Josef Albers – Master of the Square

Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) was a German painter, art educator, and theorist who shaped the art scene for many decades and left an impressive artistic legacy. His theories on color perception not only expanded the conception of art but also the understanding of human perception. In this artist’s portrait, we take a look at the life and work of Josef Albers and examine what made his work so special.

Josef Albers was born on March 19, 1888, in Bottrop, Germany, and grew up in modest circumstances. He began his artistic career with training as a primary school teacher and later as an art teacher. During this time, he saw works by Paul Cézanne and Piet Mondrian for the first time, which greatly inspired him.1

After completing his education, Josef Albers’ artistic career took him to Weimar. Here he first enrolled at the famous Bauhaus – one of the most prestigious art schools of the time. Later, he began teaching there himself and, as deputy director, advanced to become a key figure in this art school. Teaching and his artistic work were inseparable for Albers from the very beginning.2

After the Bauhaus was closed down by the Nazis, Albers emigrated to the USA in 1933. At renowned institutions such as Black Mountain College and Yale University, Albers taught generations of artists and influenced their creative approach. His students included well-known artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra.1 During this time, he and his wife Anni Albers repeatedly traveled to Latin America. There they became acquainted with, among other things, the traditional geometric art of the pre-Columbian cultures of South America. The patterns and colors inspired him greatly.3

Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature.

Josef Albers, quoted in: Arts/Canada, Vol. 23 (1966), p. 46

Albers explored the interaction of colors through different levels of tone and brightness, which led him to his theories of color perception. He developed the idea that colors are perceived only in context with each other and that their relationships affect spatial and visual depth. This concept is also manifested in his 1963 book “Interaction of Color” – a seminal work on the dynamics and properties of colors and their perception (Interestingly, Richard Serra, known for his minimalist steel sculptures and black paintings, worked on the book while studying with Albers).

Albers always links his research with the creation of his own works. His paintings are characterized by clear, geometric shapes and strong color contrasts. An outstanding example of this is his most famous series, “Homage to the Square”, which he continuously expanded from 1950 until his death in 1976. In these paintings, Albers experimented with the interaction of colors, presenting them in different shades within concentric squares. The goal was to explore the relationships between colors and their mutual influence on our perception. The series remains an impressive example of Op Art.

Josef Albers was a visionary artist and educator whose work is characterized by a minimalist aesthetic and his deep engagement with color and form. His work has immensely influenced both contemporaries and subsequent generations of artists, and his legacy is immortalized in his works and the continued appreciation of his art by galleries and collectors worldwide. Josef Albers remains a timeless creative role model, underscoring the importance of simplicity and experimentation in art.

Further Reading / Resources

3 Brenda Danilowitz, Heinz Liesbrock (Hrsg.): Anni und Josef Albers, Begegnungen mit Lateinamerika (Katalog). Josef Albers Museum Bottrop 2007

Aesence is an independent art and design publication dedicated to minimalist aesthetics. Founded out of a deep appreciation and fascination, Aesence aims to promote awareness and appreciation of minimalism in art and design.