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DECEMBER 1 Bauhaus below the Border Charles Darwent, The World of Interiors

NOVEMBER 7 Josef and Anni Albers, passing on forms Véronique Mortaigne, Le Monde

NOVEMBER 3 Josef and Anni Albers' Latin American Road Trip Liam Freeman, AnOther

NOVEMBER 1 Anni and Josef Albers at the Mudec Marta Galli, Architectural Digest

OCTOBER 29 Exhibition Tracks an Artistic Couple's Latin American Influences Alice Rawsthorn, The New York Times

OCTOBER 28 Anni and Josef Albers and the Pleasure of Pre-Columbian Art Pac Pobric, The Art Newspaper

OCTOBER 27 Learn By Painting Louis Menand, The New Yorker

OCTOBER 1 Dream Haus Emma O'Kelly, Wallpaper*

JANUARY 22 When Bauhaus Met Lounge Music Steven Heller, The Atlantic

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Anni Albers, Monte Albán, Mexico, ca. 1939
photograph by Josef Albers

Bauhaus below the Border

One-time linchpins of Weimar's seminal school, Josef and Anni Albers fled Nazi Germany to teach in the USA. On holidays to Latin America, the couple were excited to discover that their cherished Modernist principles of form, col­our and universality had already been fully realized in pre-Columbian art. As a show opens in Milan. Charles Darwent heads south to investigate their 'promised land' of abstraction.

Think of Josef Albers's work and you will probably see squares. Think of his wife, Anni's, and it will be abstract weavings. Together, the Alberses' art leads straight to the Bauhaus. What you will very likely not think of is little clay figures, although, as it happens, you should.

In October 1933, with the Nazis in power, the couple left Berlin for Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It was, Anni said, 'a vacuum'—a word she meant nicely, a place where she and her husband could start their art again, free from expectation or influence. Two years later, they went on holiday to Mexico by car: Josef, scared of flying, had learned to drive especially. Back in the USA, he wrote about the trip to his old Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky. 'Mexico,' he wrote in amazement, 'is truly the promised land of abstract art.'

He might have been thinking of Modernist painters such as Carlos Mérida, say, but he wasn't. What the couple had found in Mexico was an abstraction far older and, to their minds, more modern. Driving to an Aztec site, they had been stopped by a boy selling a turkey wrapped in a blanket. Anni, typically, ignored the bird for the fabric. Then the boy took some fragments from a bag—pre-Columbian pottery figures, maybe dating from the time of Christ. They were the kind of object that had been made in their millions in Mexico, and for hundreds of years; things you could find buried in any field.

Josef and Anni were transfixed. Part of the Bauhaus project had been to eliminate the ego in art, the whole cult of originality. In a time of mechanical reproduction and the aesthetic it shaped, signatures and authorship were decadent luxuries. What mattered was to make objects that anyone could use, and that everyone would want to—to find a universal language of art, made up of shapes and forms and colours. Here, in Mexico, was a civilisation quite literally built on these things. Looking at the anonymous work of an indigenous artist, Anni breathed: 'We're not alone any more.'

To see what happened next, you need to go to Milan, to Mudec, the city's new Museum of Cultures. Mr. and Mrs. Albers would travel to Mexico 14 times in the two decades after their first visit, and to other Latin American countries besides. As they travelled, they collected: a hoard of Mesoamerican artifacts—which they stored, with characteristic plainness, in a cupboard in their basement in Connecticut (Josef had taken a job at Yale in 1950)—but also the images that soaked into their eyes and minds and, almost at once, into their art. These interwoven collections will be shown side by side in Milan, in an exhibition called A Beautiful Confluence.

It wasn't just how indigenous art looked that intrigued them; it was what it stood for. It was everywhere—in the soil, in the cloth, in the traditional colours and patterns of adobe houses. As with pre-Columbian pottery figures, individuality was beside the point. What counted was repetition, reiteration—what Josef, in his own art, called 'the stubbornness of working in variants'.


Josef Albers
Tlaloc, 1944
woodcut in rough pine board
15 x 14 1/2 in. (38.1 x 36.8 cm)

Josef and Anni Albers, passing on forms

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition A Beautiful Confluence: Anni and Josef Albers and the Latin American World, at Mudec, Museo delle Culture, Milan, 28 October 2015–21 February 2016. The review was published in Le Monde on 7 November 2015. The original French is below.

The city of Milan has an ethnographic museum, Mudec (Museo delle Culture), which opened to the public on October 28. Located on the site of the former factory Ansaldo in the Tortona design district, where the famous Scala installed its workshops, the Mudec has borne the brunt of decline in municipal grants. The institution had to give over management of half of its space (17,000 m2) to the private sector in the form of a twelve years leasing contract conceded to the foundation 24 ORE Cultura, the media group 24 ORE.

British architect David Chipperfield ordered the museum around a magnificent nave of opaque glass. On the left, the permanent collections and research philosophy embodied by the exhibition A Beautiful Confluence, Anni and Josef Albers and the Latin American World, i.e., the outlook on pre-Columbian art of a couple of artists from the German Bauhaus; on the right, an exhibition dedicated to Gauguin, alongside another dedicated to the iconic Barbie doll. From there to oppose the purists and dealers ...

Among the eight thousand pieces from the Mudec permanent collection, some of them, very eclectic, have been given in recent years by Milanese collectors, often contemporary art enthusiasts who are big fans of parallels between negro art and cubism, but also between the geometric rigor of pre-Columbian civilizations and abstract art. Among them, Federico Balzarotti, a wealthy Milanese from a family of bankers, who is an architect and passionate about Peruvian textiles. The Mudec inherited from him a superb Paracas weaving from the Nazca region (V-III BC). The Mudec curator, Carolina Orsini, has hung close to this ancient piece a weaving of linen and cotton, a maze of roses and orange lines created by Anni Albers (Red Meander, 1954).

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation does not own this piece, but owns all the artworks of the couple presented alongside a fascinating exhibition, A Beautiful Confluence. This show illustrates the fascination of these two contemporary artists for an ancient world. Anni and Josef Albers met at the Bauhaus school of art and applied art in Weimar, in 1922, where they first were students, and then became "masters." In 1933, after the Bauhaus moved to Berlin, the school is closed by the Nazi regime, which sees in it, a perfect example of "degenerate art." The couple immigrated to the United States. Josef Albers became a professor at Black Mountain College, a free university of Asheville (North Carolina).

They visited Mexico for the first time in 1934. Fourteen trips to South America between 1934 and 1967 had a profound effect on their formal work. Josef Albers (1888–1976) was a painter of geometry, series, and reproduction, pioneer of optical art and the interaction of colors. Anni (1899–1994) was one of the leading figures of weaving, an art developed at the Bauhaus—the Bauhaus community preached the blurring of boundaries between art and crafts, consequently integrating architecture, design, weaving in its teachings.

Collages and juxtapositions

Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee also went to the Bauhaus, a school that adulated simple, functional form; the Alberses found similarities between this contemporary philosophy which they had helped to disseminate, and artworks of Aztec artisans or Incas. Josef Albers took numerous photographs of the Inca walls of Cuzco and Machu Picchu, and explored the mysterious pyramids of Teotihuacan Mexican site. The Alberses began to collect: Anni the weavings, Josef the Chupicuaro statuettes (400 B.C. to 200 A.D., in central Mexico). One hundred and eighty objects in this collection are presented here, and the Mudec lent eleven more. "Josef was fascinated by series, by the richness of the reproduction of almost identical figures, yet never the same. He had almost a thousand pre-Columbian objects," says Nicholas Fox Weber, director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. "He painted as many squares." In fact, Josef Albers began his series Homage to the Square in 1949 and continued until his death. It raised the question of the color interaction and "of training the eyes to the disparity and repetition."

Still reeling from the devastating effects of war and discrimination, Josef and Anni Albers looked for constants capable of uniting men, says Nicholas Fox Weber, curator of the exhibition. The geometric designs, the rigor of architecture or of pre-Columbian weavings have permeated a kind of "artistic subconscious." Hence the chronological liberty taken here. Sometimes, the exhibition demonstrated the direct link between what the Alberses saw and photographed in Latin America and their creations. Thus, beautiful walls photographs made by Josef in 1954 at Sacsayhuaman, near Cuzco in Peru, are juxtaposed with two serigraphs, Wall VII, made in a shaking hand by Anni Albers, weakened by illness, in 1984. Also a photograph of a facade, Window of an Adobe House, taken in Oaxaca in 1937, clings to the sides of a painting with identical rectangular figures painted by Josef Albers (Variant/Adobe, Familiar Front, 1948–1952).

Josef Albers improved his photographs by collages and juxtapositions, hence establishing relations between these anonymous architects. A set of photos in black and white of Navajo rugs, North America (1938), directly inspired an oil on wood panel, Movement in Gray, painted the following year. The designs are identical. The confluence is clearly visible.

At other times, Nicholas Fox Weber himself forced the comparison to demonstrate the existence of matches in which artists could not have been aware. This dynamic director, who is also developing a large project of artistic and charitable residency in Senegal (the project "Thread" in the Tambacounda region), bought at the British fair PAD a small coca leaf bag made of colored squares in hummingbird feathers from the pre-Inca Huari/Wari civilization of Peru. The work reminded him of a series of eight Colors Studies in square color gradient. Following this "magic of coincidences," the director of the Albers Foundation also dug at the Galerie Mermoz in Paris a beautiful Huari/Wari belt, again in hummingbird feathers, and still a wonder; he put it next to Layered, a picture painted in 1940.

This Beautiful Confluence ultimately underlines the profound influence of Josef Albers on the painting of his time, and the pleasure that this German artist took in traveling to the South. In a shop window are shown travel documents—a Spanish language method, guides, pictures with the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886–1957), a letter from the Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902–1988), defender of emotional architecture ... The crossings and confluences began early. In 1936, Albers exhibited sixteen engravings in Mexico City, in the hallway of El Nacional, the newspaper in which wrote the poet Antonin Artaud, who went searching "the lost soul" of the great indigenous cultures.

Josef et Anni Albers, passeurs de formes

La ville de Milan s'est dotée d'un musée d'ethnographie, le Mudec (Museo delle Culture), qui a ouvert au public le 28 octobre. Situé sur le site de l'ancienne usine Ansaldo dans le quartier dudesign de Tortona, où la célébrissime Scala a installé ses ateliers, le Mudec a subi de plein fouet la baisse des subventions municipales. L'institution a dû confier la gestion de la moitié de son espace (17 000 m2) au secteur privé, sous la forme d'un contrat de leasing de douze ans concédé à la fondation 24 ORE Cultura, du groupe de médias 24 ORE.

L'architecte britannique David Chipperfield a ordonné l'ensemble autour d'une magnifique nef de verre opaque. A gauche, les collections permanentes et la philosophie de la recherche, incarnée par l'exposition « A Beautiful Confluence, Anni and Josef Albers and the Latin American World », soit le regard d'un couple d'artistes issus du Bauhaus allemand sur l'art précolombien; à droite, une exposition consacrée à Gauguin, qui en côtoie une autre, dédiée à l'iconique poupée Barbie. De là à opposer les puristes et les marchands . . .

Certaines des huit mille pièces, très hétéroclites, de la collection permanente du Mudec ont été données ces dernières années par des collectionneurs milanais, souvent amateurs d'art contemporain, friands de parallèles entre art nègre et cubisme, mais aussi entre la rigueur géométrique des civilisations précolombiennes et l'art abstrait. Parmi eux, Federico Balzarotti, un riche Milanais issu d'une famille de banquiers, architecte et passionné de textiles péruviens. Le Mudec a hérité de lui un superbe tissage des Paracas de la région de Nazca (V-IIIe avant J.-C.). Carolina Orsini, conservatrice du Mudec, a accroché tout près de cette pièce ancienne un tissage de lin et de coton, labyrinthe de traits roses et orange, créé par Anni Albers (Red Meander, 1954).

La Fondation Josef and Anni Albers n'est pas propriétaire de cette pièce, mais elle l'est de toutes les œuvres du couple présentées à côté dans une passionnante exposition, « A Beautiful Confluence ». Celle-ci illustre la fascination de ces deux artistes contemporains pour un monde ancien. Anni et Josef Albers se sont connus en 1922 au Bauhaus, l'école d'art et d'artsappliqués de Weimar, où ils furent élèves, puis « maîtres ». En 1933, le Bauhaus qui a déménagé à Berlin, est fermé par le régime nazi, qui y voit un parfait exemple de « l'art dégénéré ». Le couple émigre aux Etats-Unis. Josef Albers devient professeur au Black Mountain College, une université libre d'Asheville (Caroline du Nord).

Ils visitent le Mexique une première fois en 1934. Ils effectueront quatorze voyages en Amérique du Sud de 1934 à 1967, ce qui déterminera profondément leur travail formel. Josef Albers (1888–1976) fut un peintre de la géométrie, des séries et de la reproduction, initiateur de l'art optique et de l'interaction des couleurs. Anni (1899–1994) fut l'une des figures phares du tissage, un art développé au Bauhaus—la communauté Bauhaus prêchait l'effacement des frontières entre art et artisanat, intégrant l'architecture, le design, et le tissage donc, à ses enseignements.

Collages et juxtapositions

Le Bauhaus, une école où étaient aussi passés Vassily Kandinsky et Paul Klee, adulait les formes simples, fonctionnelles, et les Albers trouvèrent des similitudes entre cette philosophie contemporaine qu'ils avaient contribué à diffuser et les œuvres d'artisans aztèques ou incas. Josef Albers photographia en abondance les murailles incas de Cuzco et du Machu Picchu, parcourut les mystérieuses pyramides du site mexicain de Teotihuacan. Ils se mirent à collectionner, elle les tissages, lui les statuettes Chupicuaro (400 av. J.-C. et 200 apr. J.-C., au centredu Mexique). Cent quatre-vingts objets de cette collection sont ici présentés, et le Mudec en a prêté onze autres. « Josef était fasciné par les séries, par la richesse de la reproduction de figurines presque identiques, mais jamais pareilles. Il possédait près de mille objets précolombiens, explique Nicholas Fox Weber, directeur de la Fondation Anni et Josef Albers. Il avait peint autant de carrés. » De fait, Josef Albers avait commencé sa série Hommage au carré en 1949 et la poursuivit jusqu'à sa mort. S'y posait la question de l'interaction des couleurs et « de l'entraînement des yeux à la disparité et à la répétition ».

Encore sous le coup des effets dévastateurs de la guerre et des discriminations, Josef et Anni Albers ont cherché les constantes capables d'unir les hommes, estime Nicholas Fox Weber, commissaire de l'exposition. Les dessins géométriques, la rigueur de l'architecture ou des tissages précolombiens ont imprégné une sorte de « subconscient artistique ». D'où la liberté chronologique prise ici. Parfois, l'exposition fait la démonstration du lien direct existant entre ce que les Albers ont vu et photographié en Amérique latine et leurs créations. Ainsi, de très belles photographies de murs réalisées par Josef en 1954 à Sacsayhuaman, près de Cuzco au Pérou, sont juxtaposées à deux sérigraphies, Wall VII, réalisées dans un geste tremblé en 1984 par Anni Albers affaiblie par la maladie. Ou aussi la photographie d'une façade, Window of an Adobe House, prise à Oaxaca en 1937, accrochée aux côtés d'un tableau aux figures identiquement rectangulaires peint par Josef Albers (Variant/Adobe, Familiar Front, 1948–1952).

Josef Albers requalifiait ses photos par des collages et juxtapositions, établissant des relations entre ces architectes anonymes. Un ensemble de photos en noir et blanc de tapis Navajo, d'Amérique du Nord (1938) a frontalement inspiré une huile sur panneau de bois, Movement in Gray peinte l'année suivante. Les dessins sont identiques. La confluence devient évidence.

A d'autres moments, c'est Nicholas Fox Weber qui a forcé la comparaison, afin de démontrer l'existence de correspondances dont les artistes n'avaient pas pu avoir connaissance. Ce dynamique directeur, qui développe également un vaste projet de résidence artistique et caritatif au Sénégal (le projet « Thread », dans la région de Tambacounda), a acheté à la foire britannique PAD un petit sac à feuilles de coca provenant de la civilisation pré-incaïque Huari du Pérou, des carrés de couleur en plumes de colibri. L'ouvrage lui rappelait une série de huit Colors Studies, en carrés de couleur en dégradé. Suivant cette « magie des coïncidences », le directeur de la fondation Albers a aussi dégoté à la Galerie Mermoz à Paris une très belle ceinture Huari toujours, en colibri encore, une merveille, et l'a mise en regard d'un tableau peint en 1940, Layered.

Ce « Beautiful Confluence » souligne in fine l'importance de Josef Albers sur la peinture de son temps et le plaisir que cet artiste allemand avait à voyager au Sud. Dans une vitrine, sont montrés des documents de voyage—une méthode d'espagnol, des guides, des photos avec le peintre mexicain Diego Rivera (1886–1957), une lettre de l'architecte mexicain Luis Barragan (1902–1988), chantre de l'architecture émotionnelle... Les croisements et les confluences commencèrent tôt. En 1936, Albers exposait seize gravures à Mexico, dans le vestibule d'El Nacional, le quotidien où écrivait le poète Antonin Artaud, parti à la recherche de « l'âme perdue » des grandes cultures indigènes.


Josef Albers
Layered, 1940
oil on masonite
23 1/2 x 28 in. (59.7 x 71.1 cm)

Josef and Anni Albers' Latin American Road Trip

An impromptu drive to Mexico sparked a passionate, lifelong love affair between the pioneering art duo and Latin American culture—as evidenced in a vibrant new exhibition.

In December 1935, Josef and Anni Albers—artists, designers, educators and pioneers of 20th-century modernism—drove 2000 miles from their adopted home of North Carolina to Mexico. The 13 months they spent there kindled a lifelong affinity with the country, and saw them return 14 times, extending through Peru, Chile and Argentina in later years. The art of Central and South America would prove to be a pivotal source of inspiration for the Albers duo—a creative dialogue which is explored in the exhibition A Beautiful Confluence, which opens at the Museo delle Culture in Milan this week.

Josef Albers and Anni Fleischmann first met at the illustrious Bauhaus art school in 1922. The impoverished son of a craftsman from the West German town of Bottrop, Josef enrolled to study painting and (in his words) "throw everything out of the window and start life all over again". His anarchism and aptitude for a variety of crafts, from photography to furniture design, soon caught the attention of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, who, alongside the school's masters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky promoted him to their ranks. Anni, on the other hand, hailed from an aristocratic Berlin family, and entered the Bauhaus weaving workshop as it was the only course available to women. Limited options, however, proved to be a cause for innovation for the young artist, who would transcend the limitations placed upon women of her era to become one of the most eminent artists of the 20th century in tandem with her husband. In time, Anni became the first textile artist to have a solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Josef the first living artist to be given a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.

The couple married in 1925 and the Bauhaus continued to be their base until Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Rather than see the institution succumb to Nazi totalitarianism, Josef and the Masters decided to close it, and the Alberses fled to America. "We were always happy to move on. We liked adventure: new ways." Josef and Anni once told Nicholas Fox Weber, the curator of A Beautiful Confluence. Their outlook, combined with the prospect of being closer to Latin America, transposed upheaval into opportunity.

The Alberses' exploration of the continent, from their first trip to Mexico in 1935, through to their last in 1967, coincided with the excavation of the pre-Christian epoch which was occurring for the first time. Josef and Anni had entered a world where, as they said, "art is everywhere". They felt an immediate kinship with the anonymous stone masons, potters and weavers, many of whom had lived and created centuries ago, for their mutual appreciation of colour, line and artisan techniques. The Alberses documented their travels by sketching, writing and taking notes, and despite their limited funds amassed a significant collection of pre-Columbian art. A cross-section of these artefacts are displayed in A Beautiful Confluence alongside the Alberses' art that the pieces inspired: the colours used in a swatch of Wari fabric are explored in Josef's oil painting Variant/Adobe Familiar Front, and the marks etched into a Argilla clay bowl clearly fuelled the pattern for Anni's weaving Triadic I DR I, laying bare the Alberses' reactivity to the world they inhabited and Josef's philosophy that "'doing something' elates more than 'knowing something.'"


Josef Albers
Familiar Front, 1948–52
oil on masonite
13 3/4 x 21 in. (33 x 53.3 cm)

Anni and Josef Albers at the Mudec

This is the English translation of a review of the exhibition A Beautiful Confluence: Anni and Josef Albers and the Latin American World, at Mudec, Museo delle Culture, Milan, 28 October 2015–21 February 2016. The review was published in the Italian online edition of Architectural Digest on 1 November 2015. The original Italian is below.

For Josef Albers and his wife Anni, primitive cultures were not only a great passion that blossomed in their visits to museums in Berlin and that they cultivated in their travels in Latin America but also a rich and specific source of inspiration, in both formal and conceptual terms. An interesting perspective is currently offered by the exhibition A Beautiful Confluence: Anni and Josef Albers and the Latin American World, at the Museo delle Culture in Milan.

Anni, one of the greatest textile artists of the twentieth century, and Josef, a fundamental figure for abstract art, met at the Bauhaus, which in the early years of the century was the center of the creative world and from which emanated the period's principal innovations. The school was shut down by the Third Reich in 1933, and the couple emigrated from Germany to the United States where, in fourteen trips to Latin America (including Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Chile), they came into contact with the cultures that previously they had appreciated from afar, and they could finally admire in person the intriguing autochthonous craftwork that prolonged the same model ad infinitum.

Inspired by that almost ritual repetitiveness, which he observed in particular in collecting Chupícuaro statuettes (of which he acquired 283, all of them nearly identical), beginning in 1950, in the series Homage to the Square, Josef Albers developed the pictorial motif for which we all remember him today and which has made his work iconic.

The show, curated by Nicholas Fox Weber, director of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, begins where the exhibition of the permanent collection devoted to twentieth-century holdings ends, with a completely natural transition. Anonymously manufactured articles like embroideries, fragments of tunics, jewelry, and small tools are juxtaposed with the paintings, drawings, and textiles created by Josef and Anni Albers, in which the echoes of Mexican architecture and Mayan geometric motifs are evident. The exhibition is also richly documented with photographs that present the couple among the remains of the civilizations that had so captivated them.

Anni e Josef Albers al Mudec

A Milano il Mudec celebra la confluenza delle culture primitive nell'arte dei coniugi Albers nel XX secolo.

Le culture primitive furono per Josef Albers e sua moglie Anni non solo una grande passione sbocciata tra i musei a Berlino e coltivata in viaggio per l'America latina, ma una fonte ricca e concreta d'ispirazione, formale e concettuale. Un'interessante prospettiva che ci viene raccontata oggi attraverso la mostra A Beautiful Confluence: Anni e Josef Albers e l'America Latina, al Museo delle Culture di Milano.

Una delle più grandi artiste tessili del XX secolo lei, un artista fondamentale per l'astrattismo lui, Anni e Josef s'incontrarono in quel che all'inizio del '900 era il centro del mondo della creatività da cui si sarebbero irradiate le principali innovazioni dell'epoca: il Bauhaus. Venne chiuso del Terzo Reich nel 1933 e i coniugi emigrarono dalla Germania negli Stati Uniti, dove, attraverso quattordici viaggi tra Cuba, Messico, Perù e Cile entrarono in contatto con quelle culture che avevano un tempo apprezzato da lontano, potendo finalmente ammirare da vicino il lavoro artigiano autoctono, intrigante e procrastinato seguendo lo stesso modello all'infinito.

Convinto da questa ripetitività quasi rituale, che in particolare osservò raccogliendo figurine Chupicuaro (ne acquisì 283, tutte pressoché identiche), Josef Albers elaborò dal 1950 il motivo per cui lo ricordiamo tutt'oggi, la serie Omaggi al Quadrato, che ha reso il suo lavoro iconico.

La mostra, curata da Nicholas Fox Weber, direttore della Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, inizia laddove termina l'esposizione della collezione permanente dedicata alle collezioni del '900, con una transizione del tutto naturale. Manufatti anonimi come ricami, frammenti di tunica, gioielli e piccoli utensili sono giustapposti ai dipinti, i disegni, le creazioni tessili di Josef e Anni Albers e sono evidenti i richiami all'architettura messicana o alle geometrie dei Maya. In mostra anche una ricca documentazione fotografica che ritrae i coniugi tra i resti delle civiltà da cui furono sedotti.


Josef and Anni Albers in 1935

Exhibition Tracks an Artistic Couple's Latin American Influences

This is a review of the exhibition A Beautiful Confluence: Anni and Josef Albers and the Latin American World, at Mudec, Museo delle Culture, Milan, 28 October 2015–21 February 2016. The review was published in The New York Times on 29 October 2015.

When the designer Anni Albers was driving through Mexico with her artist husband, Josef, and two friends in 1935, a boy carrying a goat approached their car and pleaded with her to buy it. She passed on the goat, but asked if she could purchase the old blanket it was wrapped in. The boy agreed, and offered to sell a clay figurine too.

The Alberses bought them both for a few pesos, and took them back to their home in North Carolina as the beginning of what would become an extensive collection of Latin American art and craft. They returned to Mexico 13 times over the next 40 years, sometimes staying as long as six months, and traveled to Argentina, Chile and Peru, always searching for antique textiles and ceramics, as well as contemporary pieces by local artisans.

The influence of the Alberses' lovingly assembled pre-Columbian collection on Anni's textile designs and Josef's paintings is explored in "A Beautiful Confluence: Anni and Josef Albers and the Latin American World," an exhibition at MUDEC, the Museum of Culture that opened in the Tortona area of Milan this week. Running through March 13, it combines the Alberses' own work — which established Josef as one of the most influential abstract painters of the 20th century and Anni as a modernizing force in textiles — with the Latin American objects that inspired it, and related pieces from the museum's ethnography collection.

"Anni and Josef were fascinated by the idea of people living in totally different cultures in totally different time periods loving the same colors and forms as them," said Nicholas Fox Weber, who curated the exhibition. "They had no money," he added, "but as they always said: 'All it takes to collect is a good eye.'"

"A Beautiful Confluence" is the most modest, but most intriguing of the inaugural shows at MUDEC. (The others are devoted to Paul Gaugin and Barbie.) The museum opened on Wednesday as part of the revival of Milan's cultural scene during Expo 2015, the gargantuan world's fair, which ends on Saturday after six months. The preparations for Expo were haunted by corruption scandals and construction delays, and the critical response was largely negative, but the fair proved very popular, selling more than 20 million tickets before its final two weeks.

Several new cultural institutions opened in Milan last spring at the same time as Expo, including Armani/Silos, a museum housing the fashion designer Giorgio Armani's archive in a renovated 1950s industrial building near MUDEC, and Fondazione Prada, a contemporary art center financed by the eponymous fashion group and designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Unlike them, MUDEC only managed to coincide with the last three days of Expo after a tortuous process of planning and construction that took 12 years and cost 60 million euros, about $65 million. The British architect David Chipperfield, who designed the museum, clashed publicly with Milan City Council, which funds it, when he complained vociferously about the quality of its construction, especially the floor. A commission is now investigating the matter. Despite the mismatched stones and other flaws in the floor, some elements of the building—particularly a spectacular, sinuously curved wall around the galleries—share the grace and subtlety of Mr. Chipperfield's other projects.

Amid the acrimony, "A Beautiful Confluence" is a gentle reminder of what museums are for, particularly one like MUDEC, whose objective is to explore the relationships between cultures and which houses the city of Milan's civic ethnography collection. Occupying two galleries within the museum, the show includes more than 130 works by the Alberses and more than 150 Latin American artifacts.

Long before their first Mexican trip in 1935, the Alberses had been fascinated by pre-Columbian art and craft, made between the 2nd century B.C. and the early 1500s, having admired the Latin American artifacts in museums in their native Germany. The couple met there in 1922 when Anni, who came from a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, enrolled as a student at the Bauhaus art and design school. Josef, whose father was a casual laborer, had taught at the Bauhaus since it opened in 1920, arriving too broke to afford painting materials. When Anni introduced him to her parents, she insisted on buying him a suit.

After marrying in 1925, they remained at the Bauhaus until it closed in 1933 when the Nazis, who regarded the school as subversive, took power. By then, Josef was renowned as a gifted artist and teacher, as was Anni as an innovative textile designer. Fearful of the consequences of remaining in Nazi Germany, especially for his Jewish wife, Josef accepted an invitation to run the art department at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. They sailed to the United States that autumn.

The Alberses helped to establish Black Mountain as the most radical art and design school of the 1930s and 1940s, while making regular trips to Mexico. Friends like Clara Porset, a Cuban designer who had attended a Black Mountain summer school and married the Mexican artist Xavier Guerrero, took them on craft tours of the country as they added more pre-Columbian treasures to their collection. They continued their Mexican visits after 1950, when they moved to Connecticut, where Josef accepted a post at Yale University, and traveled throughout Latin America.

After Josef's death in 1976, Anni, who lived until 1994, took Mr. Weber, who is also the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, into the basement of her home. "There was the washer and dryer as in any 'Leave It to Beaver' American house, and a cheap closet," he recalled. "Inside the closet were over a thousand pre-Columbian objects, among them trays and trays of clay figurines."

Several dozen of those figurines are displayed at MUDEC, alongside ancient fabrics and pots, antique beads and Josef's photographs of the couple's travels. Anni's prized antique Peruvian laces are placed in a vitrine beside a drawing of hers in a delicately spindly style inspired by them. Josef's paint tests and a small selection of the hundreds of variations he made of his most famous painting "Homage to the Square" are exhibited next to a 10th-century feathered bag in similarly intense hues. These juxtapositions illustrate the importance of the Alberses' collection to their work.

Both Alberses loved the vibrant colors of their acquisitions, as well as their repetitive, geometric forms. They also admired the ingenuity of pre-Columbian artisans in working with meager materials. Josef liked to paint on cheap wooden board, preferring its hard surface to canvas, while Anni incorporated paper and cellophane into her weaving, and made jewelry from corks, washers and paper clips.

And when Anni published her book "On Weaving" in 1965, she paid a formal tribute to some of her favorite pre-Columbian artisans by dedicating it to "my great teachers, the weavers of ancient Peru."


Anni Albers
Two, 1952
linen, cotton, rayon
18 1/2 x 40 1/4 in. (47 x 102.2 cm)

Anni and Josef Albers and the Pleasure of Pre-Columbian Art

The exiled artists' collection, built during many visits to Latin America, reveals parallels with their own work

An exhibition at the recently opened Museo delle Culture in Milan looks at how the German-born American artists Anni and Josef Albers digested Latin American art. The show includes more than 130 works by the couple and 150 artefacts from pre-Columbian Latin America, including many that belonged to the Albers.

Between 1934 and 1967, after Anni and Josef escaped from Nazi Germany to the US, they made 14 trips to Latin America, visiting Chile, Cuba, Mexico and Peru. Along the way, they collected hundreds of textiles and figurines. In pre-Columbian art they saw parallels with their own work, which exalted simplicity as a virtue, says the show's curator, Nicholas Fox Weber, who is also the director of the Albers Foundation. "Anni told me that for them, in Mexico, art was everywhere," he says.

While installing the show, Weber says he came to understand more deeply the values that Anni and Josef held dear. "I put a drawing of Anni's next to a tiny textile sample bought in Peru probably 50 years ago, and I sensed the rapport she would have felt with the artist, who lived 100 years before she did and spoke another language," he says. "The words Anni used more than any others were 'universal' and 'timeless'."

Weber says these values remain the enduring legacy of the work of Anni and Josef. "I'm hoping that anyone will walk into [the show] and feel a sense of what it is that people have in common, as simple as this sounds," he says. "Whatever someone's life experience, colour, line, space and seeing can be lasting sources of joy."

Costs for the exhibition have been covered by the museum and the Anni and Josef Albers Foundation.


Anni Albers
Knot, 1947
gouache on paper
17 × 20 in. (43.2 × 51 cm)

Learn By Painting

One thing to keep in mind if you visit (and, if you are in Boston, you should visit) the Institute of Contemporary Art's huge exhibition Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933–1957—more than two hundred and sixty works by almost a hundred artists, curated by Helen Molesworth, the biggest show the I.C.A. has ever mounted—is that Black Mountain College was not an artists' community or a writers' colony, or even an art school. It was a college.

A very small college. Black Mountain was launched in the Depression, and for twenty-four years it led a hand-to-mouth existence in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, outside Asheville, North Carolina. In a good year, enrollment was sixty. When at last the money dried up, the college shut its doors. But to the extent that finances permitted, and depending on who was available to teach, it offered a full liberal education. Students could take courses in science, mathematics, history, economics, languages, and literature.

What made Black Mountain different from other colleges was that the center of the curriculum was art-making. Students studied pretty much whatever they wanted, but everyone was supposed to take a class in some kind of artistic practice—painting, weaving, sculpture, pottery, poetry, architecture, design, dance, music, photography. The goal was not to produce painters, poets, and architects. It was to produce citizens.

Black Mountain was founded by a renegade classics professor named John Andrew Rice, who had been kicked out of Rollins College, in Florida. Rice believed that making something is a different learning experience from remembering something. A lot of education is reception. You listen to an expert explain a subject to you, and then you repeat back what you heard to show that you learned it. Teachers push students to engage actively with the material, but it's easy to be passive, to absorb the information and check off the box.

Rice thought that this made for bad social habits. Democracy is about making choices, and people need to take ownership of their choices. We don't want to vote the way someone else tells us to. We want to vote based on beliefs we have chosen for ourselves. Making art is making choices. Art-making is practice democracy.

Rice did not think of art-making as therapy or self-expression. He thought of it as mental training. As anyone who has tried to write a poem knows, the discipline in art-making is exercised from within rather than without. You quickly realize that it's your own laziness, ignorance, and sloppiness, not somebody else's bad advice, that are getting in your way. No one can write your poem for you. You have to figure out a way to write it yourself. You have to make a something where there was a nothing.

A lot of Rice's ideas came from the educational philosophy of John Dewey (although the idea that true learning has to come from within goes back to Plato), and Rice was lucky to find an art teacher who had read Dewey and who thought the same way. This was Josef Albers. Albers had not been so lucky. He was an original member of the Bauhaus school, but when Hitler came to power, in 1933, the Bauhaus closed down rather than accept Nazi professors. Albers's wife, Anni, was from a prominent Jewish family, and they were understandably anxious to get out of Germany. Rice heard about them from the architect Philip Johnson, and he sent a telegram to Albers inviting him and his wife to come teach at Black Mountain. The reply read: "I speak not one word English." (Albers had read his Dewey in translation.) Rice told him to come anyway. Albers eventually did learn English, and he and Anni, an accomplished and creative weaver, established the mode of art instruction at Black Mountain. Everything would be hands-on, collaborative, materials-based, and experimental.

Bauhaus was all about abolishing distinctions between craft, or design, and fine art, and Black Mountain was one of the places where this aesthetic entered the world of American art. (Another was the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in Pittsburgh, where Andy Warhol went to college.) Albers's most famous (although probably not his favorite) student at Black Mountain was Robert Rauschenberg, and Rauschenberg is the presiding spirit at the I.C.A. exhibition. Although goofier than most Black Mountain art—there is an earnestness about a lot of the work; this was schoolwork, after all—putting an automobile tire around a stuffed goat is the essence of Black Mountain practice.

Black Mountain College was a holistic learning environment. Teachers and students worked together; people who came to teach (and who stayed—not everyone found the work conditions to their liking) sat in on one another's classes and ended up learning as much as the students. When a new building needed to be constructed, students and teachers built it themselves, just as, at the old Dewey School, at the University of Chicago, the children grew their own food and cooked their own meals.

It seems as though half the midcentury American avant-garde came through Black Mountain in one capacity or the other. The I.C.A. exhibition includes works by (besides Rauschenberg and the Alberses) Ruth Asawa, John Cage, John Chamberlain, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Shoji Hamada, Lou Harrison, Ray Johnson, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Charles Olson, Ben Shahn, David Tudor, and Cy Twombly. Black Mountain produced art of almost every kind.

Did it also produce good citizens? That's an educational outcome everyone embraces but that's hard to measure. In the case of Black Mountain, the sample size is miniscule, and most students left before graduating. There is also the self-selection issue. People who choose to attend progressive colleges are already progressive-minded, just as people who want a liberal education are usually already liberal (meaning interested in knowledge for its own sake), and people who prefer vocational or pre-professional education are already headed down those roads. College choice tends to confirm prior effects of socialization. But why keep those things separate? Knowing and doing are two sides of the same activity, which is adapting to our environment. That was Dewey's point.

People who teach in the traditional liberal-arts fields today are sometimes aghast at the avidity with which undergraduates flock to courses in tech fields, like computer science. Maybe those students see dollar signs in coding. Why shouldn't they? Right now, tech is where value is being created, as they say. But maybe students are also excited to take courses in which knowing and making are part of the same learning process. Those tech courses are hands-on, collaborative, materials-based (well, virtual materials), and experimental—a digital Black Mountain curriculum. The other liberal-arts fields might take notice. Arts practice should be part of everyone's education, not just in preschool.


Interior view of Trunk at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 2015. Photo: Chris Kendall

Dream Haus

A new gallery in rural Connecticut showcases the visionary work of Bauhaus masters Josef and Anni Albers

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany is one of Connecticut's best-kept secrets. Nestled in the woods, it's a magnet for pilgrims of the Bauhaus keen to learn more about the German émigrés who were among the school's brightest students. Featuring paintings, furniture and textiles produced by the pair throughout their long careers, the foundation has now put on permanent display never-seen-before furniture and textiles, accumulated over the past 40 years.

They appear in a new, barn-like building designed by Irish architect Eoghan Hoare, in collaboration with local architect of record Hunter Smith and Albers foundation artist and facilities manager, Fritz Horstman, a stone's throw from the foundation's headquarters. The existing campus includes a library, archives and studios for visiting artists, all designed by one of Albers's former students, Tim Prentice, and his partner Lo-Yi Chan. The new 3,000 sq ft space is christened Trunk, in honour of Trunck & Co, the Berlin-based furniture business owned by Anni's father. When Anni died in 1994, the company was sold and the proceeds enabled the foundation's director Nicholas Fox Weber to purchase the 75-acre site near where the Alberses had lived and set about preserving their legacy.

Weber called upon Hoare, a young graduate, after meeting him at a dinner party in Ireland. "Josef was the son of a builder/maker and craftsmanship was very important to him. If he had to pick between an Armani-clad architect espousing theories about dialectics, or one who had his sleeves rolled up and a hammer in his hand, you know where he would have turned," says Weber. Hoare, who has made furniture with master craftsmen in rural Japan and built kindergartens in Borneo, got the job.

Hoare based his design on the tobacco barns that dot this part of New England. He battled poison ivy and freezing winter temperatures to clear the site that would become a gallery, showroom and education centre, open by appointment only to curators, manufacturers and students. "Galleries and museums can come and select pieces for shows, so the building is very much designed around the function of storing, moving and acclimatizing pieces," says Hoare.

Almost 40 works make up the display. Some, such as a reproduction fireplace made for a private house in Connecticut, have not been seen since they were put into storage after the Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in 2007. Others are acquisitions from the estate of Fritz and Anno Moellenhoff, émigré friends of the Alberses. Both couples fled from Germany to North Carolina, and from 1933 to 1949, Josef taught at Black Mountain College. At the same time, he designed stacking tables, desks, beds, armchairs and ottomans for the Moellenhoffs, along with his masterpiece—a dining room console that is at The Art Institute of Chicago. All were made at Trunck & Co. Ten of Anni's woven tapestries and around 20 of her textiles are here too, among them pieces she made for the architect Philip Johnson (a lifelong friend, he helped the Alberses emigrate to the US in 1933), as well as newer designs now manufactured by Sunar, Knoll and Maharam.

A highlight is the Director's Waiting Room, a replica of a waiting room that Josef designed for outside Walter Gropius' office at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1923—Josef was put in charge of the school's glass workshop in 1922, the year Anni enrolled as a student. A row of seats, a light, a stained glass window, bookshelves, a corner cabinet and table that made up the original space have been reproduced exactly, over ten years, by Berlin-based carpenter Justus Binroth.

"It is tranquil, correct and workman-like, all values Josef believed in," says Weber. At the other end of the building is a reproduction of his first stained glass window, created in 1918 for St Michael's Church in his hometown of Bottrop, Germany. "Getting all these works back on display was long overdue," says Weber.

By the 1960s, a string of professorships, teaching posts and shows across the US had led the Alberses to be seen as creative royalty. Charles and Ray Eames were friends, as was Johnson, "although Josef couldn't stand his late architecture," says Weber. "He visited the Glass House and proclaimed that Johnson didn't know how to turn corners," he chuckles. "If you visit it, you see he had a point." Despite rubbing shoulders with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, Josef didn't believe in architect-built houses. "He said none of them, with their flat roofs, knew how to build in Connecticut," says Weber. Instead, the couple lived in New Haven in a plain house where Josef worked in the basement, Anni upstairs. "Visitors, including myself, were shocked by how unsightly it was," he adds.

Weber first met the Alberses in 1970 when he was doing a master's in art history at Yale. Fifty years Anni's junior, he became a lifelong friend to the couple and stayed close after Josef died in 1976. "He left the foundation two glass-top tables and not much else," says Weber, whose acquisition of the couple's works and preservation of their legacy has been tireless and fruitful. In February, a new Albers Foundation opened in Senegal in the remote village of Sinthian. In October, a show of their collection of pre-Columbian objects, assembled during sabbaticals in Mexico, will open at Mudec Museo delle Culture in Milan. (It was in Mexico in 1947 that Josef painted the Variant series, which evokes the domestic adobe architecture of the country, and Anni created her La Luz series of textiles.) The exhibition includes paintings, textiles, drawings, sculptures, lithographs and more than 20 photographs and photo-collages that have never been seen before.

Manufacturers, too, have been scouting around Trunk. Weber plans to have many of these newly visible Albers pieces put into production, alongside classics such as the nesting tables, produced by Ameico. "His furniture is beautiful, comforting and functional. Josef understood proportion and materials better than anyone. We want to get it right."

Published in Wallpaper magazine, October 2015. A copy of the article is available here (pdf).

Josef Albers
Album cover for Persuasive Percussion, Vol. 3, 1960
offset lithograph
Josef Albers
Album cover for Terry Snyder and the All Stars, Persuasive Percussion, 1959
offset lithograph
Josef Albers
Album cover for Enoch Light and the Light Brigade, Provocative Percussion, 1959
offset lithograph
Josef Albers
Album cover for Enoch Light and the Light Brigade, Provocative Percussion, Vol. 2, 1960
offset lithograph

When Bauhaus Met Lounge Music

An art experience revisits the flash-in-the-pan symbiosis between modernist master Josef Albers and an easy-listening 1960s record label

When the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus school in 1933 and prompted a mass exodus of its staff members to other countries, America gained one of its foremost instructors, Josef Albers. After his emigration the modernist artist and designer had a profound influence on the theory and practice of art and design—through his influential book Interaction of Color, but also in his classes at Black Mountain College, where he was the head of the art department, and Yale University, where he oversaw the department of design through an overhaul in curriculum in favor of rigorous exercises and an emphasis on detail.

Albers instructed students until he left academia to pursue his own work in 1958, but his influence continues to resonate with younger generations. Nitzan Hermon, the founder and creative director of the communication and technology studio VVVVVV, counts himself as one of these younger followers. It was Hermon who conceived and realized the upcoming visual and art exhibition Albers in Command, an experience that highlights Albers's work on Bauhausian precisionist album covers and the cool 1960s lounge music they were designed to encase.

The project came about when Hermon discovered a set of rare album sleeves that Albers designed for Command Records and became fascinated with how the artist's minimalist abstract geometric aesthetic dovetailed with the style of the music. The covers represent a collaboration between Albers and the record label's co-founders Enoch Light and George Schwager, a nexus of design and audio that resonated with Hermon, who realized that there was a narrative worth exploring. Hermon also recognized that this kind of work was rare for Albers: To his knowledge, this is the only commercial art Albers produced in his lifetime aside from a cover for the book accompanying MoMA's 1934 exhibit Machine Art.

Command Records was established in 1959 with the goal of releasing "conservative orchestral and easy listening music," according to Hermon. Toward the end of the 1960s, however, co-founder Light started experimenting with stereo and other technologies—amongst other projects, he recorded optical sound on 35mm film—in order to create new ways of experiencing recordings in home environments. Around this time, Command's art director Charles Murphy introduced Light to Albers, who had just left his post at Yale. A partnership formed between the two, who would become essential in conveying Command's new, unconventional direction via design. Together Light and Albers produced seven covers—for Provocative Percussion I, II and III, Persuasive Percussion I and III, Pictures at an Exhibition, and Magnificent Two-Piano Performances.

The absence of theme or narrative in these experiential, stereophonic recordings, writes Herb Lubalin Study Center director Alexander Tochilovsky in the introduction to the Albers in Command website, allowed Albers to tap into his Bauhausian roots and envision graphic, minimalist designs. "The use of squares, and of grids of dots are consistent with his modernist pursuit of the simplest and most effective means of communicating the intended subject, and with his interest in interactions," Tochilovksy notes of the shapes that predominate the sleeves. Albers's covers also provide a visual interpretation of the music, especially evident in his work on Provocative Percussions: "The dots break off the grid and bounce up in an elegant way that alludes to the music's dynamic range and of the stereophonic 'bouncing' occurring in the recordings," Tochilovsky writes.

Albers's album sleeves weren't the first to pair graphic modernism with experimental music. But the albums constitute a little-known treasure in an otherwise all-too-familiar modern canon. "Enoch, Murphy, and Albers have brought something new to life, through the context of Albers's packaging and Enoch's hi-fi experimentation," Hermon says. "And although the shift to modernism was a gradual one, it is interesting to see the obvious effect that this collaboration had, especially in the confines of exotica and early lounge music."

The collaboration lasted only a short time. The label was acquired by ABC-Paramount in 1959 and Light left the ensuing Command label in 1966 to form Project 3 Records, where he created experimental orchestral like Permissive Polyphonics and Film on Film.

It was a flash-in-the-pan union of the aural and visual, one that can be re-experienced in Albers in Command, which takes place on January 31 at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles.