1938–2013 Frederick A. Horowitz
1922–2008 Peter Oberlander
Search Versus Re-Search: Recollections of Josef Albers at Yale
1938–2013 Frederick A. Horowitz
1922–2008 Peter Oberlander
Search Versus Re-Search: Recollections of Josef Albers at Yale
Frederick A. Horowitz, lead author of the seminal text on Josef Albers’s teaching, Josef Albers: To Open Eyes. The Bauhaus, Black Mountain and Yale (Phaidon 2006) was a student at Yale College in 1956 when he took Albers’s drawing course. After graduating with a BFA from Yale in 1962 and an MFA in painting from the University of Michigan in 1964, Fred went on to his own long career as a teacher of art. He never forgot the lessons he learned from Josef Albers and continued to give lectures, talks and workshops informed by Albers’s teaching.
In this video, Fred Horowitz talks about his experiences in Josef Albers’s classroom and explains some of the exercises from Interaction of Color.
Black Mountain College was an idea and an ideal and constituted an environment for learning by doing with all the arts, . . . I spent the last forty years teaching, and most of what I've taught, I learned that significant summer of 1946 at Black Mountain. At that time anything seemed possible, and anything literally was possible. That's the charm, that's the excitement, that's the historic heritage. I'd like to make three simple points. How did I get to Black Mountain, what did I do when I was there, and what lessons can we learn? . . . As a graduate student at the time at Harvard School of Design, Walter Gropius one day accosted me across my drafting table with his inevitable cigar, dribbling ashes all over my cherished design. . . . " What are you doing this summer?" he barked at me. . . . "It is high time," he said, "that you learn something useful, like making furniture, or digging ditches. You've been abstract far too long." . . . Two days later he returned, again dangling his cigar . . . "You're going to Black Mountain College for the summer. I've arranged a scholarship for you. I've just talked to Albers, who thinks you'll like it there." Since I'd never heard of Black Mountain, but was familiar with Albers, . . . I was willing to listen and had many questions.
Gropius briefly explained that Black Mountain was a significant, immodest version of the Bauhaus, essentially devoted to Werklehre as a basis to live and learn in a college where art mattered and formed a core of its learning and living [conditions]. I soon discovered it was a non-structured school, but not unstructured, free standing, no degree given or non-degree oriented, and those who taught and those who came to learn were on equal footing and jointly managed the college and its daily life. . . .
In due course I took the train to Asheville, North Carolina where I had my first lesson in American real politics. I had arrived in the Deep South where separate washrooms for blacks and whites at the railway station demonstrated an aspect of America I had only vaguely sensed or heard about in the North. I was aghast, I was amazed, and my learning process started with a vengeance.
That's how I got there. What did I do at Black Mountain? Without much fanfare or ado Albers took charge and in his own inimitable way he articulated our freedom of choice. That freedom of choice was clearly within the concept of discipline and teaching, . . . [and] resulted in rigorous learning. Here I might confess that both Gropius and Albers pounced on me as one of the very few students, at that time, able to speak and understand German. . . . Albers particularly expanded and flourished as a teacher when using his native tongue. His English was excellent. His choice of words impeccable, but for emphasis and sheer drama, nothing, nothing in my experience, could compare with his cascading German phraseology and his seemingly endless flow of verbal images. I was the happy recipient. Having been exposed to that we became very close friends. . . . Albers was my teacher, my guru, yes, and my demon, for the next summer. It was an intensive Werklehre program, succinctly structured and extremely pervasive.
We clearly learned by doing. We learned by producing. We learned from each other. Color, texture, form, line, all became analytically clear, releasing a creativity never heretofore experienced. Studying architecture, and subsequently urban planning, paled by comparison to the fundamentally liberating experience in creating images, recording emotions, and learning to master selected media for its technique and its ability to communicate. Drawing and inventing collages were followed by designs for chairs and tables, and then we built them!
I learned to handle a lathe, [and] all kinds of other tools. My fingers became experienced in more ways than I'd like to remember. I learned to shape bowls and plates. I graduated to wood sculpture in the open-air studios. . . . Music, dance, drama demanded participation in a variety of performances, mostly spontaneous, some formal. The arts were clearly indivisible, and you were expected to contribute to the ebb and flow of making art, visual, audial, verbal, non-verbal, or a combination of all of them. Black Mountain was an islet unto itself, at least to me, within a sea of racial prejudice.
We had black students. And that gave rise to long and spirited discussions, new for me, foreshadowing as I see it, the social and political revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. We might not have challenged the situation as it was, but to me that was the beginning of things to come. Albers was as vocal and sarcastic about social justice as he was about color and line and raising your willingness to see beyond looking.
My Black Mountain summer culminated in two unforgettable experiences. One was an excursion through TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority} where I encountered my first tangible evidence of regional planning and creating a settlement system in harmony with the unique regional environment, the river basin and its context for planning and building.
The other, a far more personal one: Gropius, as luck will have it, had decided to spend a week at Black Mountain in late August. He also knew something of my family's immediate past, and saw to it that my parents were invited for a week's holiday at Black Mountain. The nightlong cauldron of discussions between Gropius, Albers, and my father, in their native tongue, on the state of the union as they saw it, or its absence, raging from art to politics from survival in the U.S. to the vagaries of the English language, is still an intoxicating memory. The social/political injustices of the south permeated all debate and infuriated all participants. A common cultural past, a common survival after Europe's inferno, however, gave everyone hope and ended in optimism.
Why is Black Mountain and its learning and living still relevant for us today and for the future? Very briefly, to me the essential commitment of Black Mountain was that all the arts form a seamless web of learning and teaching, and that they ought to constitute the core and context of any curriculum in a liberal arts program.
Learning, I discovered at Black Mountain, was based on experiencing. And teaching ought to encourage experimenting. . . . All these are fundamental and continuing values in education, in the humanities, in the social sciences, and they ought to form the basis of an indivisible form for personal human growth and self-discovery. Since all art is indivisible the visual, audio, verbal and nonverbal arts ought to be taught in a co-existing manner, non-hierarchical, mutually interdependent, because they are obviously interactive. Such a setting and an appropriate curriculum can form an effective base for subsequent professional practice, in my case architecture and urban planning.
All the cities' building skills ought to start with an art-centered curriculum that clearly is also the most effective underpinning for the evolving professional practices. . . . That names like Rauschenberg, Cage, and Cunningham grew out of this environment and contributed to it is the best proof of its conceptual value and its practical success.
Albers taught me that there is no substitute for learning by experience—experiencing the shaping and making of objects and images. Black Mountain was a freewheeling environment that benefited from the drill and rigor of a master teacher—Josef Albers. None of us will ever forget his rasping voice, his chilling criticism, but his equally gentle and totally effective guidance in discovering the relative value of color, or the tricks human vision can play on perception of distance and scale of landscape. "Color, size, lines, and objects are relatives," he said, "and they all relate to context." There are no absolutes, and it is the relative quality of objects in space and the interaction between them which is the fundamental base for art, design, architecture, and city building.
The emphasis on experiencing for one's self and with others gave us an intellectual freedom not common in colleges then, or today. Anything seemed possible, anything was possible. But you had to make it relevant. Found objects, leaves, discarded bits, were as welcome in the studio as formal painted paper. The inspiration of music and dance, poetry and drama, were just as relevant as the landscape perspective over Lake Eden. Vivid debate, endless discussions among faculty and students, always considered equals, was the true learning experience. No meeting ended until the last person had his say. Black Mountain during its twenty-three years continued the seminal experiment as I saw it, of what started in the Bauhaus in a totally different geographic, social, economic, and cultural setting. It launched a generation of creative practitioners from building buildings, to creating visual and audio art, from film to canvas, thereby strengthening everybody's ability to think, to act, and to live with an increased awareness of one's self and the community around us. My summer with Albers set in motion a long term friendship which nearly ended when upon visiting him in his New England clapboard cottage in New Haven he slammed the door in my face when I refused to take my shoes off to enter his studio.
He was right. A man of impeccable taste, of commitment sometimes beyond endurance, of brutal simplicity, minimalism was Albers. Square upon square upon square, a man devoid of pettiness, a man devoted to detail, and to human creativity, but above all, committed to his students. He made Black Mountain what it was to me, a unique point in my life, a fleeting point, but forty years of teaching have taught me how critical it was to my life, and perhaps has given me a chance to be a reasonable teacher. Learn from experience, trust your intuition. These are Albers's words. Thank you.
Presented at the Black Mountain College reunion at the De Young Museum, San Francisco. Published courtesy of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.March 7, 1992
Although Harriet Pattison was accepted to the Yale School of Drama for theater design, she was soon placed into acting and cast in a leading role in a play. While at Yale, she applied to Josef Albers’s course on color, where she reveled in the experimentation and play and Albers’s teachings about how colors “could knock you out or bore you.” Her far-ranging talents ultimately led to a successful fifty-year career as a landscape architect. She worked with leading practitioners including Modernist architect Louis Kahn and landscape architect George Patton, with whom she collaborated on the renowned design for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Harriet Pattison was interviewed by Charles A. Birnbaum in the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in June 2015. The video clip is courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. For the complete series, please visit http://tclf.org/pioneer/oral-history/harriet-pattison-oral-history.
In this film, artist and educator Anoka Faruqee has gathered firsthand accounts of Albers from his former students and colleagues, including William Bailey, Audrey Flack, Karsten Harries, Erwin Hauer, Sheila Hicks, and Richard Lytle. These reflections suggest Albers's teaching methods and ideals, while also providing a glimpse into his personality and relationships.