Josef Albers
Biography of Bauhaus Teacher, Painter & Designer.

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Homage to the Square: Apparition 1959
For other abstract works similar to
those produced by Albers, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Paintings by Josef Albers
are widely available online
in the form of poster art.

Josef Albers (1888-1976)

One of the great abstract painters of the 20th century, the American artist, designer, photographer and art teacher Josef Albers was born in Bottrop, Germany. After completing a number of early paintings in the Expressionist tradition of Erich Heckel (1883-1970) and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), he joined the Bauhaus design school at Weimar, under Walter Gropius, where he became a teacher. Following the school's closure by the Nazis in 1933, he emigrated to America, where he taught first at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina (1933-49) and then at Yale, where he was Chairman of the Department of Architecture and Design (1950-8). (For more about Bauhaus influence, see also: American architecture.) During his career in the United States, Albers participated in the Abstract Expressionism movement, and became famous, in the process, for his series of abstract paintings and lithographs, called Homage to the Square - which exploit very subtle chromatic harmonies. This influential series of geometric pictures stemmed from his fascination with abstract art, dating back to the 1920s, and made him one of the world's great modern artists.

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For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.



Josef Albers studied fine art in Berlin, Essen, and Munich, before enrolling as a student at the Bauhaus, the avant-garde school of architecture, design and crafts in 1920. In 1922, he joined the teaching staff. He started by teaching the introductory course (Vorkurs) and was promoted to Professor in 1925, when the Bauhaus relocated to Dessau. His Bauhaus activities encompassed stained glass art, typography, and furniture design. It was during his Bauhaus period that he married the weaver and textile artist Anni Albers (1899-1994), a younger student at the Bauhaus.

Emigrates to USA

After the Nazi regime closed down the Bauhaus in 1933, as part of its campaign of suppression of "degenerate art" (entartete kunst) Albers emigrated to America, and continued propagating the Bauhaus aesthetic in art and design at the experimental Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where he directed the fine art painting course until 1949. During this time his students included the Neo-Dada painter and printmaker Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), as well as the graffiti-style painter Cy Twombly (1928-2011), and the collage artist Ray Johnson (1927-95). Albers' creative output at Black Mountain College included a number of woodcuts as well as paintings.

In 1950, Albers quit Black Mountain to take up an appointment as the head of the Department of Architecture and Design at Yale University, where he remained until his retirement in 1959. His students at Yale included the Op-artist Richard Anuszkiewicz (b.1930) and the contemporary sculptor Eva Hesse (1936-70). While at Yale, Albers combined with Professor and King-lui Wu in creating decorative designs for a number of architectural projects.


Homage to the Square

However his main focus from 1949 onwards was his series of concrete art - namely, his geometric abstract paintings, lithographs and other prints entitled Homage to the Square. Carefully designed to explore the differing effects of colour-combinations and line graphics, each picture in the series typically consists of a number of squares, set inside one another, painted in subdued, harmonious colours. Painted mostly on Masonite, his oil paintings in the series usually included a list of pigments used, on the reverse of the canvas. His theories on colour pigments were published in his book Interaction of Colour (1963). In keeping with his lifelong belief in Bauhaus principles, his Homage to the Square canvases comprised exact, succinct forms, and were rooted in the analysis of space, form and colour - the universal principles of good design.

Albers' paintings and glass panels were widely exhibited in America from 1936 onwards. During the 50s he joined the Arts faculty at Yale University, where he was joined for a short period by Ad Reinhardt (1913-67). In 1956, he was awarded a retrospective at Yale, and during the 1960s his paintings and linear lithography were also on display in Europe.

Artistic Legacy

As one might expect from any artist who devoted almost 30 years of his life to the repetitive production of pictures based on almost identical squares, Albers espoused a highly disciplined approach to composition. His work may be seen as a bridge between avant-garde art from Europe and the new modern art of America. As mentioned, Albers' style embraces ideas from the Bauhaus and Constructivism, and its disciplined, small-scale approach had a significant impact on abstract art movements of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, including Abstract Expressionism, Hard-edge Painting and Op-art.


One of the most original 20th century painters, Albers is represented in some of the world's best art museums, including: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art; Tate London; Hamberg Kunsthalle, among others. There are large murals by Albers in the Time-Life Building, New York (1961) and the Graduate Center, Harvard University (1950).

• For more biographies of abstract artists, see: Famous Painters.
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