Josef and Anni Albers were artistic adventurers who were both pioneers of twentieth-century modernism. Josef Albers (1888-1976) was an influential teacher, writer, painter, and color theorist—now best known for the Homages to the Square he painted between 1950 and 1976 and for his innovative 1963 publication The Interaction of Color. Anni Albers (1899-1994) was a textile designer, weaver, writer, and printmaker who inspired a reconsideration of fabrics as an art form, both in their functional roles and as wallhangings.
The couple met in Weimar, Germany in 1922 at the Bauhaus. This new teaching institution, now so renowned for its effects on all modern design, had been founded two years earlier, and emphasized the connection between artists, architects, and craftspeople.
Before enrolling as a student at the Bauhaus in 1920, Josef had been a school teacher in his hometown of Bottrop, in the northwestern industrial Ruhr region of Germany. Initially he taught a general elementary school course; then, following studies in Berlin, he taught art. In the course of his teaching years, he developed as a figurative artist and printmaker. Once he was at the Bauhaus, he worked primarily in stained and sandblasted glass, first making glass assemblages from detritus he found at the Weimar town dump, then sandblasting glass constructions and designing large stained-glass windows for houses and buildings. He also designed furniture, household objects, and a typeface, and developed a keen eye as a photographer. In 1925 he was the first Bauhaus student to be asked to join the faculty and become a “master” there. By 1933, when pressure from the Nazis forced the school to close, Josef Albers had become one of its best-known artists and teachers.
Anni Albers came to the Bauhaus as a young student in 1922. Throughout her childhood in Berlin, she had been fascinated by the visual world, and her parents had encouraged her to study drawing and painting. Having been brought up in an affluent household where she was expected simply to continue living the sort of comfortable social life enjoyed by her mother, she showed great courage in going off to an art school where living conditions were rugged and the challenges immense. She entered the weaving workshop because it was the only one open to her, but soon found her way. She and Josef, eleven years different in age, met shortly after her arrival in Weimar. They were married in Berlin in 1925—and Annelise Fleischmann became Anni Albers. At the Bauhaus, Anni experimented with new materials for weaving and executed richly colored designs on paper for wall hangings and textiles in silk, cotton, and linen yarns in which the raw materials and components of structure became the source of beauty.
Homage to the Square
In 1925 the Bauhaus moved to the city of Dessau to a streamlined and revolutionary building designed by Walter Gropius, architect and founder of the school. In Dessau, the Alberses lived alongside the families of artist teachers Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Oscar Schlemmer, and others in one of the masters’ houses designed by Gropius. In November 1933 Josef and Anni Albers emigrated to the USA where Josef had been asked to make the visual arts the center of the curriculum at the newly established Black Mountain College near Asheville in North Carolina. They remained at Black Mountain until 1949. Josef continued his exploration of a range of printmaking techniques and took off as an abstract painter, while continuing as a captivating teacher and writer. Anni made extraordinary weavings, developed new textiles, and taught, while also writing essays on design that reflected her independent and passionate vision. During this time Josef and Anni Albers traveled widely both in the United States and Mexico, a country that captivated their imagination and had a strong effect on both of their art. In 1950, the Alberses moved to Connecticut. From 1950 to 1958 Josef Albers was chairman of the Department of Design at the Yale University School of Art. There, and as guest teacher at art schools throughout America and in Europe, he trained a whole new generation of art teachers. Meanwhile he wrote, painted, and made prints. In 1971, he was the first living artist ever to be honored with a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He was still working on his Homages to the Square at the time of his death in New Haven, Connecticut in 1976. Following the move, Anni Albers continued to weave, design, and write. In 1963 she happily began to explore the new medium of printmaking and produced a group of lithographs and screenprints of great spatial and textural complexity. Her seminal text On Weaving was published in 1965. Like Josef, she focused above all on her work—happy to pursue it at a remove from the trends and shifting fashions of the art world. In 1984, Anni wrote, “… to comprehend art is to confide in a constant.”