Even if you don’t recognize Josef Alber’s name, you’ve probably seen some of his paintings of colorful squares.
Josef Albers (1888–1976) was a teacher, writer, painter, and color theorist, best known for the Homages to the Square he painted between 1950 and 1976 and for his innovative 1963 publication (at age 75) Interaction of Color. Anni Albers (1899–1994) was a textile designer, weaver, writer, and printmaker who regarded fabrics as an art form, both in their functional roles and as wall hangings. Together, they influenced modern art in both Germany and the United States.
The couple met in Weimar, Germany in 1922 at the Bauhaus. Founded three years earlier, the Bauhaus transformed modern design and emphasized the relationship between art, architecture, and crafts.
Before enrolling as a student at the Bauhaus in 1920, Josef taught in an elementary school; then, following studies in Berlin, he became an art instructor.
At the Bauhaus, he started to make glass assemblages from trash he found at the Weimar town dump and from stained glass; he then made sandblasted glass constructions and designed large stained-glass windows for houses and buildings. He also designed furniture and household objects.
In 1925, he was the first Bauhaus student to be asked to join the faculty. In the late 1920s, he took photographs and made photo-collages documenting Bauhaus life.
Throughout Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischmann’s childhood in Berlin, she had been encouraged by her parents to study drawing and painting. But she rebelled against her privileged upbringing by entering the Bauhaus in 1922. She enrolled in the weaving workshop because it was the only course of study open to her.
She and Josef, eleven years apart in age, met shortly after her arrival in Weimar. They were married in Berlin in 1925—and Annelise Fleischmann became Anni Albers.
At the Bauhaus, Anni experimented with new materials for weaving and became a bold abstract artist. She used straight lines and solid colors to make works on paper and wall hangings. In her functional textiles she experimented with metallic thread and horsehair as well as traditional yarns.
In 1925 the Bauhaus moved to the city of Dessau to a building designed by Walter Gropius, the architect who had founded the school. In November, 1933, the Bauhaus shut its doors rather than abide by the restrictions of the Nazis, and Josef and Anni Albers were invited to the United States when Josef was asked to design the curriculum at the newly established Black Mountain College in North Carolina. They remained at Black Mountain until 1949, while Josef continued his exploration of a range of printmaking techniques, took off as an abstract painter, and became an ever more influential teacher who wrote about the arts and education. Anni made extraordinary weavings, developed new textiles, and taught, while also writing essays on design that reflected her independent and passionate vision. Meanwhile, the Alberses began making frequent trips to Mexico, a country that captivated their imagination and had a strong effect on their art.
In 1950, the Alberses moved to Connecticut. From 1950 to 1958, Josef Albers was chairman of the Department of Design at the Yale University School of Art. There, and as guest teacher at art schools throughout North and South America and in Europe, he trained a whole new generation of art teachers.
In 2013, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Interaction of Color, Yale released an interactive iPad app based on the principles of the book:
In 1971, Josef Albers was the first living artist ever to be honored with a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Also that year, Josef Albers established a not-for-profit organization to further “the revelation and evocation of vision through art.” Today, The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation is devoted to preserving and promoting the enduring achievements of both Josef and Anni Albers, and the aesthetic and philosophical principles by which they lived. Most of the information for this article came from their website, where photos of their work can be viewed. (You can even purchase kits to make some of Anni’s jewelry designs.)
At the time of his death in New Haven, Connecticut in 1976, Josef was still working on his Homages to the Square and his Structural Constellations, deceptively simple compositions in which straight lines create illusory forms, and which became the basis of prints, drawings, and large wall reliefs on public buildings all over the world.
While Josef taught at Yale, Anni Albers continued to weave, design, and write. In 1963 she began to explore printmaking and experimented with the medium in unprecedented ways while developing further as an abstract artist. Her text On Weaving was published in 1965.
Here are some of Anni’s prints, textiles, and jewelry:
The Alberses devoted themselves to their work and pursued it regardless to the trends and shifting fashions of the art world. They had an extraordinary relationship and, while never collaborating on art work other than their highly inventive Christmas cards and Easter eggs, fostered one another’s creativity and shared the profound conviction that art was central to human existence.
Following Josef’s death, Anni Albers helped oversee her husband’s legacy while expanding her own printmaking and textile design until her death in 1994.