Josef Albers

German-American designer, painter, educator and typographer (1888-1976)
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Josef Albers (March 19, 1888 – March 26, 1976) was a German artist, mathematician and art teacher [at Bauhaus ], whose work - in Europe and later in the United States - formed the basis of an influential and far-reaching art education program of the 20th century. He became a leading figure of Black Mountain College in the U.S.

Portrait of Josef Albers by Ida Berger; charcoal on paper, 2021


  • Every perception of colour is an illusion.. ..we do not see colours as they really are. In our perception they alter one another.
    • Quoted in: Abstract Art, Anna Moszynska, Thames and Hudson 1990, p. 147
    • Quote c. 1949, when Albers started his 'Homage to the Square' series of paintings
  • The concern of the artist is with the discrepancy between physical fact and psychological effect.
    • Quote from: 'Albers Paints a Picture' Elaine de Kooning, Art News 49, November 1950, p. 40; as quoted in Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1983, p. 67
  • I want color and form to have contradictorily functions.
    • Quote from: 'Albers Paints a Picture' Elaine de Kooning, Art News 49, November 1950, p. 57; as quoted in Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1983, p. 67
  • For me, abstraction is real, probably more real than nature. I'll go further and say that abstraction is nearer my heart. I prefer to see with closed eyes.
    • Quoted in: Arts/Canada, Vol. 23 (1966), p. 46
  • In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.
    • Quoted in: Faber Birren (1976) Color Perception in Art. p. 20
  • In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.
    • Quoted in: Margaret Walch (1979) Color source book, p. 98
  • If one says 'Red' and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.
    • Albers, quoted by Patricia Sloane (1989) in The visual nature of color, p. 1
  • Anxiety is dead.
    • Albers' short quote in: Robert Rauschenberg, Works, Writings and Interviews Sam Hunter, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain 2006, p. 10
  • A painter works to formulate with or in colors.. .My paintings follow the second option.
    • In: De tweede Helft Ad de Visser, SUN Nijmegen, The Netherlands, 1998, p. 123

'Homage to the square' (1964)

Quotes from: Homage to the square, 1964, Josef Albers, MOMA, New York 1964
  • THE ORIGIN OF ART: The discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. THE CONTENT OF ART: Visual information of our reaction to life. THE MEASURE OF ART: The ratio of effort to effect. THE AIM OF ART: Revelation and evocation of vision.
    • 'The Origin of Art'
  • Seeing several of these paintings [his series paintings 'Hommage to the square', Josef Albers painted in 1963-64] next to each other makes it obvious that each painting is an instrumentation on its own.
This means that they all are of different palettes, and, therefore, so to speak, of different climates.
Choice of the colors used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction – influencing and changing each other forth and back.
Thus, character and feeling alter from painting to painting without any additional 'handwriting' or, so-called, texture.
Though the underlying symmetrical and quasi-concentric order of squares remains the same in all paintings – in proportion and placement – these same squares group or single themselves, connect and separate in many different ways
In consequence, they move forth and back, in and out, and grow up and down and near and far, as well as enlarged and diminished. All this to proclaim color autonomy as a means of plastic organization.
  • 6 short quotes from: 'The Origin of Art'
  • But besides relatedness and influence I should like to see that my colors remain, as much as possible, a 'face' –their own 'face', as it was achieved – uniquely — and I believe consciously - in Pompeian wall-paintings - by admitting coexistence of such polarities as being dependent and independent — being dividual and individual.
Often, with paintings, more attention is drawn to the outer, physical, structure of the color means than to the inner, functional, structure of the color action.. .Here now follow a few details of the technical manipulation of the colorants which in my painting usually are oil paints and only rarely casein paints.
On a ground of the whitest white available – half or less absorbent – and built up in layers – on the rough side of panels of untempered Masonite – paint is applied with a palette knife directly from the tube to the panel and as thin and even as possible in one primary coat. Consequently there is no under or over painting or modeling or glazing and no added texture – so-called.. .As a result this kind of painting presents an inlay (intarsia) of primary thin paints films – not layered, laminated, nor mixed wet, half or more dry, paint skins.
Such homogeneous thin and primary films will dry, that is, oxidize, of course, evenly – and so without physical and/or chemical complication – to a healthy, durable paint surface of increasing luminosity.
  • 4 quotes from: 'The Color in my Painting'
A bollard in Winchester, England, painted in the style of Treble Clef by Josef Albers

'Oral history interview with Josef Albers' (1968)


Quotes from: Oral history interview with Josef Albers, conducted by Sevim Fesci, 22 June – 5 July 1968, for the 'Archives of American Art', Smithsonian Institution

  • I helped my father who was a house painter and decorative painter. He made stage sets, he made glass paintings, he made everything. I was in the workshop and watched him. So as a child so-called art was not my view. That was, in my opinion, my father's job. But I liked to watch him; he comes, as my mother also, from a very craftsman's background. My father's parents were carpenters. They were also builders partly. They were painters. And several of them were very, active in the theater and all such nonsense, you know. On my mother's side there was much more heavy craft. They were blacksmiths. They made a specialty horse shoes and nails for them.. .So, as a child, my main fun was to watch others working. I loved to walk to the neighboring carpenter's place and up to the neighboring shoemaker in my home town.
  • And I learned very early [Josef Albers was then ten years old] how to make imitation of wood grain. This is something I have in common with Georges Braque. Braque also learned very early from his father how to imitate marble or wood grain. So I could easily make the appearance of oak or walnut on pine. That is very easy; a very simple technique. And I learned how to imitate marble. I never made such a good joke as Braque did. When he was in the Mediterranean he fooled his friends. He painted a rowboat that had wood on one side and marble on the other side. You see, when he'd row out of the city it looked as if he were in a boat of a different material than when he came back, you see, one side was imitation wood and the other side was imitation marble.
  • I discovered soon that teaching has the handicap of retrospection. And that I don't believe in. So I started [at the w:Bauhaus in Dessau] instead a method of handling material with the material itself. So that was my main change. Whereas Itten before [Itten left the Bauhaus in 1923 and Albers followed him as art-teacher] had only spoken about the appearance, 'matiere' - (the French word) and I said I would turn from 'matiere' - the outside - to the inside, to the capacity of the material, before the appearance. And that changed the attitude basically I think.
  • I made my examination in Berlin in 1915. And I must say also that Berlin was for me in another way very important. At the time there were all these new movements – 'Die Brücke'... ...the 'Der Blaue Reiter', Walden of the 'Storm' Gallery. Then Kassierer who bought the Chagalls, the first Chagall's that were ever seen in Europe were there. And there was 'Die Brücke'. Rottluff, Heckel, and Kirchner. You know we saw all that. Which was good. You see, Kassierer was then the man who bought the modern French painters. He had particularly Degas who I consider still today a very good painter, one of the best. But, anyway, in spite of my teaching my art was my concern. On the little money I had collected I lived in Berlin very cheaply, ate very cheaply. And already in 1920 I saved the first salaries I received to go to Munich.. .So for the first time I saw the old masters, Rubens and all at the Alte Pinakothek.
  • I had to go to the Bauhaus to the basic course that was given by Itten. And I submitted to that although I was a little older than Itten. But I have not the best memories of my studies there. So when that course was over everyone had to exhibit his work and then it was decided whether or not one could continue. I was accepted to continue. But I wanted to go into a workshop and I wanted to make stained glass. That was my old dream. Glass pictures. But Itten thought I was not ready for that. Certainly to delay my study in glass, Itten said, 'Glass painting is a branch of wall painting and you should go first to our wall painting workshop,' And I said, 'That's nonsense. Wall painting has to do with reflected light and glass painting with direct light.' So I said 'Sorry, I'll do my own stuff on my own.' I had no money. Just a Rucksack and a hammer. And I started these assemblages. That was in 1921, But in all books on assemblages these things are not mentioned.
  • This is what has Gropius the director made the Bauhaus famous. Not its lamps or its furniture. They are all out of fashion already. But the way of approaching formal problems or material as such, that has made it famous. And the emphasis on material, especially its capacity is my contribution. That was never cleared between us teachers. Kandinsky did what he thought should be done. Klee developed an absolutely different method. Schlemmer developed absolutely something else. Klee was my so-called form master. In the workshops there they had a crafts master and a form master. The crafts master had to direct the practical work, the mechanics of the workshop. And the form master had to develop the, formal qualities. Klee was my form master in the glass workshop. He came to me and never criticized anything. He talked about something else. Never asked about any form problem with the windows I was working on. Never a word. He was too respectful. He was the nicest master I could ask for. He talked about exhibitions. He thought I should exhibit. That's another story. We had a good relationship because we never dealt with the same problems. He didn’t attack our problems. He never brought up a problem.
  • When we are honest – that's my saying – if we are honest then we will reveal ourselves. But we do not have to make an effort to be individualistic, different from others. You see that is the nonsense of the last 15, 20 years [Albers refers here critically to American Abstract Expressionism ]. What is wrong there is that everyone wants to be different from the already different ones. And then they ended up all alike. And we are tired of that. And the youngsters feel that now. And they don't continue, you see. They see this will not last. These exaggerated performers always speak in the highest dramatic voice. And in order to achieve it get always drunk before you come to action. Sick. It's over. So I'm quite critical against many of my colleagues. It is not their self-expression. What makes me to be more than my neighbor only when I think I have to say something more than he can. That is self-disclosure. I once gave a talk in Chicago and right in the beginning I said – a lady came to me and said, 'You are against self-expression. And I am mad against you now.' 'And I'll stand upside down to demonstrate that, I said, 'Stop the sentence. You are self-disclosing; you are not self-expressing.'
  • Art is not to be looked at. Art is looking at us. What is art to others is not necessarily art to me. Nor for the same reason and vice versa. What was art to me or was not some time ago might have lost that value or gained it in the meantime and maybe again though art is not an object but experience. To be able to perceive it we need to be receptive. Therefore art is there where art meets us now. The content of art is visual formulation of our relation to life. The measure of art, the ratio of effort to effect, the aim of art revelation and evocation of vision.
  • Yes it was 1949. How I came to that. That's like how one gets to know a human being. It so happens that I've always had a preference – as everyone has prejudices and preferences – for the square as a shape in preference to the circle as a shape. And I have known for a long time that a circle always fools me by not telling me whether it's standing still or not. And if a circle circulates you don't see it. The outer curve looks the same whether it moves or does not move. So the square is much more honest and tells me that it is sitting on one line of the four, usually a horizontal one, as a basis. And I have also come to the conclusion that the square is a human invention, which makes it sympathetic to me. Because you don't see it in nature. As we do not see squares in nature, I thought that it is man-made. But I have corrected myself. Because squares exist in salt crystals, our daily salt. We know this because we can see it in the microscope. On the other hand, we believe we see circles in nature. But rarely precise ones. Mature, it seems, is not a mathematician. Probably there are no straight lines either. Particularly not since Einstein says in his theory of relativity that there is no straight line, rod knows whether there are or not, I don't. I still like to believe that the square is a human invention. And that tickles me. So when I have a preference for it then I can only say excuse me.
  • There science is dealing with physical facts, in art we are dealing with psychic effects. With this I come to my first statement: 'The source of art – that is, where it comes from – is the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect'. That's what I'm talking about. When I want to speak about why I am doing the same thing now, which is squares, for – how long? – 19 years. Because there is no final solution in any visual formulation. Although this may be just a belief on my part, I have some assurances that that is not the most stupid thing to do, through Cezanne whom I consider as one of the greatest painters. From Cézanne we have, so the historians tell us – 250 paintings of Mont St. Victoire. But we know that Cézanne has left in the fields often more than he took home because he was disappointed with his work. So we may conclude he did many more than 250 of the same problem.
  • Duplicity in events: What happens here as new, happens somewhere else just the same way. That's so exciting. That is one of the secrets of life. Why did I sometimes build a lamp in the Bauhaus and somebody comes from Holland and says, 'Oh, somebody in Holland makes just the same lamp.' Such duplicity shows that the time is ripe for a problem and thus it is in the air, and will be solved here – and there. With this we are finding the 'creative process', for which somebody is coming to ask me about. I would say, 'I paint because I have no time not to paint.' That's my creative process.
  • I have received a question I have expected, 'Don't you deal with accidents?' Yes, I deal with accidents, just as Arp admits it all the time. And I admit it, too. But I like to have them under my command and not sign them because they are accidents. If it remains only accident then sign it 'accident' or 'fate' or 'the Lord', whatever you prefer. It's not you because you have not visioned it. You see visual formulation deals with vision, visual information and visual reaction. So I speak differently from all those who deliver themselves to uncontrolled accidents.
  • I would say, 'My things have the look of icons.' Unconsciously they look at you not as my face is now – you see me in profile – icons are only this way. And so are my paintings.
  • I say all the time, if I sell that to you, you pay me for 3 colors. And I sell you 4, I betray you. Not to cheat you, but to pet you. You see I betray you in a positive way. I make you see more than there is. And that's in all my art that way. Absolutely something else. And that's what my book is about. You never see what you see. I lead you to see something else. And therefore I direct you. That's help.
  • I have not built any theory. I have only tried to build up sensitive eyes, as my book says. And I have tried to achieve that by aiming at very distinct color relationships again – like how do they influence each other? Change each other in light and in intensity, in transparency, opacity? How do they change each other in all different directions? That we make all the students aware, through experience, that color is the most relative medium in art, and that we never really see what we see. All neighboring means which occur every minute different, not only in changing light but also by our changing moods. And in the end, the study of color again is a study of ourselves.
  • That question is so big that there is no end [Albers refers here to the relationship between colors and the source of light]. You see, they have just you cannot participate with it if you have not lubricated your eyes very thoroughly to see the little changes produced in our eye that has another action than any optical apparatus like photography. We must know that we have two ways of seeing. For instance, when we are indoors another part of the retina is engaged compared with when we are outdoors. If we are in warm light or cool light, in higher light or lower light.
  • I think it's true, as many say, I have dealt for many years with the problems that w:Op art so-called, is dealing with. For many years I have studied the logic and magic of color. And so I know what's involved when it comes to the interaction of colors, more than many who refuse to study it. But I found a way to study it, I think, that's all. And besides I refuse to be the father of a new bandwagon.
Josef Albers: Zwei Supraporten (1974), Münster, Germany.

'A conversation with Josef Albers' (1970)

Quotes from: A conversation with Josef Albers John H. Holloway and John A. Weil, in Leonardo, Vol. 3, No. 4, Oct. 1970, MIT Press
  • In 1923, when I had been a student at the 'Bauhaus' in Weimar.. ..Gropius [the director of Bauhaus] asked me to teach the basic course 'Werklehhre'. He wanted me to introduce newcomers to the principles of handicrafts. He knew that I came from that background and had appropriate practice and knowledge.
    • p. 459
  • I did not teach painting but seeing. I concentrated on the basic courses for beginners. I taught drawing (purposely without nudes), color (without any painting as such) and design (as 'structural organization'). And so the graduate students came 'down' to the basic courses for beginners.
    • p. 459
  • Amateurism is an emptiness and I accept it because it has no preconceived ideas or rules to be applied. This is for me [as art teacher] a most welcome situation and I like to keep my students amateurs and dilettantes.
    • p. 459
  • I have taught – until 10 years ago – for nearly 40 years, that is almost half of my life. And when I think that over – now afterwards -, I come to a surprising conclusion, namely that I did not teach arts as such, but philosophy and psychology of art.
    • p. 459

Quotes about Josef Albers


Quotes sorted alphabetically by author.

  • But I've noticed something with other artists who do use the whole range of forms of colours and black - in Albers, for instance, who experiments with yellow, red, blue, the whole scale. Of course I love his colour paintings, but when I see a black-and-white such as 'The Homage to a Black and White Square' [Josef Albers painted large series with this title], I like that best, you know. I think it has something to do with deciding just exactly what you really like best. There is always that wonderful element of doubt.
    • Franz Kline, March 1960, in an interview with w:David Sylvester, edited for broadcasting by the BBC first published in 'Living Arts', Spring 1963; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, pp. 61-62
  • [Josef] Albers was a beautiful teacher [at the Black Mountain college ] and an impossible person. He wasn't easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it. Years later, though, I'm still learning what he taught me, because what he taught me had to do with the entire visual world. He didn't teach you how to 'do painting'. The focus was always on your personal sense of looking.. .I consider Albers the most important teacher I've ever had, and I'm sure that he considers me one of his poorest students.
    • Robert Rauschenberg, 1962, in The Bride and the Bachelors, Calvin Tomkins, Penguin Books, New York 1962, p. 198
  • I don't think he [Joseph Albers] ever realized that it was his discipline that I came for [on Black Mountain College, were Josef Albers was then a leading teacher]. Besides, my response to what I learned from him was just the opposite of what he intended.. .I was very hesitant about arbitrarily designing forms and selecting colors that would achieve some predetermined result, because I didn't have any ideas to support that sort of thing – I didn't want color to serve me, in other words.
    • Robert Rauschenberg, 1962, in The Bride and the Bachelors, Calvin Tomkins, Penguin Books, New York 1962, pp. 199-200
  • It is my own personal psychosis that it is only by the background that you can see what is in front of you. Only be accepting all that surrounds you can you be totally self-visualized. And at the same time, your self-visualization is a reflection of your surroundings. Albers was right about that.
  • [Josef] Albers' rule is to make order. As for me, I consider myself successful when I do something that resembles the lack of order I sense.
    • Robert Rauschenberg, undated, in Robert Rauschenberg, Works, Writings and Interviews, Sam Hunter, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, Spain, 2006, p. 37
  • When asked later in life about his working methods for the ['Homage to the 'Square' paintings, Albers would often explain that he always began with the center square because his father, who, among other things, painted houses, had instructed him as a young man that when you paint a door you start in the middle and work outwards. [Albers:] 'That way you catch the drips, and don’t get your cuffs dirty'.
    • Nicholas Fox Weber, 1988, in 'The Artist as Alchemist,' in Josef Albers: A Retrospective; Harry N. Abrams, Inc. and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1988, p. 15
  • The German artist [Albers was from German origine] whose lifelong exploration of shape and color theories influenced a generation of artists and challenged audiences worldwide in addition of being one of the leading artists of the 20th century.
    • William White, 2002, in Buyer's Guide: 1999-2000, Vol. 127, Nr. 6-9. p. 99
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