About The Artist
Born in 1888 in Bottrop, Germany, Josef Albers began his career as a primary school art teacher. Albers then worked as a printmaker and stained-glass artisan, taking on several prominent public commissions from 1916 to 1919. The artist enrolled at the Weimar Bauhaus in 1920 and excelled at the stained-glass medium. In 1923, Albers was invited to teach the Bauhaus’ preliminary course, and in 1925 became a “master” artist at the school. It was at this point that Albers began to focus on painting, and on a technique that prioritized primary colors and abstract rectilinear patterns. The architect Walter Gropius, who established the Bauhaus in 1919, was convinced of the need to abolish the distinction between fine and applied arts. The school was thus designed as a workshop with an emphasis on the study and use of material. Reflecting this system, Albers’ works championed practical painting methods that advanced channels for studying and, more importantly, teaching color.
When the Nazi regime shut down the Bauhaus in 1933, Albers left Germany for the United States. Along with his wife Anni, who was herself a Bauhaus graduate and prominent weaver, Albers began teaching art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, Albers developed a fine arts curriculum that is credited with “revolutionizing art education in America” and mentored countless prominent artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland. During this period Albers made numerous trips to Mexico and became fascinated with the architectural silhouettes of the Mesoamerican flat-top pyramids. These encounters are said to have had a lasting impression on Albers’ work. In 1950, Albers left Black Mountain College for Yale University. At the same time, the artist began working on the first iteration of his iconic Homage to the Square series, featuring concentric squares that mimic the bird’s-eye view outline of a stepped pyramid. Albers resisted masking in this series and instead painted the hard edges free-hand, and he rarely mixed his paints, most often using shades available directly from the tube.
Much in the way of other mid-century abstractionists, Albers sought to maximize the viewer’s subjectivity by excluding all manner of representation or imitation. While Minimalism includes many different variations of its aesthetic, the movement’s core simplified shapes and repetitive pictorial relationships are indebted to Albers’ influence. Prior to Albers’ work, color was predominantly treated as a subordinate vehicle for form and content. By simplifying his form, however, to the canvas’ most basic shape, the square, Albers investigated the ways in which color can be the primary agent of artistic expression. The Homage to the Square series therefore isolates color to test its inherent qualities and to establish “aesthetic absolutes.” With the decongested picture-plane, the viewer’s eye becomes free to appreciate color’s morphing character which, at different times, can appear to move and blur. In Albers’ extensive body of literature, which includes The Interaction of Color (1963), the artist discusses the optical effects of reducing painting to pure expressions of “hue, tone, and intensity.” Works from the Homage to the Square series were presented at the first ever solo exhibition given to a living artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971.
Today, Albers’s works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, and the Tate Gallery, among many others.
Gilderhus, Kirsten E. Homage to the Pyramid: Josef Albers in Mexico, The University of Wisconsin - Madison, Ann Arbor, 2011.