Josef and Anni Albers, lifelong artistic adventurers, were among the leading pioneers of twentieth-century modernism. Josef Albers (1888–1976) was an influential teacher, writer, painter, and color theorist—now best known for the Homages to the Square he painted between 1950 and 1976 and for his innovative 1963 publication Interaction of Color. Anni Albers (1899–1994) was a textile designer, weaver, writer, and printmaker who inspired a reconsideration of fabrics as an art form, both in their functional roles and as wallhangings.
The couple met in Weimar, Germany in 1922 at the Bauhaus. This new teaching institution, which transformed modern design, had been founded three years earlier, and emphasized the connection between artists, architects, and craftspeople.
Before enrolling as a student at the Bauhaus in 1920, Josef had been a school teacher in and near his hometown of Bottrop, in the northwestern industrial Ruhr region of Germany. Initially he taught a general elementary school course; then, following studies in Berlin, he gave art instruction. At the same time, he developed as a figurative artist and printmaker. Once he was at the Bauhaus, he started to make glass assemblages from detritus he found at the Weimar town dump and from stained glass; he then made sandblasted glass constructions and designed large stained-glass windows for houses and buildings. He also designed furniture, household objects, and an alphabet. In 1925, he was the first Bauhaus student to be asked to join the faculty and become a master. At the end of the decade he made exceptional photographs and photo-collages, documenting Bauhaus life with flair. By 1933, when pressure from the Nazis forced the school to shut its doors, Josef Albers had become one of its best-known artists and teachers, and was among those who decided to close the school rather than comply with the Third Reich and reopen adhering to its rules and regulations.
Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischmann went to the Bauhaus as a young student in 1922. Throughout her childhood in Berlin, she had been fascinated by the visual world, and her parents had encouraged her to study drawing and painting. Having been brought up in an affluent household where she was expected simply to continue living the sort of comfortable domestic life enjoyed by her mother, she rebelled by deciding to be an artist and going off to an art school that embraced modernism and where the living conditions were rugged and the challenges immense. She entered the weaving workshop because it was the only one open to her, but soon embraced the possibilities of textiles. She and Josef, eleven years apart in age, met shortly after her arrival in Weimar. They were married in Berlin in 1925—and Annelise Fleischmann became Anni Albers. At the Bauhaus, Anni experimented with new materials for weaving and became a bold abstract artist. She used straight lines and solid colors to make works on paper and wall hangings devoid of representation. In her functional textiles she experimented with metallic thread and horsehair as well as traditional yarns, and utilized the raw materials and components of structure as the source of design and beauty.
In 1925 the Bauhaus moved to the city of Dessau to a streamlined and revolutionary building designed by Walter Gropius, the architect who had founded the school. The Alberses—who had become friends with Paul and Lily Klee, Wassily and Nina Kandinsky, Oscar and Tut Schlemmer and Lyonel and Julia Feininger—eventually moved into one of the masters' houses designed by Gropius. In November of 1933, Josef and Anni Albers were invited to the USA when Josef was asked to make the visual arts the center of the curriculum at the newly established Black Mountain College in North Carolina. They remained at Black Mountain until 1949, while Josef continued his exploration of a range of printmaking techniques, took off as an abstract painter, made collages of autumn leaves, kept writing, became an ever more influential teacher and wrote about art and education. Anni made extraordinary weavings, developed new textiles, and taught, while also writing essays on design that reflected her independent and passionate vision. Meanwhile, the Alberses began making frequent trips to Mexico, a country that captivated their imagination and had a strong effect on both of their art. They often said that, “In Mexico, art is everywhere”: this was their ideal for human life.
In 1950, the Alberses moved to Connecticut. From 1950 to 1958, Josef Albers was chairman of the Department of Design at the Yale University School of Art. There, and as guest teacher at art schools throughout North and South America and in Europe, he trained a whole new generation of art teachers. He also continued to write, paint, and make prints. In 1971, he was the first living artist ever to be honored with a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At the time of his death in New Haven, Connecticut in 1976, he was still working on his Homages to the Square and his Structural Constellations, deceptively simple compositions in which straight lines create illusory forms, and which became the basis of prints, drawings, and large wall reliefs on public buildings all over the world. In those same years, Anni Albers continued to weave, design, and write. In 1963 she began to explore printmaking, and experimented with the medium in unprecedented ways while developing further as a highly original abstract artist. Her seminal text On Weaving was published in 1965.
The Alberses were in some ways like a two-person religious sect, focusing above all on their work and happy to pursue it at a remove from the trends and shifting fashions of the art world. They had an extraordinary relationship, and, while never collaborating on art work other than their highly inventive Christmas cards and Easter eggs, fostered one another’s creativity and shared their profound conviction that art was central to human existence and that morality and creativity were aligned. Following Josef’s death, Anni Albers helped oversee her husband’s legacy while expanding her own printmaking and textile design until her death in 1994. In 1984, Anni wrote," . . . to comprehend art is to confide in a constant." She and Josef lived their lives devoted to that irrefutable, uplifting constant.