Josef Albers was a pre-eminent art educator—at the innovative and influential Bauhaus, at Black Mountain College, and at Yale University—and was internationally renowned as a color theorist. He was born in Bottrop, in the heavily industrialized Ruhr region of Germany. His father was a “Meistermaler”—or house painter—who opposed his son’s desire to become an artist. Accordingly, young Albers was sent away to school for three years in Langenhast and then earned a teacher’s degree from the Royal Catholic Seminary in 1908. While teaching at the elementary level in Bottrop and neighboring villages, he came to believe that the role of a teacher was “to open eyes” through first-hand experience, not to merely impart facts and rules.
Resolute in his determination to pursue a career in the fine arts, in 1920 Albers enrolled in classes at the recently established Bauhaus, an experimental school that sought to unite art, craft, and functional design with modern technology. Albers gave up conventional painting and concentrated his energy on the glass workshop and furniture design. In the fall of 1923, he began to teach the fundamental design course and eventually became a master instructor during the difficult years when the Bauhaus struggled financially and moved from Weimar, to Dessau, and finally to Berlin, its last location before being closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazis. Albers’ affiliation with the Bauhaus lasted thirteen years, longer than that of any of his colleagues. During his tenure on the faculty, he met and married Anneliese Fleischmann, a well-to-do young weaving student, who, as Anni Albers, went on to have a distinguished career as a textile artist and teacher.
Anxious to leave Germany, the Alberses eagerly accepted an invitation to establish the visual art curriculum at Black Mountain College, a fledgling idealistic institution located in rural North Carolina near Asheville. They arrived in 1933 and remained until 1949, leaving for occasional lectures, short teaching commitments at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and a sabbatical spent in Mexico. Although Albers’ command of the English language was initially poor and he was frustrated by translators, he managed to inspire his students through demonstrations and the simplest teaching tools: paper and pencil. He gave little credence to traditional academic instruction, emphasizing instead essential issues such as form, color, and material. He delighted in the autumn foliage of western North Carolina saying “all the trees, they know winter is coming, so they get drunk! With color! Ach, it’s beautiful.” In turn, his students collected, pressed, dried, varnished and bleached leaves.
One of Albers’ many responsibilities at Black Mountain was to call visiting instructors to campus, usually in the summer. The list of invitees was impressive and varied; Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Jacob Lawrence, Lyonel Feininger, Robert Motherwell, and others came to teach alongside noted writers and musicians such as John Cage. The roster of Albers’ students is equally illustrious and includes Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, and Ray Johnson, among others. In his own practice, Albers abandoned sandblasted glass for want of a proper facility and returned to painting, working in a flat, abstract mode in which he explored visual perception.
With a typical annual enrollment of only fifty students, Black Mountain College often suffered from financial shortfall, a perennial strain compounded by World War II and by conflicts among the administration and faculty. In 1949, Josef and Anni Albers left North Carolina; the following year, he became chairman of the design department at Yale University, where he remained for a decade. It was there that he began in earnest his investigation of color relationships through his iconic series called Homage to the Square. His art was not unlike his teaching style: exercises to enhance viewers’ perceptions, especially of color. Albers’ influence on art education, design, and individual artists cannot be overestimated, a legacy confirmed by his place as the first living artist to be given a one-person exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1971).