Josef Albers was a German born artist and teacher, credited with influencing the movements of Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism. Throughout his life and work, he emphasized the value of ‘maximum effect from minimum means’. He was also one of the first modern artists to investigate the nature of perception.
Albers family members were artisans, from whom he inherited a tradition of careful, exact workmanship. After training to be a teacher and a few years at art school in London, he was drawn to study at the Bauhaus in 1920, because of the intended program for reuniting the arts and crafts.
He began stained glass studies in his early career and requested to enroll in the glass painting workshop at the Bauhaus. Johannes Itten, his teacher at the time, refused, saying that he needed more painting experience. Albers decided to develop his ideas on his own creating stained glass designs from broken bottles and fragments he found at the city dump. He became renowned for these designs through his demonstration of an uncanny sense of color, and shortly thereafter became a ‘junior master’ – or full-time faculty member – at the Bauhaus.
Albers taught at the Bauhaus from 1922 to 1933. He taught furniture design, drawing and calligraphy. During this time, Albers contributed significantly to the development of industrial design. At the Bauhaus, the design of a teapot was as important as the architecture of a building.
He helped guide the Bauhaus away from expressionism and towards a constructivist art in the service of architecture. Albers hated chaos and was adamantly opposed to the freedoms of Abstract Expressionism.
Nazi pressure forced the Bauhaus to close in 1933, and Albers accepted a position teaching at the experimental art school Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He didn’t know a word of English and didn’t even know where North Carolina was, but he declared upon setting foot in America that his teaching goal was ‘to open eyes’. In 1950 he went to Yale University to head the Department of Design.
Albers became a prolific artist, known primarily for his ‘Homage’s to Squares’ series, which were a 20 year study of the interaction of color.
In this series, through his explorations of color values, contracts, repetition and relationships, Albers forces the viewer into a changing and dynamic relationship with his work, rather than accepting one visual truth.
Albers intended that the colors in his ‘Homage’s’ series react with each other when processed by the human eye, causing optical illusions due to the eye’s ability to continually change the colors in ways that echo, support and oppose one another. There can be multiple readings of the same hue depending on what colors surround it.
He was also very interested in exploring the man-made or machine quality of art. He wanted to emphasize that the square is the only shape that is completely man-made. In his work, he attempted to eliminate all traces of brush-strokes to suggest mechanical precision.
In 1963, Albers published Interaction of Color, which is a record of an experimental way of studying and teaching color. He emphasizes that color is the most relative medium in art, and the experience of seeing the relativity and instability of color through various investigations will lead to awareness of the interdependence of color with form and placement.
‘Colors present themselves in a continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbors and changing conditions’ -Josef Albers
In this investigation, one color looks like two. The X form at the left looks violetish and the X form on the right looks yellowish. When you look at where they meet at the top, you see they are the same color.
In this example, when you look at the center line dividing the large rectanges, the small rectangles in the centers seem to be alike. The two bars at the bottom place the two colors next to each other to show how different they are. This is a technique called Subtraction of color by placing hues next to others to get rid of too much light or dark in a color, as the green or yellow in this example.
In Albers representation of the color wheel, he used an equilateral triangle, which he subdivided into 9 similar triangles that contain 3 primaries, 3 secondaries and 3 tertiaries.
The primaries are the strongest color contrasts, so they are located at the extreme ends – most separated in the 3 corners. Yellow and blue, which Goethe called ‘the only 2 pure colors’ hold the base, and red occurs in a middle place, separated at the top.
The less opposite secondaries are in the middle of the outer edges, and the closest, or least different tertiaries meet still more in the center.
My interpretation of Albers color theory focuses on his teachings like this example, on perception of color. The three smaller swatches of red are placed on three different red grounds, and seem to be the same color when you look at each side of the triangle. The bottom of the object shows all three swatches placed next to each other and how surprisingly different they are.