One can’t help but think that this anecdote is a lesson the artist would have liked. ‘He liked ordinary materials,’ Weber says. ‘He painted on cheap blotting paper, or ordinary Masonite, and inexpensive compressed fibreboard. Nothing had to be fancy.’ The same goes for teaching materials. Albers begins his 1963 treatise Interaction of Color with a musing on Coca-Cola red: everyone receives ‘the same projection on his retina, but no one can be sure whether each has the same perception’, he writes. Thus, colour is the ‘most relative medium in art’. He held a torch for practice over theory; ‘what counts,’ he said, ‘is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision – seeing.’
Unlearning with Josef Albers
Nicholas Fox Weber, Executive Director of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, remembers the day he first met the two Bauhas masters. Their raised wooden ranch ‘was shockingly simple’, Weber says. ‘I was 22 years old, in awe to be meeting the only two people from the Bauhaus (except for Marcel Breuer) who were still alive.’ For lunch, Anni Albers ‘wheeled out a three-tier white metal tray with chrome legs, and on it she had arranged Kentucky Fried Chicken so beautifully on white Rosenthal porcelain that it was an absolute transformation. It was magic, and I began to reconsider all our ideas of what’s fancy and what’s every day in that moment.’
"Albers painted the way Rafael Nadal hits a tennis ball"
You can see Albers’ careful encounters with colour in Paintings Titled Variants at London’s David Zwirner gallery whose walls are lined with works from the Variant/Adobe series. This body of work was inspired, in part, by the art, geometrical architecture, colours and landscapes that the artist observed during his numerous visits to Mexico and the American Southwest. In the Upper Room is Black Mountain College: The Experimenters, named for the famed experimental arts college where the artist taught from 1933 to 1957. Presented in tandem, these exhibitions put the viewer in mind of the teacherly Albers, his famous colleagues and, of course, students who include Ruth Asawa, Ray Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Susan Weil.
"[Anni and Josef Albers] were like a two-person religious sect"
A common thread among these alumni is the idea that art is about experience. ‘[Albers] painted the way Rafael Nadal hits a tennis ball’, Weber says. ‘There's nothing between him and what he's doing. It's all focus.’ One of Albers’ exercises that demonstrated this state of complete concentration was to invite his students to draw their names backwards and upside down. He never used masking tape for the straight edges in his paintings, and despite the appearance of hard geometry and mechanical repetition, up close his blocks of colour all have weathered edges, betraying the hand. As we all know, it takes a lot to stay inside the lines, and – picture the five-year-old with her tongue sticking out at the side of her mouth – the process can result in gratifying, easy absorption.
But did this total giving-himself-over to his art ever get annoying for Anni? ‘They were like a two-person religious sect,’ Weber says. ‘The faith was in the importance of creative art, and a new degree of personal humility; not making the art about the self; mastering one's craft. And everything about their comportment, their appearance, their clothing – all of this – they were totally joined. Each allowed the other to flourish.’
It’s easy to rose-tint the past — and show me rosier than famous artists in the counter-cultural 60s — yet a lot of ideas that came out of Black Mountain College are some of the best lenses for a more liveable today. Just as Albers taught people to look, Black Mountain visitor John Cage will teach you how to listen. Meanwhile, poet and professor Charles Olson will teach you how to move (‘MOVE, INSTANTER’). Another visitor, the designer and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (whose 1928 drawing of a mass-produced, affordable, easily transportable, and environmentally efficient house is on display at David Zwirner’s Upper Room) was a life hack a minute. Perhaps he summed up the spirit of Black Mountain when he said, ‘Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.’ Often, big intellectual breakthroughs are really more like unlearning; life throws up a lot of muck that sometimes gets in the way.
"For Josef, the square was setting a stage for action"
Weber agrees, ‘I mean, look at what Albers came to at the end of his life, with the Homage to the Square — clearing away everything that's extra, getting down to the essentials, which is so important.’ You could treat an Adobe painting in the same way, ‘as an object for meditation’. These paintings ‘are not really minimalistic, because they open the way for all forms of movement, poetry, and a lot of other things. Donald Judd reduced; he wanted an emptiness. Josef Albers did not. He was in many ways a traditional painter, almost like Cézanne. There's a degree of formality there. He was very interested in spatial depth; very interested in illusion. For Malevich, the square was squeezing everything out.’
What about Albers? ‘For Josef, the square was setting a stage for action.’ So, what are you waiting for? MOVE, INSTANTER! From Mexico to North Carolina, Paintings Titled Variants is ultimately all about returning to the life of life.
By Sammi Gale
Cover image: Josef Albers, N. M. Black-Pink, 1947. Oil on Masonite © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and David Zwirner