Master illusionist

Josef Albers explored our changing perceptions of colour in his art. He considered tricks of the eye sacred, says Tina O’Sullivan

JOSEF Albers (1888 – 1976) is the subject of a new exhibition The Sacred Modernist: Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in University College Cork. The whole building is devoted to the show, whose works include a specially commissioned stained-glass window.

The curator is Nicholas Fox Weber, the executive director of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, which Albers and his wife set up in 1971 to celebrate “the revelation and evocation of vision through art.” The foundation conserves the Albers’s art and archives and conducts educational activities and an artist-in-residency programme.

The original stained-glass window, Rosa mystica ora pro nobis, was made by Albers when he was 30 years old. “Josef made it for the 19th century neo-gothic church in Bottrop, his home town in Germany,” says Fox Weber. “But the window was destroyed during the Second World War. For this exhibition, we’ve had it reconstructed: the Albers Foundation acquired an original gouache of the window, and we had an old photograph of it as well. This is the first time the reconstruction will be seen anywhere.”

Albers came from a modest background and stayed true to it. “When I knew Josef, he was world-famous,” says Fox Weber. “People were always trying to find sources of influence, and he used to say: ‘I come from my father and Adam, that’s all.’ His father was a house painter, carpenter, plumber and electrician, and Josef thought you learned technique, you learned how to do things and that’s what mattered.”

When Albers died, Fox Weber found a folder of his earliest work. Anni gave Fox Weber access to the basement where Albers stored his art. Stadtlohn, a 1911 ink-on-paper depiction of a church bell tower, is Albers’ earliest known piece. It marks the beginning of the religious theme that was central to Albers’s practice. A heavy glass assemblage revealed itself to Fox Weber in the basement, falling from a high shelf. Anni told him it was one of the first pieces Albers made in the Bauhaus. The lack of funds for materials compelled Albers to break up glass bottles and transform the shards into Untitled, 1921. “When Josef was 32, he read about the new experimental school called the Bauhaus,” says Fox Weber. “He said he threw everything out the window and started his life all over again. He had no money, he had to convince the regional teaching system that he was going to come back and use his new education to teach there, which he had no intention of doing. But off he went to the Bauhaus.”

Anni was from a well-off background but followed an artistic path. The Bauhaus had rough living conditions and only allowed women to enrol in the weaving workshop. She enrolled in a preliminary course in 1922 and entered the weaving department in 1923. Albers began to woo her by surprising her, at her first Bauhaus Christmas party, with a gift of a print. They married in 1925.

Albers made a huge impression at the school. “He was the first student to become a master there,” says Fox Weber. “The faculty — people like Klee, Kandinski, Walter Gropius — told him he could not just do glass. He was very headstrong and just worked in glass anyway; he put on a show of his own work and they appointed him as master.” This was a departure for Albers’ work. Colour moved higher on the agenda and he simplified his style. “For the first time, he took one image, one stencil and executed it in two colours,” says Fox Weber. The works Goldrosa, 1926, and Upward 1926, illustrate the transition. “I think you’ll see what happens is when the colour changes, everything changes. I read the pink square as a little bit larger than the blue square. But that’s an illusion, that’s just the quality of pink. I read the pink as being behind the white and the blue as being in front of the white. That’s also just the quality of the colour. To Josef, this was a miracle, the way that colours change, the way that colours make you see space differently.”

In 1933, the Gestapo closed the Bauhaus. Josef and Anni were invited to America to teach at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Albers thrived on the experimental atmosphere. His work concerned itself with tricks of the eye, and he considered the illusions to be miracles. “When I say that he was interested in miraculous occurrences, I mean that he was fascinated with forms that you can’t resolve,” says Fox Weber. “The idea of mystery is in works such as Falsch gewickelt (Rolled Wrongly), 1931 — as you begin to roll them one way and you roll them another way, they don’t quite work. They twist among other things. This is one of his most telling images. Josef used to say that in science and math, one plus one plus one is three, but in art one plus one plus one is many more. To make a perfect example of that is something he did consider virtually sacred.”

Albers explored the illusion of paint by mapping out shapes that equalled each other in millimetres, asking the viewer to pick out the largest colour: the answers differed, as each person views a colour differently. His later paintings explore the intensity of colour relationships. Albers used paint straight from the tube, often buying one colour from several brands, as the nuances in their differences gave the work his signature glow.

“When Josef was 62,” says Fox Weber, “he began teaching in Yale, where he began these paintings, which he called his ‘platters to serve colour’. What enchanted him was the way you create the illusion of a glow. You get the impression that the middle square might be on top of the second square, on top of the third. He always started painting in the middle, and never put one paint on top of another. He told me that his father taught him how to paint a door: you start in the middle, you work your way out, you catch the drips and you don’t get your cuffs dirty.”

The homage to the square is the image most associated with Albers. He devised a mathematical system to create tension in the painting, making the squares float over each other. The dynamic of the work changes depending on the stance of the viewer. The simplicity in the work inspires awe, rooting itself in the religious iconography Albers held so dear.

The Sacred Modernist: Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist runs until Jul 8, 2012; The first screening of Joseph & Anni Albers: Art is Everywhere is today, Thurs Apr 19 at 1pm in the River Room. Free, all welcome; Nicholas Fox Weber will be in conversation with Colm Toibin at 3pm on Jun 21, tickets €25, towards the Glucksman’s artistic programme, on sale Tuesday, Apr 24.

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