Best known for his Homage to the Square paintings, Josef Albers (1888-1976) investigated clashing, merging, vibrating contours between colors.
Art critic and reviewer Darwent (Mondrian in London: How British Art Nearly Became Modern, 2012, etc.) offers a meticulously researched, elegantly written, and generously illustrated biography of an artist whose personality was as enigmatic as his art. The German-born Albers, son of a house painter and craftsman, trained to teach elementary school, a profession his parents thought “safe,” while being an artist “was terrible.” Although he chafed at becoming a teacher, he discovered “that children should be listened to rather than lectured to,” a lesson that shaped his approach for the rest of his career. In 1913, he was granted a leave to study at the Royal Art School in Berlin, an institution that trained art teachers. More than from course work, Albers was energized by exhibitions of Die Brücke, Blaue Reiter, and other modernists. He was overwhelmed by Edvard Munch even though he would later deride expressionism as “that sentimental, self-expression business.” Albers’ early career culminated in his joining the Bauhaus community, lured by its emphasis on craft. Darwent deftly characterizes the outsized egos and philosophical and petty rivalries that roiled the Bauhaus, most notably from proponents of the De Stijl movement, which “laid claim to the square, which Albers considered “the ideal form for visual experiment.” In 1933, desperate to leave Nazi Germany, he accepted an invitation to teach at Black Mountain College, where for years he was the only painter. Albers’ last teaching position was at Yale, where he was brought in to shake up the staid art department and where, though admired by many, he became renowned for ruthless critiques. One student recalled him “as a cross between Bismarck and Santa Claus.” Forced to retire, he began to work obsessively on the Homages series, completing more than 2,000 in his last 25 years.
An authoritative and sensitive portrait of a modern master.