Albers & Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World At Tate Modern, London SE1 until 4 June
These are two very architectural artists, and this is a splendid exhibition.
In 1923, Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy were jointly asked to run the oneyear preliminary course at the Bauhaus. Much of the 20thcentury's visual sensibility follows from that course - it gave shape to much of our world. In their own work Albers and Moholy broadened out the bounds of art to include constructing things in glass, plastics and metal, and the star of this show is a reconstruction of Moholy's Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light Space Modulator) of 1928-30 - given a room to itself, it provides a continuous display of varied lighting effects.
In common with many of their Bauhaus peers, Albers and Moholy's lives fall into two halves. There is the German first half and the American second. This exhibition takes us seamlessly from one to the other and treats each of the two periods as being of equal value.
In the case of Albers, when the Bauhaus closed in 1933 he went straight from Germany to the United States; first to join many of his ex-Bauhaus colleagues at Black Mountain College, that legendary shortlived design school in remote North Carolina. Black Mountain must have been a lively place, for among the students were Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Harry Seidler, and others who became big names.
In his early years in America, Albers rediscovered the pleasure of painting - as opposed to construction - and developed the great interest in colour which would play such an important role, both in his painting and his teaching, for the rest of his life.
Moholy left the Bauhaus in 1928 and became a designer in Berlin. With the coming of the Nazis he moved first to Holland and then to London. The exhibition has some splendid posters that he produced for the London Underground and Imperial Airways, but disappointingly there is little on the packaging and shop displays that he designed while he was here. In 1937 he moved to Chicago, where he set up the short-lived New Bauhaus, and then the School of Design, which became the Institute of Design in 1944. During this time he continued to paint, photograph and make constructions. He died in 1946, aged only 51.
In 1950 Albers started teaching at Yale University, and the next year became chairman of the department of design there. He saw his role as 'to open students' eyes' and release creative potential; training visual sensibilities was seen as more important than aesthetic theory for artists and designers.
His Basic Design Course and Colour Course achieved widespread acclaim and, in parallel with his teaching, he developed his 'Homage to the Square' series of paintings, where formal problems are eliminated and colour and perception are everything.
The series demonstrates how tiny adjustments can change the mood of a composition, encouraging the heightened sense of perception that Albers thought would result in a greater awareness of the world.
Moholy and Albers were both good artists, but they were outstanding teachers. With so much to wonder at in this exhibition, it seems discourteous to complain. But there is little on their teaching methods and skills, and almost nothing on their students' response to the belief the pair shared that the teacher's aim was to release the potential for creativity in each pupil. Developing perceptive skills is seen as less important in design education now, and a shot of the Albers/Moholy methodology may be just what we need.
This exhibition shows the work of two individuals, but it also reveals what happened to Modernism when it crossed the Atlantic. Both Albers and Moholy retained their utopian beliefs in the ability of art to benefit society, but it became more of an abstract idea than a passionate cause. One could not imagine Yale in the 1950s undergoing the political ferment that had torn the Dessau Bauhaus to pieces a quarter of a century before.
John Winter, who is an architect in London, was a pupil on Josef Albers' Basic Design Course at Yale in 1956-57. Thames & Hudson has just published a book edition of Albers'Formulation: Articulation, which was first issued as a set of prints in 1972. It will be reviewed in a future issue of the AJ