Josef Albers: To Open Eyes. The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale By Frederick A Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz.Phaidon, 2006. £45.00
Many of the significant figures in the evolution of art and architecture in the 20th century shared a journey in which they travelled westwards from Europe to the United States.
Josef Albers was one of this group, and the trajectory of his life is neatly encapsulated in this new book's subtitle.
After studying art in Berlin, Essen and Munich, Albers, in 1920 at the mature age of 32, enrolled as a student at the Weimar Bauhaus. He began teaching the Vorkurs (foundation course) there in 1923, following Itten's departure, and was appointed professor in 1925. He remained, through the moves to Dessau and then Berlin, until the school's enforced closure under Nazi pressure in 1933.
The following year he began teaching at the newly founded Black Mountain College in North Carolina, along with his wife Anni and visitors such as Buckminster Fuller. In 1950 he became chairman of the department of design at Yale University, New Haven, where, having retired in 1958, he continued to live until his death in 1976.
Albers' place in the history of 20th-century art is secure.
His works, culminating in the series of over 1,000 pieces in the Homage to the Square series, which he began in 1960, are widely known and admired; many are now in the Albers Museum in Bottrop (AJ 11.10.01). He also made important contributions to theory, most significantly in the book Interaction of Color (1962).
The present book is concerned with Albers as teacher and traces the development and focus of his teaching over almost 40 years. Brenda Danilowitz contributes a well-researched introductory essay, 'Teaching design: A short history of Josef Albers'. On the armature that this establishes, Frederick Horowitz, a pupil of Albers' at Yale, explores in detail the intentions and methods of Albers' pedagogy. This account is based on extensive documentary research and makes good use of numerous reminiscences and anecdotes from other former pupils.
From this it is possible to identify the sources of Albers' influence upon art education.
Horowitz reports the essence of this as: 'To open the eyes'. The aim was to learn to see more acutely. 'How can you make art if you don't know how?' Albers would quiz his students. 'You have to see; otherwise you can't do anything.' The basis of the method is revealed by detailed chapters concerned with design, basic drawing, the colour course and the painting course. These are illustrated with many wellreproduced examples of works by his students, including such later luminaries as Eva Hesse.
In the Bauhaus years Albers did not teach painting, and only inaugurated an independent painting course at Black Mountain College in the mid-1940s, some years after his arrival. At Yale he taught the advanced painting course from the outset. It was here that the highly structured training that students received from the formal courses met issues of individual creativity.
The concluding chapter of the book offers a review of the tensions that this produced. It reveals an intriguing confrontation with Abstract Expressionism, which inevitably attracted the interest of painting students. Albers reacted to this with statements such as: 'You don't have to paint a wall. Look at Paul Klee. Look at what he could do in a small space.'
But nonetheless he invited James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis and others to Yale as visiting critics.
He clearly wanted to give his students a counterweight to his own viewpoint, even to the extent that he stayed away from the studio on the days when the visiting critics came.
The majority of former students recall Albers' teaching as exceptionally open, as long as their work was formally under control. There are a number of dissenting voices, who claim that they found his teaching too restrictive, 'like a trap'. But this conict of discipline and freedom lies at the core of all education in the creative arts.
In conclusion, Horowitz writes that Albers' students went on to work in many different styles and that Albers, 'never desired to release into the world little Alberses, but rather, mindful [my italics] artists who could sit on their own behinds or stand on their own feet.' This seems to me to be just about the best that any teacher could hope for.
Dean Hawkes is an architect in Cambridge