Joseph Albers was one of the most influential artists and educators of the 20th century. Throughout his career, he explored a wide range of styles and produced works in a profound variety of disciplines. Yet it was his profound theories of color and perception and his way of manifesting them in his work that propelled him to greatness. Albers challenged ideas of perception and created work that requires the viewer to interpret what he or she has just seen. He urged others to understand the uncertainty of perception and to produce work that inspired complexity of vision. To contradict reality and induce the viewer’s disbelief was part of his continuing mission. Over the course of a very long and prolific career, Albers advanced ideas of the psychology and philosophy of art and ultimately made a profound impact on the shape and development of Modern art.
Albers was born in 1888 in Bottrop, a small mining town in Germany. The son of a laborer, he was introduced to the world of craftsmanship from a very young age. In fact, it was his father, who, among other things, painted houses, had instructed the young Albers that when you paint you work from the middle outwards. Throughout his career, Albers maintained this technique.
Albers began his professional career as a schoolteacher in Bottrop. From 1913 until 1915 he trained as an art instructor at the Konigliche Kunstschule in Berlin, where he was exposed to a number of current art movements as well as to the work of the Old Masters like Durer and Holbein. Over the next several years, Albers experimented with figuration, yet it was clear that his primary concern was rendering the visual theme and exploring various materials of art. After completing his studies in Berlin, he returned to his hometown and spent the next several years working as a printmaker. In 1919, he traveled to Munich where he spent his time drawing nude figures and painting Bavarian landscapes.
In 1920, Albers entered the newly founded Weimar Bauhaus as a student - a risky move that could potentially derail his former studies. However, Albers was fascinated with the program which Gropius had created aimed at the reunion of arts and crafts. At the Bauhaus Albers continued his technical explorations and honed his artistic eye. His work ranged in medium - including stained glass, furniture, metalwork, typography, and architecture - yet always bore a sense of eloquence and simplicity. Eventually, Albers became deeply invested in a technical mastery of the abstract form. In particular he began pursuing the creation of illusory transparency. In works such as Flying, for example, Albers gives the false impression that forms overlapped and that one was visible through the other. Albers became one of the first students to be appointed a master and would eventually become recognized as one of the most influential teachers at the Bauhaus.
After the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus, Albers went to work at the newly formed Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he would remain until 1949. He instructed his students to strive for a clear head, “seeing eyes and obedient hands”, and touted the merits of discipline and accuracy, and of economy of materials and labor. Albers manifested these teachings in his work, most notably in his Graphic Tectonic series of zinc-plate lithographs and related drawings. In this series, movement and resolution are united within single images. Their appearance, however, becomes precise and exact, almost mechanical-like. This was Albers genius - finding ways to create compositional complexity through minimal means.
Albers also began to develop ideas of creating paintings in standard formats but varying colors, as seen in Bent Black and Bent Dark Grey. He wanted to show that a chance of color transforms both the emotional character and the apparent physicality of the form. Two paintings of the exact same format but with different color schemes can produce radically different effects. Colors will alter their appearance depending on their surroundings - for example, blue appears one way when surrounded by pink, and a very different way when it is juxtaposed with brown. Albers also began to experiment with the use of unmixed colors, applied directly from the tube to a white background, in order to create the illusion of transparency.
By this point, Albers had established his reputation in America and was soon appointed to Chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University. He would remain at this post until 1958. During his time at Yale, Albers wrote and published a book called Interaction of Color, which would become a major teaching tool throughout the world of art. In this book, Albers explores the properties of color, particularly the illusory ability of opaque colors to appear translucent and overlapping.
Albers also began work on what would become his most important achievement yet, a series called Homages to the Square, in which he gave color an unprecedented voice. Each of the paintings in this series consists of either three or four squares of solid planes of color placed within one another, in one of four various arrangements and in square formats ranging from 406 x 406 mm to 1.22 x 1.22 m. He called these squares “platters to serve color” - that is, vehicles for the presentation of various color climates and various color effects. It was, what he believed, the ideal means of demonstrating the way that solid colors change according to their positions and surroundings. He created over 1000 of these Homages, and exhibited them all over the world.
Upon his retirement from Yale, Albers entered his most prolific period yet. He designed record covers and murals, lectured at various institutions, worked on large commissioned sculptures for architectural settings around the world. He also made numerous Homages in virtually ever possible print medium. Yet whatever their basis, Albers works aways point to the beauty and power of simple geometry and technical proficiency and emphasize the difference between physical fact and psychic effect, which he always regarded as one of the most important goals of his art.