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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Josef Albers

Joseph Albers and his work.

I suppose there's hardly an artist alive today who doesn't sometimes wonder if his or her life and work will ever make much difference in the overall, greater scheme of things; either in the real world or even in the vaunted, rarefied air of the art world. I have these moments. I sometimes wonder if my greatest achievements in art are not all behind me, perhaps resting in the pregnant brain of some former student, gestating, waiting to emerge in brilliance maybe years after my own death. As a former art instructor, I struggle to come to grips with the fact that my main art legacy may be to have been a minor, influential footnote to some artist far greater than I. Sometimes I wonder if even these musings might be nothing more than self-flattery. However, whenever I lapse into such moments of doubt, there comes to mind a quiet, modest, elementary art teacher born in Bottrop, Germany, in 1888. Twelve years he taught little children to paint and draw. His name was Josef Albers.

Tables,1927, Josef Albers, Bauhaus design at its best.
Even as he taught, Albers painted. He discovered Matisse, Cezanne, Munch, van Gogh, the German Expressionists, Delaunay and the Italian Futurists. He painted his first abstract painting in 1918. He studied. He attended the Royal Art School in Berlin, the Kunstgeweberschul in Essen, and the Art Academy in Munich. In 1920, he discovered the newly formed Bauhaus School in Weimar. In 1923, he graduated and joined the faculty, teaching the introductory design classes where he had his students undertaking constructions using wire netting, phonograph needles, razor blades, matchboxes, and other unusual materials. He was influenced by those around him at the Bauhaus, artists such as Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky. He began adding to his paintings glass assemblages, and using stains and sandblasting in his work, concerned with "accidental" ripple and bubbles while exploring balance, translucence, and opacity. Later, he moved up to teaching typography and furniture design (above).

A sampler of Albers' color harmonies--squared.
During the turbulent 1920s in Germany, the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau to Berlin taking Albers with it before being forced by Hitler to close in 1933. Albers immigrated to the U.S. and was recommended by Philip Johnson to a group of Utopian visionaries forming a small college in the back hills of North Carolina. They called it Black Mountain College. Albers had never even heard of North Carolina. His wife thought it was in the Philippines. He spoke not a word of English. Yet, in the years to follow, he was a major influence to such Black Mountain students as Robert Rauschenberg and Neil Welliver. In 1950, he became the Director of Design at Yale. It was about this time that he began his most famous work, his color studies centering on the square (above). This aesthetic/scientific pursuit was to occupy him the rest of his life. His color theories were to influenced young artists of the Pop and Op movements in the 1960s, and later a nascent Minimalism (bottom). Beyond this, his subtle, graded, explorations of color in a purely abstract sense populate the art history books and technical painting manuals we have all studied for the past forty years. Such a man, such a life, such art never fails to inspire this old, pensioned-off art teacher whenever he begins to wonder about his place in the cosmos. Maybe there's hope for me yet.

Untitled Lithograph, 1942, Josef Albers, Minimalism in some of its earliest manifestations.

1 comment:

  1. what is scientific notation
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