Josef Albers’s contributions to the fields of modern art, design, and education continue to intrigue audiences around the world. Long admired as a preeminent painter of color and hard-edge geometric abstraction, Albers is perhaps most recognized for his affiliations with the Bauhaus, an avant-garde art school in Germany which lasted from 1919 to 1933, and later with Black Mountain College, a small Bauhaus successor that operated in rural North Carolina between 1933 and 1957. 

Born in Bottrop, Germany, in 1888, Albers grew up in a working-class Catholic family in the industrial Ruhr region of Westphalia. His father was a “Meistermaler”––a house painter and decorator––who instilled an appreciation for fine craftsmanship in his son while teaching him  carpentry, stone cutting, and how to etch and paint glass. While visiting a small German museum in 1908, Albers encountered two paintings by Cezanne: in Albers’s own words, that moment was “the start of everything.” That same year, he earned a teaching degree from the Royal Catholic Seminary. While employed as a public school teacher in his hometown and neighboring villages, he identified his objective as an artist and teacher: to “open the eyes” through experimentation and self-discovery.

In 1920, against the backdrop of the political and economic insecurities of Weimar Germany, Albers enrolled at the newly established Bauhaus, an innovative school that sought to blend art, craft, and functional design with modern technology. Two years later, after completing his preliminary courses under Johannes Itten and an independent study in stained glass, Albers was appointed to lead the Bauhaus glass workshop. With co-instructor László Moholy-Nagy, Albers taught the Bauhaus’s compulsory preliminary course, in 1923; he assumed overall responsibility for the class as a master instructor in 1925. That same year, he married Annelise Fleischmann, a weaving student who, as Anni Albers, would go on to become a distinguished textile artist, printmaker, and teacher. With a shared passion for aesthetic investigation and pure, unmodulated color (including black), the couple became powerhouses at the Bauhaus, and their tenures as students and teachers endured through the institution’s relocations: from Weimar (1919−1925), to Dessau (1925−1932), and finally to Berlin (1932−1933). 

As Nazi power coalesced, the Alberses departed the recently closed Bauhaus in 1933, having eagerly accepted the invitation to establish a visual arts curriculum at Black Mountain College, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. News of their arrival in America was published in major newspapers, highlighting their teaching experience and their status as German émigrés. Over the years, other European exiles―Ilya Bolotowsky, Esteban Vicente, and Ossip Zadkine, for instance―joined the school’s faculty. Although the language barrier was initially a challenge (Anni served as his interpreter), Josef engaged students through hands-on demonstrations using the simplest teaching tools: paper and pencil. He gave little credence to traditional academic instruction, emphasizing instead essential Bauhaus concepts such as form, color, and material.  

While at BMC, Albers translated the central philosophy of the Bauhaus––to experimentally probe the nature of materials––to a promising list of students, including Ruth Asawa, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, and Ray Johnson, among many others. He also organized summer programs that attracted an orbit of multivalent creatives―often at early points in their careers―such as William and Elaine de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, Lyonel Feininger, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and Robert Motherwell. These summer sessions, which often led to lasting collaborations between faculty and students, enhanced BMC’s reputation as a laboratory for progressive art practice and pedagogy, intellectual inquiry, and cultural exchange.

Albers was deeply influenced by the places he inhabited, and his work radically changed in the United States. He abandoned sandblasted glass for want of a proper facility and returned to painting, using oils in a flat, abstract mode in which he explored visual perception. In 1948, Albers painted Naples Yellow Center + 2 Greens + Black, a work likely influenced by his musings on the architecture in Mexico from his extended sabbatical the preceding year. The image’s borders, which bear Albers’s marginalia on color theory and composition, underscore his almost scientific approach to artistic experimentation and execution, as well as his commitment to understanding visual perception by systematically revisiting a single subject.  

In 1950, Albers was named head of Yale University’s Department of Art, where he remained until 1958. While there, he formulated his major painting series, Homage to the Square, a methodical study of color relationships. Albers’s Squares would later galvanize two of his former students, Norman Ives and Sewell Sillman, to collaborate with him on the landmark production of Interaction of Color (1963), a portfolio of Albers’s paintings in silkscreen prints, accompanied by texts and conceived as a teaching manual. In 1964, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a solo exhibition of his Squares, which traveled to twenty exhibition spaces around the world.

As exercises designed to enhance viewers’ visual perceptions―particularly of color―Albers’s art was not unlike his teaching style. His influence on art education, design, and individual artists cannot be overstated, a legacy confirmed by his place as the first living artist to be given a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1971, five years before his death. That same year, Josef and Anni created the Albers Foundation to carry out their lifelong mission: “the revelation and evocation of vision through art.”