A portrait of Josef Albers, in all his originality
It was 1933 Berlin, Hitler had just come to power, and the artist Josef Albers had a big problem: The Bauhaus, an internationally famous school of art and design where Albers had taught for more than a decade, had been closed by the Nazis, who disapproved of its internationalist leanings. There was another big problem: Albers had a Jewish wife.
A letter arrived offering him a position at a school in America. Albers replied, protesting he didn’t speak English. The response was, “Come anyway.”
Albers found himself in North Carolina at Black Mountain College. He would become arguably the most influential art teacher in 20th-century America.
Albers was more than a teacher. Art critic Charles Darwent, in his new biography, makes a strong case for an artist who was not as recognized as fellow Bauhaus teachers Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger.
Part of the problem was Albers worked in media traditionally considered a craftsman’s material. He designed furniture and wallpaper, made architectural reliefs, and logos. Albers’ jack-of-all-trades ability made his painting seem just another form of design to his detractors.
Darwent emphasizes the poetic yearning that hides within Albers’ scientific-seeming experiments, most notably in his “Homage to the Square” paintings, a series of more than 2,000 that Albers began when he was in his 60s. Using an apparently simple format, groups of squares within squares in different colors, Albers shows a color, applied straight from the tube, can have radically different appearances, depending on the colors that abut it.
Darwent writes about Albers’ art in a refreshing, jargon-free manner, and his book, done with the assistance of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, is researched.
He has an eye for the ironies of life, such as the fact the deadly efficient Auschwitz concentration camp was laid out by an architect who had studied at the Bauhaus, taking one of Albers’ beginning design courses.
A gruff yet caring teacher, a ladies’ man and a daily Mass-going Catholic, jealous of and generous with his peers, Albers steps convincingly from these pages.