An Albers Legacy

Artists at Yale in the 1950s

curated by Francis Frost

57W57 Arts
57W57 Street, New York, NY10019
Wed-Sat 12-5, 1 November - 20 December 2014



Albers

James McNair
             Albers

James McNair
             Albers

Lois Swirnoff


Albers

Arthur Hoener
             Albers

Norman Ives
             Albers

Sewell Sillman


Albers

Erwin Hauer
             Albers

Sybil Wilson
             Albers

Neil Welliver


Albers

Norman Carlberg
             Albers

Richard Anuszkiewicz
             Albers

Norman Ives


Albers

Lois Swirnoff
             Albers

Arthur Hoener
             Albers

Robert Slutzky




Josef Albers (1888-1976) joined the faculty of Yale University School of Art in 1950 as chairman of the Department of Design. He had taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1933 to 1939, and at the Bauhaus in Germany for eight years prior to that. He was to remain at Yale until retiring in 1958, at age 70.

An early exchange with a student at Black Mountain College in 1933 gave a clear idea of Albers's intentions as a teacher. When asked what he was going to teach, Albers replied in his limited English of that time, "To make open the eyes."1 Teaching, to him, was not a matter of laying down strict rules, predetermined styles or techniques, but rather a way to allow students to have a greater awareness of what they were seeing and what they were doing. The basic courses Albers taught - basic drawing, interaction of color, and structural organization (in 1957 and 1958 only) - were the first steps for students in achieving this.

The eyes, brains and hands of the students had all to be ready and working in synch, and the seemingly simple studies Albers taught in these courses were a way to make this happen; the close positioning of colored sheets of paper to make one color look like two for example, or drawing a simple shape and then redrawing it as if reflected in a horizontal and vertical axis. Direct observation and handling of materials were essential, and experimentation was advocated. Students were encouraged to take risks and make new discoveries, although not just for the sake of being different (and definitely not with the expectation of pleasing him). To Albers, in an analogy to music, these studies were like "learning to play the notes." The actual making of art, "the music," would come later.2

An essential part of Albers's teaching was the criticism, discussion and comparison of projects; these 'crit' sessions "blew away the smoke, opening eyes and making it possible for students to see what they hadn't seen before".3 As Richard Anuszkiewicz remembered; "[Albers] was tough. He came across as a bundle of strength, and he demanded strength from you. He was an honest, direct person. He didn't coddle students. If something was bad, he made you feel it, especially bad habits, crutches the students might use. If he was distressed, he would comment, but the comment was meant to be liberating. At the same time he pushed the line of an intelligent art, for which the artist was responsible. Everything must be put down with thought. "4

Despite the many years of teaching similar courses - at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College before Yale - Albers prided himself on his flexibility as a teacher, never using a syllabus, and frequently altering the courses he taught. His guiding principles though, were to liberate the imagination, expand horizons, all while providing a sustaining order. Again, as Richard Anuszkiewicz remembered, "[Albers was able] to make people see clearly the most complex visual concepts, not only artists but people from the whole University, from related fields and unrelated ones. He had the ability to make students teach themselves."5 For another student at Yale, Lois Swirnoff, "[Albers was] sparing of praise, unerring in his criticism, he nailed you on your own confusion, made you see. Never unkindly, but rather, modestly, quietly, with authority."6

Albers was also generous in helping his students gain employment after leaving Yale, often suggesting jobs for them to apply for or advocating for students at a particular college, and he was eager too that the principles of his art education be spread widely. Many of the artists in this exhibition, for example, went on to teach his color course. What they had learned from Albers was not a rigid dogma to be followed, but an approach to art, to create by really seeing. As Albers himself remarked; "My greatest warning to my students is always, 'Please keep away from the bandwagon, from what is fashion and seems now successful or profitable. Stick to your bones, speak with your own voice, and sit on your own behind.' How can we say that in ethical terms, or in moral terms? 'Be honest and modest.' These are the greatest virtues of an artist."7


1 "Josef Albers: To Open Eyes," Frederick Horowiz and Brenda Danilowitz, Phaidon, 2009
2 Ibid
3 Ibid, p.75
4 "Albers", Yale University Art Gallery, 1978, in conversation with Gene Baro, 7 December 1977
5 Ibid
6 "Josef Albers. His Art and His Influence", Montclair Art Museum, 1981
7 "Black Mountain", Anchor Books, 1973, interview with Martin Duberman, 11 November 1967





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Albers

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