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Anni and Josef Albers Creative Giants 'Opening Eyes'

Visiting Paris last week I popped into the Palais de Tokyo to discover a wonderful exhibition with visual tools explaining the work of Anni and Josef Albers. The exhibition and full explanation of their teaching objective was ' to open eyes' - 'learning to see' and relativity of difference aligned with what I teach. That is difference textures colours and materials provide contrast to get maximum effect of each others strengths. For example smooth surfaces enhance rough textures.

For Example I took this photograph at the museum to demonstrate what they were exploring,. below is one of Josef Albers colour field painting

showing the effect of the colour yellow on the colour grey, shows an optical illusion of grey as a pale purple. Also the darker yellow is reflecting a light purple, its complete and exact light.

Josef and Anni Albers: the Bauhaus misfits who scaled art's peaks He was the son of a painter and decorator; she was a rich girl from Berlin. Looked down on at the Bauhaus and fleeing the Nazis, they fell in love, moved to America – and changed the course of art history.

On 5 December 1933, the Asheville Citizen ran a photograph over the lukewarm caption: “Germans to teach art near here.” The Germans in question – the couple in the photo – were Josef and Anni Albers. They had arrived in the United States from Berlin a week earlier. Six months before that, menaced by the Nazis, the Bauhaus had closed its doors. The Albers had spent more than a decade teaching there, he as Meister of the foundation course, she as head of the weaving workshop. Desperate to leave Germany – Anni’s family were Jewish – they had taken jobs in a place neither had heard of: poring over an atlas, the pair had searched in vain for North Carolina in maps of the Philippines. The Bauhaus had been the world’s most renowned design school. The school they were to teach at now had 30 students, was six months old, in the back of beyond and completely unknown. It had no art department. It was called Black Mountain College.

Fresh off the boat … Josef and Anni Albers on the SS Europa, arriving in New York in 1933.Photograph: AP What the Albers did there is still being felt. When the architect Philip Johnson recommended Josef Albers to Black Mountain’s founder and first rector as a teacher of art, he had added the caveat: “He has one defect.” “I thought, my God, there’s a cleft palate coming up,” John Andrew Rice recalled. “Because I knew a linguistic expert who had a cleft palate. Or he’s blind.” Johnson’s defect, in fact, was that Albers spoke no English. Rice, relieved, said: “What’s the matter with that?” and gave him the job. Read moreThe gamble paid off. By the time the Albers arrived in Asheville, Josef had acquired enough English to answer the question of his ambitions at the school with the eloquently inarticulate line: “To make open the eyes.” He had turned 45 that March; too old, as he said, to learn “another flexibility of the mouth”. When he died in Connecticut 43 years later, his speech was still famously hit-and-miss. As the wife of one Black Mountain colleague was to put it: “Albers had a wonderful inability with English.” This turned out to be a unexpected plus. Lacking words, Josef fell back on gestures. Photographs of his classes at the Bauhaus show students standing in a respectful circle while their professor talks them, theatrically, through their work. Photos at Black Mountain show him waving his arms and standing on chairs, pulling dramatic faces and tracing squares in the air with his forefinger. His students, like a happy corps de ballet, imitate him. Art became a matter not just of the eye, but of the body: “Art is performance!” Josef said. He had already broadened the idea of what it might be by having his students work with Coke bottles, bits of wire, Lucky Strike packets, moss. Now, their very movements were made a material.

What a performance ... Josef Albers teaching at Black Mountain College, ca.1948. Photograph: Courtesy the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation Willy-nilly, Black Mountain became the centre of what, long after it had shut in 1957, would at last be dubbed interdisciplinarity. By that time, the school’s alumni and staff had taken its message out into the world. Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines owe their ordered mess to the matière lessons their creator had with Josef at Black Mountain in 1949. The composer John Cage, whom Albers had invited to teach at the school, likened their ideas on performance to “peas in a pod”. In 1952, three years after the Albers had left Black Mountain for Yale, Cage and his partner, Merce Cunningham, staged a music-cum-dance piece in the college dining hall, using Rauschenberg’s White Paintings as decor. It has a good claim to having been the world’s first-ever “happening”.

Two viewers look at Six Prayers by Anni Albers at Tate Modern’s current retrospective.Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

The roots of all this lay in the Bauhaus, although not in the way one might expect. As the fabled design school nears its centenary – it opened in Weimar on 1 April 1919 – the Bauhaus remains undyingly cool: the distant descendants of Marianne Brandt’s lamp can be found in any Ikea catalogue, of Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair in most Conran shops. If the school’s design aesthetic was modern enough, though, its social attitudes were not always so. Masters at the early Bauhaus were to a man middle class. Paul Klee’s father was a musicologist, Kandinsky’s a vaguely aristocratic tea broker, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’s, like his son, a successful architect. Josef’s father was a painter and decorator from a coal-mining town in the Ruhr. The others had been educated at gymnasiums, Josef at a humble church school. He spoke, to his dying day, with a Ruhrpott accent. It took years for Gropius to make him a Meister, while younger men such as László Moholy-Nagy – a university-taught lawyer with nice vowels – were promoted over his head.

A 1950s 12 Shaft Counter March Handloom, similar to those used by Anni Albers and fellow students at Bauhas weaving workshop Photograph: Ana Cross/REX/Shutterstock

Anni’s problem was more intractable. She was socially grand – her mother’s family owned Germany’s largest publishing house – but a woman. Female Bauhäusler – “the beautiful sex” – were barred from what Gropius called “the heavier craft areas”. No sculpture, no woodwork or metalwork; no painting. Anni, like most women at the school, was pushed into weaving. “These limp threads,” she recalled, disgusted. A shared sense of ill treatment drew the 34-year-old ex-schoolteacher from Bottrop and the 23-year-old Berlin socialite together. At Black Mountain, dressed invariably in white, they would be known as “male and female of the same species”. It was the adversity they had faced at the Bauhaus that had made them so. Whatever their differences in background, as artists their reaction to maltreatment was the same. Directed by Gropius to serve an apprenticeship in the Bauhaus’s wall-painting workshop, Josef pointed out that his father was a painter and decorator and that he had been painting walls since he was a boy. When Gropius said that he would nonetheless have to attend the workshop or leave the Bauhaus, Albers became, as he said, “a freelance”. Doing the bare minimum of classwork, he took to the rubbish dumps of Weimar. There he found the bits of broken glass and wire that he turned into so-called “shard paintings” – works such as Gitterbild and Kaiserlich, which look like church windows but are made out of junk. Flicking two grimy fingers at authority, they are perhaps the most original artworks to come out of the early Bauhaus, and certainly the most bolshy. Gropius understood this. In March 1921, he saw one of the Glasbilder in a show of student work at the school’s gallery. On the strength of it, Albers was taken on as a journeyman that day. Shard of genius: Jodef Albers’ Park. Ca. 1923-4. Photograph: © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Anni, meanwhile, waged subtler war. At first glance, the work in her show at Tate Modern this autumn may look much as you’d expect of a nicely brought-up rich girl from Berlin – which is to say, refined and poised. It is both of those things, but a great deal more besides. Excluded, as a woman, from the beefier Bauhaus departments, Anni set about masculinising weaving. If her husband had discovered the modernist grid in the off-the-peg wire mesh of his shard paintings, Anni found it in the logic of the loom. Against the zaniness of the early Bauhaus – a place of vegans, Zoroastrians, spiritualists and Theosophists – the rationalism of warp and weft came, she said, as “a railing”. As the 20s progressed, her work became ever more complex. Noting Klee’s dictum about taking a line for a walk, she set out, she said, “to take thread everywhere”. The formal beauty of the results belies their difficulty: Albers had, said the architect Buckminster Fuller, a complete “realisation of the complex structure of fabrics”. If she acknowledged Klee as an influence, she mostly spoke of her work in terms not of art but of architecture and engineering. By the mid-20s, she was experimenting with synthetic fibres, cellophane, woven copper. Later, these things being hard to come by in Asheville, her weavings would take in corn, hemp, jute and grass.

The logic of the loom … Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937.Photograph: © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. It was Anni’s work rather than Josef’s that Johnson recalled as having been the pair’s “passport to America”. And it was in America that they found happiness as artists. They were the only Bauhaus couple to have careers of equivalent status, the influence between them passing back and forth for 50 years. For all the hoo-ha surrounding the 2019 centenary, it is worth remembering that we have imagined the Bauhaus in our own image: as egalitarian, gender-equal – in short, as modern. In fact, neither Josef nor Anni Albers had any wish to replicate the school in America, as Rice perceptively saw. “The Bauhaus had evidently not been paradise,” he said, “and [the] Albers showed no inclination to building another.” He was right.

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