted in American art schools and remain extremely influential to this day.
Fine art, fine teacher
Albers wasn’t just producing the most important pieces of his life – he was enjoying remarkable academic success at the same time. He was appointed director of design at Yale University. After retiring from teaching in 1958, Yale made him an emeritus professor and five years later the university published his book Interaction of Color, a work that explored the discrepancies between so-called facts and what the eye perceives. Using optical experiments, Albers demonstrated how colour is always seen in relation to what surrounds it.
His approach is reflected in the success of his most notable followers, including Neil Welliver, Eva Hesse and Robert Rauschenberg, who adopted a focus on experimentation and process directly influenced by Albers and the Bauhaus.
Horowitz and Danilowitz: Josef Albers: To Open Eyes. The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale. London and New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2006
** Albers and Moholy-Nagy: from the Bauhaus to the New World, (ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume) Tate Exhibition Catalogue, 2006
*Lead image: Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1965, oil paint on fibreboard, 61 x 61 cm, image source Wikipedia