The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A portrait of Josef Albers, in all his originality

It was 1933 Berlin, Hitler had just come to power, and the artist Josef Albers had a big problem: The Bauhaus, an internationally famous school of art and design where Albers had taught for more than a decade, had been closed by the Nazis, who disapproved of its internationalist leanings. There was another big problem: Albers had a Jewish wife.

He was casting about for what to do when a letter arrived offering him a position at a small school in the American hinterlands. Albers replied, protesting that he didn’t speak a word of English. The response to that objection was, “Come anyway.” Thus it was that Albers soon found himself in the mountains of North Carolina at the now legendary Black Mountain College. There, and later at the Yale School of Fine Arts, he would become arguably the most influential art teacher in 20th-century America.

Albers was much more than a teacher, however, and art critic Charles Darwent, in his new biography, makes a strong case for an artist who was not as recognized as fellow Bauhaus teachers Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger. Part of the problem was that Albers worked in media such as glass, which traditionally had been considered merely a craftsman’s material. He also designed furniture and wallpaper, made architectural reliefs, and was always ready to design a logo. Albers’s jack-of-all-trades ability — inherited from his father, a craftsman who could do plumbing and electrical wiring as well as painting and decorating — made his painting seem just another form of design to his detractors. The noted critic Clement Greenberg disparaged Albers’s work for what Greenberg called its “inability to rise above merely decorative motifs.”

Darwent emphasizes the poetic yearning that hides within Albers’s scientific-seeming experiments, most notably in his “Homage to the Square” paintings, a series of more than 2,000 that Albers began when he was in his 60s. Using an apparently simple format, groups of squares within squares in different colors, Albers shows, for instance, that a color, applied straight from the tube, can have radically different appearances, depending on the colors that abut it.

Yet the paintings are not mere demonstrations of optical effects. They suffer when reproduced in photographs, for mechanical reproduction obscures the minute signs of the paintings’ handmade nature. Albers did not paint with the robust impasto of the abstract expressionists (he told his students that they might as well rub excrement on a canvas as try to paint like Jackson Pollock), but his paintings nevertheless contain signs of the hand.

Darwent writes about Albers’s art in a refreshing, jargon-free manner, and his book, done with the assistance of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, is thoroughly researched and documented. He also has an eye for the mordant ironies of life, such as the fact that the deadly efficient Auschwitz concentration camp was laid out by an architect who had studied at the Bauhaus, taking one of Albers’s beginning design courses.

A gruff yet caring teacher, a ladies’ man and a daily Mass-going Catholic, both jealous of and generous with his peers, Albers steps convincingly from these pages.

Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.

By Charles Darwent

Thames & Hudson. 400 pp. $39.95.

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