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 Josef Albers  (1888 - 1976)

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Lived/Active: Connecticut/North Carolina / Germany      Known for: serial geometric, non objective painting

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Ad Code: 1
Josef Albers
from Auction House Records.
Homage to the Square: White Nimbus
© 2001 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is submitted by Cornelia Seckel, publisher, ART TIMES

"Josef Albers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum"

By RAYMOND J. STEINER
ART TIMES May 1988

IF DIVERSIFICATION is often the undoing of a minor talent, this retrospective of Josef Albers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (March 25 thru May 29) shows how it can strengthen and eventually serve to focus the mature vision of a master.  The first major retrospective of Albers's work, this exhibition of about 250 pieces (covering his output from 1914 to 1976) allows for a long view of the man and his oeuvre. What we get here is the complex and arduous struggle which occupied Albers from roughly his 25th to his 60th year and which culminated in the deceptive simplicity of his Homage to the Square, a series of well over a thousand paintings executed during the final twenty-five years of his life and which earned him the epithet, "the square man."

A small poem that Albers wrote in his Poems and Drawings (Wittenborn, 1961), rather neatly sums up his philosophy:

Easyto know
that diamondsare precious
goodto learn
that rubieshave depth
but moreto see
that pebblesare miraculous.

A quiet, self-effacing man, Albers had the self-discipline and single-minded dedication to eschew the popular, the easy paths to fame and success, and to follow his own lead. Ignoring the "diamonds" and "rubies" already discovered by others and capitalized upon in the art world, Albers sought the "pebbles," the often over-looked elemental qualities of art that lent it its universality, its endurance.  Eventually, Albers would decide that it was color or, more properly speaking, light that in the final analysis was the building block of art.

Born in 1888 in Bottrop, Germany, Josef Albers was most proud of his inheritance of an appreciation for and fine sense of craftsmanship derived from his father, a laborer in the Ruhr River region, and his mother, the daughter of a line of blacksmiths.  Throughout his life, he never strayed far from the belief that, at bottom, craft preceded "art."  An early beginning in the usual academic art schooling did not long hold Albers from going his own way. His drawings of 1915-18, after his return from the Konigliche Kuntschule in Berlin, show an early predilection for minimal statement.  Technically precise, they show a no-nonsense, spare rendition of the essential elements of his subjects.  Although detail would present no problem to this most competent draftsman, he preferred to keep his work as simple as possible.  Throughout, it is difficult to "see" Albers in his work.  Thoroughly detached, he allowed for no interference of non-aesthetic considerations to encumber his art.

Albers's affiliation with the Bauhaus is a well documented period of his life; everyone knows that he spent more time there than did anyone else (from 1920 to 1933). From his beginning as a student (who almost was dropped because of his refusal to study wall painting), through his being asked to set up a new glass workshop (on the strength of his work with glass shards he was gleaning from the town dump) and on through to his becoming a master and assistant director, it is clear that the Bauhaus was as good for Albers as he was for it. One can easily see that the Bauhaus's famous dictum of "Less is More" was in complete harmony with Albers's own bent.  His influence on other artists both here, and later at the Black Mountain college in North Carolina and, finally, at Yale, is also well known.  Albers brought to his teaching the same dedication that he brought to his art; again, his sense of craft and technique served him well in his methods of instruction. It was the Nazi closing of the school in 1933 that led to Albers's emigration to the United States.

The exhibit well documents Albers's output over the years including paintings, works on paper, glass assemblages and constructions, furniture, photographs and photo-collages.  If, as I have noted, there is an amazing diversification in Albers's work, one can yet follow the path of simplification he took.  And, once he settled upon his study with color, one can see the same single-minded diligence to craft that would occupy and guide him until his death.

Although Albers did not acknowledge any great debts to any of his contemporaries or for that matter to any of his predecessors he did admit that it was Cézanne who made the largest impact on his sensibilities.  If we can see some hint of this influence in some of his earlier work, it is undoubtedly most seen in his grasp of Cézanne's innovations with color and his pioneering efforts of using it to suggest depth.

It was the series Homage to the Square that brought Josef Albers to wide public attention and was, in fact, the core of his one-man retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971. This, incidentally, was the first such honor given to a living artist at that institution.  It was in this series that Albers brought the full powers of his study of color (light) into sharp focus.  The square form (called "platters" by Albers) was chosen since it would offer the least interference with his wish to "serve up" to the viewer's attention the interaction of color combinations.  It was also the Homage to the Square series which lay at the heart of his course on color at Yale and which served as the basis for his book, Interaction of Color,  published in 1963.

An electronic version of Interaction of Color, produced by Jerry Whitely and Andrew Phelan for Pratt Institute can be seen in conjunction with the exhibit.  A full catalog, Josef Albers, has been co-published by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.  In addition to a full chronology and catalog of the exhibition, the book contains essays by Nicholas Fox Weber, Mary Emma Harris, Charles E. Rickart and Neal Benezra. The show was mounted with the help of grants from the BASF Corporation and the Federal Republic of Germany.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A prolific 20th-century artist, known primarily for his "Homages to Squares," Josef Albers was also a highly innovative teacher associated with the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany; Black Mountain College in North Carolina; and the Yale School of Fine Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

Although he disavowed style category labels, he is credited with influencing the movements of Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism.  He was also one of the first modern artists to investigate the psychological effect of art on viewers, to challenge them to open their eyes, investigate color and space, and to question the nature of perception.  Indicative of the impact of his work is the fact that he was the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

He was born to a family of craftsmen in Bottrop in the Ruhr region of Germany and inherited a family tradition of careful, exact workmanship.  As a young man, he became inspired by the works of Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and other modernist artists, and many of his paintings show the influence of Cubism.  In 1915, he married Anni Fleischmann, who became a noted weaver and his wife of fifty-one years.

From 1913 to 1920, he studied art in Berlin and in Munich, but his most significant education took place in Weimar, Germany at the Bauhaus, an association of artists, craftsmen, and architects committed to a creed of merging craft techniques with creative aspects of fine art.  As a student, he became renowned for stained glass designs that he created from broken bottles and fragments he found at the city dump. These "found object" designs show his early predilection for optics.

Beginning in 1923, he became a Bauhaus teacher and taught furniture design, drawing, and calligraphy.  He made the first bent laminated wood chair and created some of the first stacking tables.  His working philosophy was to build carefully and meticulously with sturdy materials from a base of simple, fundamental forms to increasingly complex shapes.

In 1933, Albers and his associates dissolved the Bauhaus because of Nazi pressure against their creativity.  He and his wife moved to America, where he spent the next sixteen years in the area of Asheville, North Carolina teaching at Black Mountain College, an experimental school operating with the principle that fine art integrated all learning.

In spite of the fact that he spoke no English at first, he influenced many artists who later became well known modernists such as Neil Welliver and Robert Rauschenberg.  From 1950 to 1958, Albers served as Chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University where he produced hundreds of "homages to squares."

As an art teacher in America, he espoused methods that were both innovative and shocking because he eliminated copying from nature and from the work of other artists.  His goal was to create an attunement or close investigative relationship between the artist and his/her work and to exclude anything that might interfere with this synchromy. To set the tone, he began his classes with kinetic exercises whereby each student was asked to foreshadow with movement the designs he or she intended to depict in their artwork.

For shapes in his "Homages," he chose squares, mathematically related to each other in size, superimposed upon one another because they are strictly human inventions, perfect shapes that never occur in nature--thus assuring its man-made quality.

The artist intended that the colors in his "Homages" react with each other when processed by the human eye, causing optical illusions because of the eye's ability to continually change the colors in ways whereby the colors echo, support, and oppose one another.  He executed these paintings with a deliberate, careful technique using a minimum of tools and paint because he was committed to order and the utmost of economy in his work.  He hated chaos and was adamantly opposed to the freedoms of Abstract Expressionism.

When working, he applied one base or primary coat to masonite, a ground he found most durable, and then squeezed unmixed paints directly from the tubes and spread the paint evenly and as thinly as possible with a palette knife.

It is suggested by some art historians that because Albers spent so much of his early life amidst the ravages of World War I and then the Nazi take over, that imposing order on his artwork was a psychological reaction to all of this turmoil.

Sources:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art


Biography from Eric Firestone Gallery:
Josef Albers was a German artist, mathematician and educator whose work, both in Europe and in the United States, formed the basis of some of the most influential and far-reaching art education programs of the 20th century.

Albers was born in Bottrop, Westphalia (Germany).  He studied art in Berlin, Essen, and Munich before enrolling as a student at the Weimar Bauhaus in 1920.  He began teaching in the preliminary course of the Department of Design in 1922, and was promoted to Professor in 1925, the year the Bauhaus moved to Dessau.

With the closure of the Bauhaus under Nazi pressure in 1933, Albers emigrated to the United States and joined the faculty of Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where he ran the painting program until 1949.  At Black Mountain his students included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ray Jonson and Susan Weil. 

In 1950 Albers left Black Mountain to head the Department of Design at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut until he retired from teaching in 1958.  In 1962, as a fellow at Yale he received a grant from the Graham Foundation for an exhibit and lecture on his work. At Yale, Richard Anuszkiewicz and Eva Hesse were notable students.  Albers also collaborated with Yale professor and architect King-lui Wu in creating decorative designs for some of Wu's projects.  Among these were distinctive geometric fireplaces for the Rouse (1954) and DuPont (1959) houses, the façade of Manuscript Society, one of Yale's secret senior groups (1962) and a design for the Mt. Bethel Baptist Church (1973).

In 1963 he published Interaction of Color, a book which presented his theory that colors were governed by an internal and deceptive logic.  Also during this time, he created the abstract album covers of band leader Enoch Light's Command LP records. Albers continued to paint and write, staying in New Haven with his wife, textile artist Anni Albers, until his death in 1976.

Accomplished as a designer, photographer, typographer, printmaker and poet, Albers is best remembered for his work as an abstract painter and theorist.  He favored a very disciplined approach to composition.  Most famous of all are the hundreds of paintings and prints that make up the series Homage to the Square.  In this rigorous series, begun in 1949, Albers explored chromatic interactions with flat colored squares arranged concentrically on the canvas.

Albers' work represents a transition between traditional European art and the new American art.  His work incorporated European influences from the constructivists and the Bauhaus movement, and its intensity and smallness of scale was typically European.  However, his influence fell heavily on American artists of the late 1950s and the 1960s. "Hard-edge" abstract painters drew on his use of patterns and intense colors, while Op artists and conceptual artists further explored his interest in perception.



Biography from GallArt.com:
Josef Albers (1888 - 1976), was a German artist and educator whose work, both in Europe and in the United States, formed the basis of some of the most influential and far-reaching art education programs of the 20th century.

Born in Bottrop, Westphalia, on March 19, 1888, Albers studied art in Berlin, Essen, and Munich before enrolling as a student at the prestigious Weimar Bauhaus in 1920. He began teaching in the Department of Design in 1923, and was promoted to Professor in 1925, the year the Bauhaus moved to Dessau.

With the closure of the Bauhaus under Nazi pressure in 1933, Albers emigrated to the United States and joined the faculty of Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where he ran the painting program until 1949. From 1950 to 1958, Albers headed the Department of Design at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Accomplished as a designer, photographer, typographer, printmaker and poet, Albers is best remembered for his work as an abstract painter. He favored a very disciplined approach to composition, and published several widely-read books and articles on the theory of form and color. Most famous of all are the dozens of paintings from his series "Homage to the Square," begun in 1949, in which Albers explored chromatic variations on a theme of flat colored squares arranged concentrically on the canvas.

Albers' theories on art and education were formative for the next generation of artists. His own paintings form the foundation of both hard-edge abstraction and Op art. After retiring from Yale, Albers continued to live and work in New Haven with his wife, textile artist Anni Albers, until his death on March 26, 1976. (Courtesy of BiographyBase.com)

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Josef Albers is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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