Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) – German painter, designer, theoretician, and teacher

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Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) was a German painter, designer, theoretician, and teacher. He was born in Bottrop, Westphalia. He was professionally active in Germany and the USA. He was the husband of Anni Albers.

“When I paint, I try to develop visual articulation says, Josef Albers. “I do not think, then, about abstraction and just as little about expression.” Josef Albers aims as an artist to challenge ideas and points of view and even the way we look at the world.

Art, he felt, is seeing, and he believed that his contemporaries had not done an excellent job of this. The reason, he says, is because they have been so individualistic. They have stuck themselves in one dominant style. Instead, Albers believed seeing demanded many presentations of the same forms to test the possibilities of each and the reaction on each of different colours. To prove his point, Albers chose the square series in 1949. He had aimed to prove that the ongoing relationships of colour and light had unlimited possibilities in changing the form and the meaning of art.

Homage to the square

All these works used the same, simple format-a series of three or four superimposed squares. By using resonant, flatly applied colours, Albers changed the square to fit a wide variety of emotions. He does this by revealing the characteristics of colour, how it appears to change in different lights, how two colours may seem to be three and three colours two. He illuminates with the juxtaposition of colours how he can make the central square leap out or drawback.

“They are juxtaposed for various and changing visual effects,” Albers says.

“They are to challenge and echo each other. Such colour deceptions prove that colour is changing continually, with changing light shape and placement.

Background

Albers was born in 1888 in Bottrop, Germany; he received his early education in Berlin, Essen and Munich. When he was only 20, he first felt the influence of the artist Cezanne and Matisse. At the age of 32, he went to Weimar to enrol in the famous Bauhaus. He became a teacher and worked with such creative geniuses as Kandinsky, Klee, Gropius and Feininger.

The idea that technical skill is necessary appealed to Albers. For the first time, he created a course in basic design that would train artist-craftsman for the machine art of the new industrial society. When the Bauhaus fell out of favour with the fascist government of Germany, Albers and his wife, Annie, herself a textile and fabric designer, came to The United States and accepted teaching positions at the progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It was in his last year where he began his homage to the square. He then went to Yale University to become the chairman of the Department of Art. He retired from Yale in 1958.

Albers took exception to a highly influential artist, Piet Mondrian. Mondrian, he believed, had carried non-objective expressionism to its logical extremes. With his geometric use of squares, rectangles and primary colours, using these forms as ends in themselves.

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