A prolific 20th-century artist, known primarily for his “Homages to Squares,” Josef Albers was also a highly innovative teacher associated with the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany; Black Mountain College in North Carolina; and the Yale School of Fine Art in New Haven, Connecticut.
Although he disavowed style category labels, he is credited with influencing the movements of Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism. He was also one of the first modern artists to investigate the psychological effect of art on viewers, to challenge them to open their eyes, investigate color and space, and to question the nature of perception. Indicative of the impact of his work is the fact that he was the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
He was born to a family of craftsmen in Bottrop in the Ruhr region of Germany and inherited a family tradition of careful, exact workmanship. As a young man, he became inspired by the works of Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and other modernist artists, and many of his paintings show the influence of Cubism. In 1915, he married Anni Fleischmann, who became a noted weaver and his wife of fifty-one years.
From 1913 to 1920, he studied art in Berlin and in Munich, but his most significant education took place in Weimar, Germany at the Bauhaus, an association of artists, craftsmen, and architects committed to a creed of merging craft techniques with creative aspects of fine art. As a student, he became renowned for stained glass designs that he created from broken bottles and fragments he found at the city dump. These “found object” designs show his early predilection for optics.
Beginning in 1923, he became a Bauhaus teacher and taught furniture design, drawing, and calligraphy. He made the first bent laminated wood chair and created some of the first stacking tables. His working philosophy was to build carefully and meticulously with sturdy materials from a base of simple, fundamental forms to increasingly complex shapes.
In 1933, Albers and his associates dissolved the Bauhaus because of Nazi pressure against their creativity. He and his wife moved to America, where he spent the next sixteen years in the area of Asheville, North Carolina teaching at Black Mountain College, an experimental school operating with the principle that fine art integrated all learning.
In spite of the fact that he spoke no English at first, he influenced many artists who later became well known modernists such as Neil Welliver and Robert Rauschenberg. From 1950 to 1958, Albers served as Chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University where he produced hundreds of “homages to squares.”
As an art teacher in America, he espoused methods that were both innovative and shocking because he eliminated copying from nature and from the work of other artists. goal was to create an attunement or close investigative relationship between the artist and his/her work and to exclude anything that might interfere with this synchromy. To set the tone, he began his classes with kinetic exercises whereby each student was asked to foreshadow with movement the designs he or she intended to depict in their artwork.
For shapes in his “Homages,” he chose squares, mathematically related to each other in size, superimposed upon one another because they are strictly human inventions, perfect shapes that never occur in nature–thus assuring its man-made quality.
The artist intended that the colors in his “Homages” react with each other when processed by the human eye, causing optical illusions because of the eye’s ability to continually change the colors in ways whereby the colors echo, support, and oppose one another. He executed these paintings with a deliberate, careful technique using a minimum of tools and paint because he was committed to order and the utmost of economy in his work. He hated chaos and was adamantly opposed to the freedoms of Abstract Expressionism.
When working, he applied one base or primary coat to masonite, a ground he found most durable, and then squeezed unmixed paints directly from the tubes and spread the paint evenly and as thinly as possible with a palette knife.
It is suggested by some art historians that because Albers spent so much of his early life amidst the ravages of World War I and then the Nazi take over, that imposing order on his artwork was a psychological reaction to all of this turmoil.
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art