Josef Albers (1888-1976)

German-born American artist, educator, and post-painterly abstractist Josef Albers was the innovator of Colour Field painting and Op art styles. However, his greatest accomplishment is the creation of Color theory.

Albers in front of one of his Homage to the Square paintings.
Albers in front of one of his Homage to the Square paintings

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The Life and the Legacy

Josef Albers was born in 1888, in Bottrop, Germany. After attending the Konigliche Kunstschule in Berlin, from 1913 to 1915, he became a certified art professor. Albers studied lithography in Essen and attended the Academy in Munich. In 1920, at the age of 32, Albers entered the Bauhaus and started to work as a stained glassmaker. Then, around 1923, he began to teach the Vorkurs, a basic design course. Additionally, when the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, in 1925, he became a Bauhausmeister (professor). There, he taught alongside fellow artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. At this point, his field of expertise included glass, metal, furniture design and typography.

'Glove stretchers III (Tendeurs de gant III)', Josef Albers, 1928. Centre Pompidou, Paris.
‘Glove stretchers III’ (1928) by Josef Albers

Image source: by Lejeune Grégory

With the closing of the Bauhaus, he escaped to the US and secured a teaching position at the Black Mountain College. Here, he started to develop his artistic theories, beginning with the Variant/Adobe series (c. 1947), which systematically explored the range of visual effects made possible by subtle variations in color, shape, and positioning of an image’s elements. During this same period, he showcased his work, both his current aesthetic experiments and his previous Bauhaus manufacture. In 1949, Albers left the College to serve as the chairman of the Design Department at Yale University from 1950 to 1958, where he taught the likes of Richard Anuszkiewicz and Eva Hesse.

While lecturing at Yale, Albers began his most famous body of work, the series Homage to the Square. This is an exercise on the optical effects of color within the confines of a uniform square shape. At the age of 70, he left Yale. After, he expanded his activities to painting, printmaking, murals, and architectural commission. In 1971, he became the first living artist to be honored with a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He died in 1975, in his house in Haven, Connecticut.

Josef Albers- Bauhaus Dessau.
Josef Albers- Bauhaus Dessau

Image source: by michimaya


Albers left a deep impact on modern art and its history, reshaping art education and pedagogy as the key to a future audience for art. His proposed approach was non-dogmatic, anti-hierarchical, and followed the scientific method of observation and experimentation. Additionally, he aimed to “open the eyes,” of students by disrupting ingrained habits of perception and considering forms apart from their conventional associations, reduced to their basic characteristics (line, shape, material, color). His strategies of “defamiliarization,” such as drawing with the non-dominant hand, mirror writing, exploring optical illusions, and representing “negative” spaces, sharpened visual observation, precision, and awareness and are now an accepted part of the academic training of visual artists.

Bottrop Josef- Albers Museum Quadrat.
Bottrop Josef- Albers Museum Quadrat

Image source: by ruhr-projekt

Body of Work

During his life, Albers focused on several series of paintings, made from similar geometric designs that give ambiguity effects, whose purpose is to systematically explore the effects of perception. His best-known series, “Homage to the Square” (series started in 1949), is made up of simple repeating and overlapping squares, colored with different shades that create an optical effect of depth. The arrangement of these squares is carefully calculated so that the color of each square optically alters the sizes and spatial relationships of the others. These works formed the basis of his first solo exhibition, the first given to a living artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, in 1971.

Josef Albers - 'Homage to the Square'.
Josef Albers – ‘Homage to the Square’

Image source: by Kent Wang

Besides painting and architectural commissions, Albers published poetry, articles, and books on art. Therefore, he was an important influence on generations of young artists. His main concern was the interaction of color; that is, seeing what happens between colors. Albers’s approach to colors is democratic and accessible. He preferred colored paper to paint because paper allowed for the repeated use of a single color. Although he avoided stylistic labels, he is credited with influencing the birth of the Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism movements.

His self-imposed restriction to monochrome allowed him to approach the full spectrum with remarkable confidence; he wasn’t alone in this approach, similar to that of other great colorists: Georges Seurat restricted his palette to monochrome for two or three years in the 1880s as well, and Henri Matisse focused on using prominently black around 1918.

The Shape of Color

Albers was not interested in the science of color mixing, or of optics and refraction. His interest in art stemmed from personal interest, and he wanted to know how human beings perceived color. He said, “In an age in which increased human sensibility has become such an obvious need in all areas of human involvement, color sensitivity and awareness can constitute a major weapon against forces of insensitivity and brutalization.”

Josef Albers, "Interaction of color" (1963).
“Interaction of color” (1963) by Josef Albers,

Image source: by moonlightbulb

The artist’s goal is to “reveal and evoke a vision,” which was a theme very dear to the generation to which he belonged. Further, wishing to convey the same message, Klee had stated that “Art does not reproduce what is visible but makes visible what is not always .” In the work of Albers, the determination to “open the eyes” of those who look comes from the belief that they can see the miraculous in the physical world. And his art is a manifestation of it. Additionally, the paintings are organized according to three main guidelines: line, shape, and color.

Josef Albers, 1927: Photo of four chairs that fit underneath each other. Additionally, the seats are different colors.
Josef Albers, 1927

Image source: by  workflo

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