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The Prints of Josef Albers: A Catalogue Raisonné 1915–1976, Revised Edition

by Brenda Danilowitz . Manchester, Vt., Hudson Hills Press, 2010, 223 pp., $95.00.

Reviewed by Robert Stern, M.D., Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2011;168:1344-1345. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.11060846
View Author and Article Information

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Book review accepted for publication June 2011.

New Haven, Conn.

Accepted June , 2011.

The world-renowned teacher of art and abstract artist Josef Albers was born in 1888 in Bottrop, Germany, in the center of Westphalia, the Ruhr region of the country. His mother Magdalena died when he was 11 years old. He described his father Lorenz as “a housepainter…a tinkerer. He put all the electricity into our house…the plumbing…he did everything….He was an artisan….I was exposed to many handlings that I learned to steal with my eyes ” (1, p. 2; emphasis added). Albers learned from his father how to paint a door, and he explained proudly to the end of his life that starting to paint his Homage to the Square compositions at their center, always working toward the edges, enabled him to catch all the drips and to abut color edges to each other without superimposition of colors.

The Prints of Josef Albers: A Catalogue Raisonné 1915–1976, by Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, brings together an essential sector of Albers's artistic oeuvre, the result of his early fascination with color and visual processes as well as his intuitive feel for various materials (stone, gravel, clay, sand, glass, wood, sheet metal, cardboard) and of the practical skills to handle them.

Albers created the prints in this volume during three periods. First, the years 1915–1917 of his early figurative linoleum cuts and lithographs while he was a schoolteacher in Bottrop are illustrated. Next, the black-and-white complex abstract prints of 1933–1950 are presented, from the closing of the Bauhaus through his years at Black Mountain College. Finally, the period during 1958–1976, from his retirement as chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University up until his death on March 25, 1976, the time during which he created his best-known colored woodcuts, lithographs, drypoints, screen print suites, inkless intaglios, and embossings. Albers's last portfolio of 12 screen prints, Never Before, is reproduced here for the first time, as are eight newly catalogued entries, including the only graphic work he designed during his years at the Bauhaus (No. 239, p. 186). I was glad to see a color photograph of Upward (p. 16), one of Albers's landmark flashed glass compositions with black paint that he created at Bauhaus by sandblasting thin layers of fused opaque and colored glass covered with a stencil, then removing the stencil, adding another color, and baking this entire piece in a kiln to achieve a hard surface of radiant beauty. A comprehensive curatorial essay with lavish annotations on all of Albers's graphic work accompanies the reproductions.

An appendix displays mini-images of the screen prints from Albers's Formulation: Articulation, a set of two boxed portfolios, each with 33 screen-printed folders, published in 1972 in an edition of 1,000 copies. The works were selected by Albers from among his 40 years of drawings, oil paintings, lithographs, woodblocks, and sandblasted glass paintings. Fortunately, it has been republished in book form (2) and contains all 127 images of the original screen-printed folders.

Albers's interest in perceptual experimentation is evident from his early figurative lithographs. Yet these prints also expose the tentative nature of his early artistic development until, at age 32 in 1920, he was able to escape his own history of a working-class, staunchly conservative, oppressive North German family and enter the Bauhaus, where his creative spirits exploded. He never again did figurative work.

The Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, March 21, 1919, was a vibrant cooperative of students, artists, and craftsmen aspiring to create a geometric, art-and-craft machine-like design aesthetic and to build uncluttered, cubical, transparent volumes in glass and steel buildings. On April 11, 1933, Nazi storm troopers locked up the Bauhaus. The dominant Bauhaus figures, László Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Josef Albers, left Germany.

Albers, age 45 at the time, was invited to head the art department of the recently established Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. On arriving in November 1933, a student asked him what he was going to teach. Summoning all the English he knew, Albers replied: “To make open the eyes” (3, p. 73).

The 13 years Albers spent at the Bauhaus exerted a decisive influence on his complementary artistic creativity as well as his precise craftsmanship. His graphic vocabulary emerged as spare, minimalistic, playful,and mischievous—reversals of black and white; variable horizontal striations without a drawn curve, suggesting waves in the sea; juxtaposed black, white, and hatched geometric shapes illusionistically projecting themselves toward the viewer. He is lighthearted, loose, even phantasmic in his Mexican Lithographs and related drypoints. In his Graphic Tectonics suite he creates a dynamic illusion of surface-to-depth movement, and vice versa, by manipulating intervals between precisely drawn thick and thin lines. In his Multiplex series and the Interlinear lithographs, he led me to perceive three-dimensional objects, drawn with clear white lines on black background, only for me to discover after a closer viewing that no such objects could exist in reality. In the Transformation series, Albers went further, as the white lines on black have a hallucinatory effect; his neatly drawn lines create complex geometric designs representing nothing.

Reading these serial prints is a contemplative, free-associating process. The prints are optically engaging. They puzzle. They are addictive.

Albers became chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University in 1950 and retired from active teaching in 1958 at age 70. Starting then and up until his death at age 88, his signature Homage to the Square series became his obsession and brought him worldwide recognition, fame, and wealth. With nested colored squares of diminishing size, he explored their subtle interactions and documented the commanding influence of a surrounding color on the perception of another solid color. Albers painted the first Homage in 1950 and executed more than 1,000 Homage abstracts on masonite (12 inches × 12 inches to 48 inches × 48 inches).

Albers called the first screen-printed Homage to the Square, in 1961, Allegro (9 inches × 9 inches). It has 182 companions in this volume, all luxuriously reproduced in glorious digital hues of red, yellow, green, gray, and black. Some are mitered; four are posters he was commissioned to design for his 1971 solo retrospective, the first such exhibition organized for a living artist by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

For a lover of abstract art and of colored magic, what a terrific gift to brighten life, the eye, the heart, and the soul!

Weber  NF:  The Drawings of Josef Albers .  New Haven, Conn,  Yale University Press, 1984
 
Albers  J:  Formulation: Articulation with text by TG Rosenthal .  London,  Thames & Hudson, 2006
 
Danilowitz  B:  Teaching design: a short history of Josef Albers, in  Josef Albers: To Open Eyes–The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale . By Horowitz  FA;  Danilowitz  B.  New York,  Phaidon Press, 2006
 
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References

Weber  NF:  The Drawings of Josef Albers .  New Haven, Conn,  Yale University Press, 1984
 
Albers  J:  Formulation: Articulation with text by TG Rosenthal .  London,  Thames & Hudson, 2006
 
Danilowitz  B:  Teaching design: a short history of Josef Albers, in  Josef Albers: To Open Eyes–The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale . By Horowitz  FA;  Danilowitz  B.  New York,  Phaidon Press, 2006
 
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