Monday, November 11, 2013

Josef Albers' Fetish for A Colored Square: Prints

The teachings of Josef Albers are legendary in art education circles, but his work in color theory and design is equally important. Born in Germany to a family of craftsmen, Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) worked in furniture and glass before teaching painting and engaging hords of students eager to have the opportunity to work with the famed educator. His work in printmaking was brought to my attention via my mentor and teacher, Robert Wolfe. We were encouraged to do hundreds of color studies abeit in the manner of Albers and try to understand the delicate balances of color in our own works. I didn’t claim to take to Albers ideas at the time, but eventually I saw, as have thousands, his pain-staking research advanced ideas on color and design.

At the age of 20, Albers taught school in his home town, then he went to Berlin to study art education at the K├Ânigliche Kunstschule, (1913-1915). For three years, 1916-1919, he began to make prints at Essen’s Kunstgewerbschule, and in 1919 he went to Munich, Germany, to study with Max Doerner and Franz Stuck at the K├Ânigliche Bayerische Akademie der Bildenden Kunst.(Try saying that five times fast. See, you can't do it.)

Albers enrolled at the prestigious Weimar Bauhaus in 1920. He joined the faculty of the Bauhaus two years later. The director and founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, asked him to teach Design to introduce principles of handicrafts. In 1925, Albers was promoted to professor, the same year the Bauhaus moved to Dessau. He also married one of the school’s students, Anni Fleischmann, who would become well-known for her own textiles designs. Albers was teaching with Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. Klee and Albers collaborated in glass and crafts for several years. Under pressure from the Nazi party, the Bauhaus closed in 1933 and most of its artists left Germany. Albers then emigrated to the United States.

The famed architect Philip Johnson arranged a position for Albers as head of a new art school in North Carolina, called Black Mountain College. He led its painting program until 1949. Some of Albers’ notable students were Ray Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Susan Weil. He also invited Willem de Kooning, to teach in the summer session. During this period, Albers produced many woodcuts.
In 1950, Albers left Black Mountain to head Yale University’s department of design. While there, Albers worked to expand their graphic arts program. Some of his notable students were Hal Rogoff, Richard Anuszkiewicz and Eva Hesse. He retired from teaching in 1958.
In 1962, as a fellow at Yale, he received a grant from the Graham Foundation for an exhibit and lecture on his work. Also, he worked on his structural constellation pieces. In 1963, he published Interaction of Color which presented his theory that colors were governed by an internal and deceptive logic. Also during this time, he designed abstract album covers. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1973. Albers lived in New Haven the rest of his life with his wife until his death in 1976.

Albers is best remembered for his work as an abstract painter and theorist. Most famous of all are the hundreds of paintings and prints that make up the series, Homage to the Square. This series, begun in 1949, explored color interactions within square formats. Each piece consists of either three or four squares of solid planes of color sitting atop one another.
His work represents a transition between traditional European art and the new American art. It incorporated European influences from the Constructivists and the Bauhaus movement, but his influence fell heavily on American artists of the late 1950s and the 1960s. "Hard-edge" abstract painters like Frank Stella, Op artists, conceptual artists and even the Abstract artists Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt couldn’t help but be influenced by his optical studies. Even the noted artist Robert Rauschenberg admitted Albers was one of his most important teachers.

Albers’ prints draw completely from his painting color studies, although his play with surface and opacity stretched some of his concepts. The prints also have some variety of form and composition, most being hard-edged and clean-looking. There is more spatial depth in his prints than the paintings and the influence of his wife’s designs seems apparent.
The Josef Albers papers, 1929-1970, were donated to the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art in 1969 and 1970. In 1971, Albers founded the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a nonprofit organization he hoped would further "the revelation and evocation of vision through art."
Currently, a large part of his estate is held by the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop, Germany.

Exhibitions
J. B. Neumann’s New Art Circle, 1936
documenta I,1955
documenta IV , 1968
Museum of Modern Art, traveling South America, Mexico, and the US, 1965 - 1967
Metropolitan Museum of Art , 1971
Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, 2010
Centre Pompidou, Paris
The Morgan Library & Museum, NY

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