‘I have been thinking about Josef and Anni Albers for four decades’
Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers each had their own distinctive body of work, but they shared an obsession with geometric forms, which they explored to hypnotic effect. Jonathan Bastable visits their foundation in Connecticut and talks to its head, Nick Fox Weber
At the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, deep in rural Connecticut, works by both artists hang in every office and workspace. There are numerous iterations of Josef’s Homage to the Square in carefully calibrated shades of red and yellow, and the library holds several well-used copies of Anni’s book On Weaving.
A few items from the couple’s vast collection of pre-Columbian figurines are on display in a wall cabinet. They stand opposite framed Cartier-Bresson photographs in which Josef is speaking animatedly and making shapes with his fingers. All of them are things made by the Alberses or loved by the Alberses, and taken together they create a pervasive sense of the artists’ presence.
Some larger pieces are on display in the compact gallery that is the heart of the place; one key work — Josef’s Equal and Unequal (1939) — has a wall to itself. This painting is one of his spatial experiments. It consists of two floating forms rendered in textured black paint that looks like weathered granite. The floating twin figures — no, not twin, because they are quite different — are made up of triangles, lozenges, wedges and hexagons that seem on the point of resolving into three-dimensional cuboids. Fleetingly, you think that you see a concrete tower with an open flap like a dark window, or that you are gazing at the interior of a distorted, disintegrating stone sarcophagus — but then the illusion falters and the two-dimensional flatness of the image reasserts itself.
It is a hypnotic work of art, and it is no surprise to learn that, after Josef died, Anni kept this painting in her bedroom where she could contemplate it. ‘She told me she could never work it out — how he got the texture, and if the two forms are at the same height, and what they are doing to each other,’ says Nick Fox Weber. He has been head of the foundation for the entire 40 years of its existence, and was a friend of the couple: ‘I came to see this painting as Anni and Josef — two incredibly powerful personalities, magnetically attracted, but also at odds and independent of each other.’
Josef Albers met Annelise Fleischmann in 1922 at the Bauhaus in Weimar. He had previously been a schoolteacher in his home town of Bottrop, Westphalia. Anni hailed from an affluent Jewish family in Berlin. She was encouraged to draw, but her shift towards modernism was a definite act of rebellion. At the Bauhaus she took up weaving, since that was one of the few directions open to women. Josef and Anni married in 1925.
When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazi regime in 1933, they emigrated to the USA: Josef had been offered a teaching post at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In 1950, he was appointed chairman of the Department of Design at Yale’s School of Art.
Weber first met the artists when he was a student at Yale. ‘I thought Josef Albers had done one painting called Homage to the Square, and I didn’t know who Anni was,’ he says. ‘One day the mother of a friend, a collector of their work, took me to see them. I was picturing an arrival at a Gropius meister-house, but their home was so ordinary and unattractive I couldn’t quite believe it.’
When he quotes Josef or Anni, he slips into a comical but convincing Mitteleuropäisch accent. ‘Josef was at the door, and without being introduced, he said to me, “Vot do you do, boy?” “I’m studying art history at Yale, sir.” “Do you like it, boy?” I couldn’t dissemble. I said, “No, I don’t. I’m taking courses that are making me lose my passion for art.”
‘Anni had not said a word, but I could tell I had an ally. I had a wonderful sense that, as she watched me deal with her husband, she was feeling warm in her austere way. Josef said, “Vot does your father do?” “He’s a printer.” “Ach, gut. Then you are not just an art historian; you know something about something.”
‘That was the beginning,’ Weber continues. ‘On that first visit, we hadn’t been expected for lunch, so we went out and got Kentucky Fried Chicken. Anni put the chicken and everything that came with it on a three-tier white rolling cart. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I swear in that moment I understood the Bauhaus in some way that I never had before. There was the food itself, the same wherever you buy it, but mainly it was the way she arranged it: on the white plates it became absolutely beautiful. Everything in their world was magic in some way — the way they dressed, the way they spoke — it was simple and brilliant all at once.’
Josef painted about 2,000 homages to the square. They’re seen as the core of his oeuvre, and command high prices at auction. But he only began doing them when he was 62 years old. ‘I spend a lot of time dealing with fake Homages and getting rid of them,’ says Weber. ‘The fakes are often done with a brush, whereas Josef always used a knife, and applied the paint straight from the tube. He pencilled the straight line, then worked the paint very carefully. He never used tape.’
Despite their name, the Homages seem to be less about squares within squares than about the infinite possibilities of the chromatic spectrum. Every last one is an exercise in visual juxtaposition, an exploration of the effect that colours have on the eye and on each other. The size and proportion and the number of the squares vary, but they are always offset towards the bottom of the frame, and this — as with Equal and Unequal — tricks the eye into a figurative response: they look like luminous corridors receding to a vanishing point, Turrell-esque installations on a flat masonite board.
‘I was Albers’s dunce,’ Rauschenberg later told his biographer, ‘[But] years later I am still learning what he taught me… the development of your own personal sense of looking…’
Weber agrees that the Homages and the black- and-white ‘structural constellations’ are not quite as abstract as they might appear. ‘The illusional aspect of his abstractions makes them figurative in the sense that we read them as figures. To me, the Homages are altar-like, they are almost Madonnas. And you can see that Josef is something of a landscape painter; he comes very much out of Cézanne. I have been thinking about Josef and Anni for four decades, and I have only recently come to realise that Anni was the true abstract artist. Anni believed that it was only through abstraction — through the creation of something that had no resemblance to nature, no reproduction of familiar subject matter, and no personal emotions — that art gives you the balance, the diversion, the joy. Pure abstraction is balm to the soul.’
What is more, Anni worked with a very limited palette of shapes and colours. There is a fabulous parsimony to, say, her Study for Camino Real (1967), which consists of hundreds of red and blue triangles on white paper — some pendent, some pyramidal, and never anywhere a hint of a repeating pattern. ‘She loved irregularity, and she loved taking a minimal vocabulary as far as possible,’ says Weber. In the process she made something that is profound and complex; that kind of minimal discipline surely derives from the Bauhaus.
Josef and Anni dipped into a shared Euclidian box of tricks. Josef once told Weber that his earliest memory was of being taken to the shops by his mother. At four years old, he was fascinated by the black-and-white chequerboard of the tiled floor in the local post office. It would be too facile to claim that this one recollection is the root of all his squares; but it might be true to say that the man’s obsessive investigation of squareness helps to explain why that particular memory had primal status for him.
Both Josef and Anni found it useful to draw on graph paper. That is, the same rigid net underlies Josef’s stained-glass pieces (grilles of lead containing tiny coloured panes) and Anni’s wall hangings and carpets. What is a textile on the loom, after all, but a grid wrought in taut threads?
There are other correspondences between their separate oeuvres — coincidences or points of mutual influence. The earliest extant pen drawing by Josef dates from 1911, and is a view from his bedroom window in Stadtlohn. It features a night sky that is rendered in minute quadrilateral cross-hatching — warp and weft in Indian ink, as tight and neat and monochrome as one of Anni’s late-period tapestries.
The rectangular fixation was present in him even when he was not painting at all. At the Bauhaus he made furniture, and some of his work from those years is at the foundation. There are his famous stacking tables, rectangles within rectangles; a square bookcase made from boards that hold together like the pieces of a Chinese puzzle; and a cuboid light fitting in which each of the 12 edges is a white neon tube, while the eight corners, into which the tubes slot, are blank black dice. It is a brilliant piece of decorative art, very mid-century but also timeless. Here, too, is a whitewashed fireplace that Josef designed for a house in North Haven, Connecticut. It is made of bricks that are laid at an angle, so that each one has a corner jutting outwards. When the light falls on this edifice from the side, it creates a pattern of shadowy triangles in grey tones, a signature Anni Albers effect.
All this is the Alberses’ concrete legacy, the artistic inheritance that the foundation exists to preserve. But there are other, less tangible aspects to their joint life’s work. One is Josef’s influence as a teacher. ‘Imparting technique was vital to him,’ says Weber. ‘He taught his students to write their names upside down, mirror image, and mirror image upside down. He believed that an artist needs skill of hand. For him, all art started with technique, no question about it.’
His most famous pupil, from the Black Mountain years, was Robert Rauschenberg — who totally rejected Josef ’s teaching while retaining a high regard for the teacher himself. ‘I was Albers’s dunce,’ Rauschenberg later told his biographer Calvin Tomkins, ‘the outstanding example of what he was not talking about. [But] years later I am still learning what he taught me… the development of your own personal sense of looking… What he taught had to do with the whole visual world, and it applies to whatever you are doing, gardening or painting or whatever.’
Josef and Anni also made an important contribution as collectors. They amassed more than 2,000 pre-Columbian works — not just clay figurines, but also textiles. For them, this was a way of exploring something essential about art, about the way that certain forms and patterns recur across cultures, and about how in art — as in myth and dreams — there are archetypes that appeal to human consciousness. ‘The word archetype certainly applies,’ says Weber. ‘Both of them had a love for what was universal and pertained to all cultures.
And they both believed in the making of art as the most fundamental thing in life. They didn’t go out and socialise; they didn’t go to funerals or weddings. Josef, I think, saw himself as a servant to the god of colour, and the god of line. He had the mentality of a monk or a priest, someone who believes in something higher, and believes in himself as the intermediary.’
In the library at the foundation is a sketch by Josef (on graph paper, naturally) that is a design for an alphabet. Each letter is made up of a combination of 10 basic shapes — semicircles and subtle rhomboids that, one imagines, might easily be carved in wood or made into ink stamps. This typographical excursion seems to sum up everything the Alberses valued: curiosity, simplicity, economy, creativity, utility.
‘He wasn’t satisfied with the zee,’ says Weber, looking at the two neat rows of letters. ‘He said he never got it right. Then one day he told me that he had suddenly figured it out. He drew it on a scrap of paper, gave it to me and said, “Nick, you are the keeper of the zee.” I have always thought of that as my job description: keeper of the zee.’
www.albersfoundation.org. A survey of Anni Albers’ six decades of work, Anni Albers: Touching Vision, is at the Guggenheim Bilbao, 6 October–14 January 2018. www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus