Anni and Josef Albers: Art and Life

Designing Power Couple

October 27, 2021By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
"Study for Homage to the Square: Yes-Also" (1970), by Josef Albers. © 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork/ADAGP, Paris, 2021
“Study for Homage to the Square: Yes-Also” (1970), by Josef Albers. © 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork/ADAGP, Paris, 2021

The exhibition “Anni et Josef Albers: L’Art et la Vie” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris focuses on the ultimate 20th-century art-and-design-world power couple, she a weaver and printmaker, and he a painter.

Both of their careers began at the Bauhaus, the legendary cradle of modern art and design founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919, and shut down by the Nazis in 1933, after first moving to Dessau and then to Berlin. Anni (1899–1994) and Josef (1888–1976) met there and married in 1925. After the Bauhaus closed, they had to get out of town (and the country) quickly, as Anni was Jewish. Luckily for them, they met the architect Philip Johnson around this time, who recommended them for teaching positions at the new experimental university Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Anni is the lesser-known half of the couple, and one can’t help but wonder if that would have been true if she hadn’t been a woman. Although she had been accepted into the Bauhaus on her own merits, she was quickly constrained by the fact that women were allowed only to join the weaving department. While continuing to feel limited by it, she eventually accepted and worked wonders with it, experimenting with “pictorial weavings” and developing technical innovations (using cellophane, for example, to create a sound-absorbing and light-reflecting wall covering) throughout her career. She also worked hard to win it recognition as an art form, not “just” a craft. As she wrote in her book On Designing, “Like any craft it may end in producing useful objects, or it may rise to the level of art.”

"Intersecting" (1962), by Anni Albers. © 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork/ADAGP, Paris 2021
“Intersecting” (1962), by Anni Albers. © 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork/ADAGP, Paris 2021

The exhibition aims to remedy the neglect she has suffered in comparison with her husband by giving her more or less equal coverage. The show focuses mainly on her woven pieces, many of their designs and colors inspired by pre-Colombian art, with some examples of her jewelry designs. What is revelatory is that when she took up printmaking instead of weaving in 1963, she felt liberated. “It was so exciting,” she said, “that I could suddenly throw away that absoluteness in weaving, which is always horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, built out in steps.”

Anni Albers certainly wasn’t entirely neglected, however. She was the first textile designer to be the subject of a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1949. The exhibition then traveled around the United States, establishing her reputation as a major designer. In 2018, she was the subject of a solo show at the Tate Modern in London.

Josef, the better-known quantity, is given his due here. Unlike Anni, he was able to branch out at the Bauhaus. At the beginning of the show, we see his handsome designs for furniture, objects and typefaces (the Bauhaus Stencil Lettering System, based on the square, triangle and circle) and his black-and-white photographs and engravings with geometric designs.

Thereafter, he is represented by his nonfigurative paintings. Ever the designer, Josef was obsessed with the study of the interactions between colors, which culminates in the series “Homage to the Square,” shown at the end of the exhibition, which consisted of over 2,000 paintings he began in 1950 and continued until his death in 1976. These works eschew compositional invention and use only four different schemas of squares set within each other. The purpose was to show how a color is never seen as it actually is, but only in relation to what surrounds it. As the curators note, each painting in the series is both “an educational tool and an object of pure aesthetic contemplation.”

Josef was also a devoted teacher (he left Black Mountain in 1950 to become head of the design department at Yale), as illustrated by a filmed interview in the show in which he expounds on his unusual teaching methods. As he famously said, “I did not teach painting but seeing.”

The show is interspersed with photos of this apparently happy couple, both fulfilled by and recognized for their work, a rare story.


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