Josef Albers was born on March 19th 1888 in Germany. Not much is known about his early years other than he was born into a Roman Catholic family of craftsmen. When he was a young adult he worked as a schoolteacher in his hometown, but he was always painting. He did this from the years 1908 to 1913 and then in 1918 he painted his first abstract painting. He was influenced by Matisse, Cezanne, Munch, van Gogh, the German Expressionists, Delaunay and the Italian Futurists. Also at this time he got his first public commission. He was instructed to make a stained glass window for a church. The piece was called Rosa mystica ora pro nobis.
As an art student he studied in Berlin, Essen, and Munich before he finally enrolled at Weimar Bauhaus in 1920. It was a highly prestigious school and it was there that he studied painting. However, it was â€œas a maker of stained glass that he joined the faculty of the Bauhaus in 1922â€ (1). A year after he started his teaching there he was personally asked to teach a course on the principles of handcrafted works to new comers. He had the background and the experience to do so and so he took on the task. â€œHe was influenced by those around him at the Bauhaus, artists such as Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky.Â He began adding to his paintings glass assemblages, and using stains and sandblasting in his work, concerned with "accidental" ripple and bubbles while exploring balance, translucence, and opacity.Â Later, he moved up to teaching typography and furniture designâ€ (2).
This lovely prestigious setting wasnâ€™t to last though. In 1933 World War 2 was taking place and under Hitlerâ€™s Regime the school was shut down. The Nazi party didnâ€™t like anything that they considered questionable. Upon the school closing Albers fled to the United States where he was offered a position at a new school in North Carolina. His artist connections had served him well because he was offered the position by the then curator at the Museum of Modern Art. After he was offered the position he started teaching at Black Mountain College. When he was offered the job he had no idea even where North Carolina was. His wife even thought it was in the Philippians, but he taught painting there until 1949. Somehow he managed to do this with not being able to speak any English at first. During his time at Black Mountain College he also experimented in woodcuts and leaf prints. It was outside his usual medium, but he figured he would expand his knowledge.
He left Black Mountain College in 1950 to take up a teaching position at Yale University. He worked there until he retired from teaching in 1958. While he was there he worked on expanding the schools graphic design department and was the Director of Design. Even after retiring though he was still very much active in the arts and also even active with Yale and the staff there. He worked on collaborative projects and even received a grant from the Graham Foundation to do an exhibition. He created the design for the Mt. Bethel Baptist Church in 1973 and was also concentrating on making structural design pieces at the time.
Alberts was a very well rounded artist with his mediums. He was a poet, photographer, designer, typographer, and print maker, but what he is most notably known for is his painting series titled Homage to the Square. He made, literally, hundreds of paintings and prints of squares. This all began in 1949 when he was exploring how different colored square worked together with they were nestled together. it was a concept much like a nesting table, but with paint. What was also nice about these pieces is that Alberts often wrote exactly which colors were in the piece on the back of it so that he or anyone else could always go back and see it. the sizes of these works ranged in size from 406x406mm up to 1.22x1.22m. These pieces always contained three or four different colored blocks of color arranged in slightly different ways. The squares were always arranged in an organized manner and they never appear to just be jumbled together. Sometimes they were centered in the work and sometimes they were more to one corner of the work. No matter how they were arranged though this series took such a hold on him that it occupied him for the rest of his life and it â€œinspired young artists of the Pop and Op movements in the 1960s, and later a nascent Minimalismâ€ (2) movement. Due to this series he would also show up in books, magazines, and art history classes. This series exploring the relationship of colors is what made him and put him on the map.
His accomplishments outside of Homage to the Square include geometric fireplaces for the Rouse (1954) and DuPont (1959) houses, an album cover for Terry Snyder and the All Stars 1959, being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1973, and he also painted quite a few murals in different locations.
After 1973 he pretty much stayed out of the limelight and lived a quite life at home painting and spending time with his wife who he had married back in 1925 when he was still teaching in Germany. He died in New Haven in 1976.