DECEMBER 31 "Anni and Josef Albers" Review: Dynamic Balance Ann Landi, Wall Street Journal

DECEMBER 1 Artful Volumes: Bookforum contributors on the season's outstanding art books Albert Mobilio, Bookforum

OCTOBER 1 The Artist Who Inspired Ruth Bader Ginsburg Nicholas Fox Weber, Frieze

JULY 21 This Artwork Changed My Life: Josef Albers's "Interaction of Color" Odili Donald Odita, Artsy

APRIL 7 NHS charity partners with Albers Foundation to transform London children's hospital Elly Parsons, Wallpaper

MARCH 23 Artworks by Josef and Anni Albers installed to brighten up children's unit in St. Mary's hospital Robert Dex, Evening Standard

Nicholas Fox Weber's Anni and Josef Albers: Equal and Unequal explores the rich creative legacy of this influential couple (Phaidon Books, 2020)

"Anni and Josef Albers" Review: Dynamic Balance

From the Bauhaus to Black Mountain, the Albers inspired each other—and a generation of artists.

The 20th century produced its fair share of powerhouse artist couples, among them Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning. But for sheer longevity and high-voltage aesthetic give-and-take, none rivals the union of Josef and Anni Albers, who met at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, arrived in the U.S. to teach at Black Mountain College in 1933, and were married for 51 happy and productive years.

Numerous books and exhibitions have covered the career of Josef Albers, famed for both his teaching and his rigorous brand of geometric abstraction; fewer have been devoted to the accomplishments of Anni, whose weavings elevated simple craftsmanship to sublime and often monumental statements. No biographer considered the two in tandem until Nicholas Fox Weber published a slim volume about their furniture, textiles and other works in 2004. Now he has written Anni & Josef Albers: Equal and Unequal—a mammoth, profusely illustrated doorstopper of a book.

Mr. Weber, the author of biographies of Balthus and Le Corbusier, is in an intimate position to present the Alberses as individual artists and married partners—"fiercely 'independent' and 'interdependent' to rare effect," as he describes them. He met and became close to the couple in the early 1970s when he was a graduate student at Yale, where Josef was teaching, and since 1979 he has been the head of the foundation that bears the couple's name.

Mr. Weber's approach in this book is not so much straightforward biography as a smorgasbord of chapters, long and short, detailing the artists' lives but also examining their relationships with students, collectors, mathematical systems, pre-Columbian art, Duccio and Giotto, Paul Klee and Marcel Breuer (among others), along with the couple's own tastes in dress, furnishings and even food. With its staggering array of photos and reproductions, this is a book meant to be browsed and savored rather than read straight through.

Given their dissimilar backgrounds and an age difference of 11 years, it seems a lucky accident of spontaneous combustion that Anni and Josef should connect at the Bauhaus, that legendary experimental institution for teaching art and design. Josef was the son of a devoutly Catholic painter-decorator in Bottrop, in the northwestern industrial Ruhr region; he worked as an elementary-school teacher before enrolling as a student at the Bauhaus at the age of 32. Anni, born Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischman, was from a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin; her father "sold expensive dressers and sofas from his vast Art Nouveau showrooms to the swells of Berlin," Mr. Weber reports, while her uncles "lived in the most impressive mansions in the city [and] all had their clothes custom-made for appearances in the best seats at the opera or for carriage rides from one of their fabulous residences to another." Anni would soon reject the life of privilege and excess, as she did her artistic education up until that point, whether from her art teacher, a second-generation German Impressionist named Martin Brandenburg, or the instruction she received at the School of Applied Arts, where they taught what she called "sissy stuff, mainly needlepoint."

When she arrived at the Bauhaus in 1922, Josef was making radically abstract constructions from shards of glass and bits of wire and metal scavenged from dumping sites on the outskirts of town. Anni gravitated to weaving workshops, where, Mr. Weber tells us, "she wanted to use the medium of woven thread to make art as singular as the paintings of the weaving workshop's form master, Klee." It was a style she would adhere to for the rest of her life, creating works of geometric simplicity in mesmerizing patterns, often incorporating odd materials such as cellophane and horsehair.

Shortly after the school moved to Dessau in 1925, the Alberses, now married, spent six years there living among a faculty that included pioneers of Modernism like Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer in a "splendid group of nine residences [that] enabled the best-known and most important teachers to live with unprecedented luxury as well as groundbreaking simplicity in a natural setting overlooking a bucolic pine forest."

The idyll was a brief one, though, since the Dessau government closed the Bauhaus in 1932, declaring it could no longer pay salaries. Though the Nazi minister of culture told Mies van der Rohe, the director of the school, that the Bauhaus could reopen if it adhered to the cultural policies of the party—"to propagandize all that the new government stood for"—Mies and the other Bauhaus masters decided to shut down the school for good.

Soon Anni and Josef, through the exertions of architect Philip Johnson—an admirer of both—found themselves bound for the fledgling Black Mountain College in 1933. At first they thought North Carolina might be in the Philippines, but a little research disclosed that it wasn't all that far from Mexico, "where much of the art they both adored in Berlin's Ethnologisches Museum had been made centuries earlier."

"The short-lived, freewheeling institution in the bucolic western reaches of the state was founded on the "learning by doing" principles of John Dewey and became renowned for its roster of teachers and students, including Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Ray Johnson, Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg. The Alberses flourished as teachers and artists, making trips to Cuba and Mexico that influenced their respective visions. In brief chapters, Mr. Weber details their relationships with some of their colleagues and students, and offers up the occasional corrective, as with the bond between Rauschenberg and Josef, which has been characterized as one of conflict and rebellion when in reality "their mutual respect went deep" and the younger Rauschenberg never failed to acknowledge his debt to his fiercely disciplined mentor.

After leaving Black Mountain in 1949, the Alberses lived briefly in New York, where Anni had a triumphant solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, before Josef became the head of the department of design at Yale. They bought their first house, and Anni learned to cook (previously they'd always eaten refectory-style); their pared-down furnishings included an abandoned automobile seat for a living-room sofa. The same year they relocated, Josef started "what is probably the largest series of consistent paintings in the history of art"—the 2,000 works that make up the Homage to the Square. Each painting comprises four superimposed squares in colors applied with a palette knife straight from the tube; it was a project that occupied him for 25 years.

For the rest of their lives (Josef died in 1976, Anni in 1994), the couple enjoyed increasing fame while maintaining a disarmingly modest lifestyle; both disapproved of moneyed excess and indeed made fun of ostentation in others. There were tensions between them, as Mr. Weber acknowledges, briefly alluding to Josef's extramarital dalliances, but they "were partners in the truest sense. They could fly into rages at one another, each arguing in very different styles—Josef sparky and outspoken, Anni reticent but no less firm—and each was resolute that he or she was right, so compromises did not come easily, but they were two incredibly like-minded people and absolutely great artists, each in a very different way."

The author's mysterious and ambiguous subtitle, Equal and Unequal—a reference to one of Josef's paintings that hung in the couple's bedroom—sums up the partnership of two strong-willed personalities from different backgrounds, of different temperaments, who nonetheless forged a union that led to revolutionary ways of making and thinking about art. For all their economy of means, they deserve a book this sprawling in scope.


Josef and Anni Albers in 1935

Artful Volumes: Bookforum contributors on the season's outstanding art books

Anni and Josef Albers: Equal and Unequal (Phaidon, $150) fittingly borrows its subtitle from a Josef Albers painting that hung in the New Haven, Connecticut, home of the artist and his wife, Anni. A family album of sorts, this volume, assembled by art historian Nicholas Fox Weber, is a visual portrait of their domestic life and travels and includes dozens of snapshots of the couple and their famous friends. These photographs, along with documents and letters, chart the Alberses' journey from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain College and finally to Yale. A generous selection of both artists' work accompanies each era of the story, along with short essays by Weber that explore the Alberses' relationships with figures such as Marcel Breuer, Ray Johnson, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, as well as their interest in, for instance, clothing, psychoanalysis, and mathematical systems. In one picture from 1928, Josef captured Anni asleep on a couch during the halcyon days of the Bauhaus, when they met; later, there's Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's letter to the Berlin Secret State Police regarding the closing of the art school, and the Alberses' passport photos from when they fled Germany. Happier times at Black Mountain are represented by a series of nude-bathing images of Anni along with Ted and Bobbie Dreier. Photographs from the '50s in New Haven show an older pair relaxing on the patio, Anni making coffee, and Josef observing her working at her loom. The book presents an appealing portrait of a gemütlich marriage of true minds, a union that may have required—as suggested by the title, Equal and Unequal, a painting that "fascinated" Anni—one partner being a bit less equal than the other.


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her chambers in 2014, with Josef Albers's "On Tideland" (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The Artist Who Inspired Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The late US Supreme Court Justice was deeply moved by the sense of balance and musicality in the works by Josef Albers that hung in her chambers

From 1951 until 1982, the Museum of Modern Art in New York used to run what it called the Art Lending Service. Established by the museum's junior council, it permitted members to go to the sixth floor and see what was on the walls or in the flat files that could be rented, according to a 1963 museum press release, "for a two or three month period at fees ranging from US$5 to US$52." The rules were precise. The rental came with an option to buy: "If the borrower decides to purchase the work after having had the opportunity to live with it, the rental fee is deducted from the purchased price. Renewals are not permitted." Imagine! With only one sheet of paperwork and no fear of damage, the program gave people of relatively limited means the chance to grace their lives with original art by, among others: Josef Albers, Georges Braque, André Derain, Barbara Hepworth, Elie Nadelman, Saul Steinberg and Édouard Vuillard.

One young couple who were loyal members of the Modern (before it was referred to as MoMA) were Martin and Ruth Ginsburg. They borrowed a print by Albers. It was the first artwork to enter their lives following their marriage in 1954. Like their romance with one another, this print from Albers's Variant series (1947–67) was a case of love at first sight and a source of fidelity, loyalty, admiration and ongoing learning that they would share for the rest of their lives. The Ginsburgs could not afford to buy the signed screenprint, but they bought and treasured an Albers reproduction from the museum shop. Eventually, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had, in her office at the Supreme Court, two Albers oil paintings from this same series. She chose them with utmost care. Both belonged to government institutions. In 2011, when On Tideland (1947–55)—on loan to the Supreme Court from the National Museum of American Art—was removed from her office wall for a touring show, Ginsburg was asked in an interview with NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenburg when she might retire. "Not until I get my Albers back," she replied.

That this woman whom I deified loved the vision of the artist whose Foundation I have run since the mid-1970s gave me an excuse, in the late 1990s, to get in touch with her. You can hardly imagine the graciousness and warmth of her responses from the time we began our correspondence. I had seen, in The New York Times Magazine, a picture of the extraordinary Ginsburg with an Albers Variant behind her. It was an excuse to send her the catalogue of the Josef Albers Centenary Retrospective that I had curated at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1988, and for which I had chosen a celestial blue and red Variant for the cover. The succinct, upbeat writing style of her thank-you letter, on official Supreme Court of the United States stationery—so imposing with its typography resembling the original Declaration of Independence—sings to this day: "The beautiful Josef Albers book delivered to my chambers today came as a grand surprise. I will treasure it. Were the briefs not piled high on my work table, I would have spent hours with the retrospective."

RBG obviously spent some time looking through the catalogue because, at the bottom of her dictated letter, she wrote, by hand, that she wondered where she could find a reproduction of one of Albers's Treble Clefs (1932–35), of which there are a number in that catalogue. It was for "my son, the music maker." Ginsburg's passion for music was well-known: a cellist in high school, she loved performing in the orchestra, claiming in a 2012 Washingtonian interview that her "dream place as a child" was the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Few painters were more musical than Albers: his repetitions conjured Johann Sebastian Bach and he had the ability to make individual colors, like the instruments in a quartet, flourish both on their own and in tandem with the other hues accompanying them. Colors, like musical instruments, can function "independently and interdependently," as Albers often said to me. Ginsburg was pleased when, after her first cancer diagnosis, the Albers Foundation gifted a print of the yellow Homage to the Square (1961) to the Supreme Court. I explained that Albers considered yellow the color of healing. Ginsburg wrote: "I was surprised and delighted to receive the treasure you mailed me. The Court's Curator will assist me in arranging for a suitable frame. Each day, as I make my way back to good health, Albers's vibrant colors will brighten my spirits." Ginsburg approved of my idea that Albers's white on black Structural Constellation: Pericles (1954), which the artist likened to the tablets of justice held in a balance that looks precarious but is actually fixed—one parallelogram appearing higher than the other when, in fact, they are positioned at the same level—might be used in some way as a symbol for the court. The project never happened, but Ginsburg relished the notion that balance, and the difficulty of seeing it, could be embodied in an artwork.

In January 2019, I wrote to Ginsburg that, at a dinner following the opening of Sonic Albers at David Zwirner, just after she had faced another bout of illness, I had honored her in my toast, and that people were in absolute rapture to hear of her love for Albers's work. Of course, what they loved most of all was to think of Ginsburg herself: her values, her courage, her gifts to humankind. Every time I read her response, I choke: "It will be a long haul but, bit by bit, I am making my way back to good health. Your January 18 letter, received today, lifted my spirits sky-high. I was glad to hear about the show at the David Zwirner Gallery, and overjoyed to have the books you sent.

With huge appreciation and every best wish,



Josef Albers, Selected plates from Interaction of Color, 1963

This Artwork Changed My Life: Josef Albers's "Interaction of Color"

Josef Albers's 1963 book Interaction of Color has not only changed my life, it has also affected my worldview. The ease with which the book addresses color theory in art, consecutively with race and class, is nothing short of remarkable. Albers does this open-mindedly, and with an astonishing sense of tolerance for error in one's judgment and perception. Each chapter reads as a simple, step-by-step process of instruction and exercises to convey the interrelatedness of color. In the process, Albers eschews a "master narrative," and instead allows for other voices to speak and be heard. He strives for a community of others to voice their collective truth as they work through a series of color problems.

With the federal government's mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, and the ensuing race and class inequities that have come with it, what becomes increasingly apparent is that something else is needed to create greater equanimity amongst ourselves in this time of crisis. In engaging Albers's vision of tolerance, I see a way of addressing the social change needed to heal us from the pain of racial conflict and social misunderstanding. Interaction of Color has taught me so much about understanding the benefit of interconnectedness within communities. As a result, I have come to recognize the power of group effort to work through problems of perception.

New tensions are rising in America due to the reopening of our economy, which now seems to have been too rapid in execution. This is compounded with news that more people are getting sick on a daily basis, and at record numbers. A debate has intensified over social distancing and the need to wear masks: Does one have the right to tell another person what to wear? Does one have the right to make another person sick? The problem worsens still with the volatile and misdirecting rhetoric coming from the White House. In the face of all of these things, it might seem perplexing to ask questions of art, and yet I cannot think of anything more applicable at this time to help us understand what we are experiencing.

Interaction of Color addresses black and white in terms of value, as well as hue. The text speaks with complexity and nuance on black and white as colors—that white is not just white, nor is black only black. One learns quickly that you can no longer simply call one thing "black" when another black form is placed next to it, and the same goes for white. Within this ambiguity comes clarity; black and white become specific when placed alongside other similar versions of themselves, or any other thing for that matter.

The Albers book also addresses the conditionality of color, how color can exist in our imagination, and when color is communicated, how it can get lost in translation. This leads to the question of whether color is only relative to given situations. Albers smartly instructs that color is more than passive; he states in so many examples that color is interactive, and it can be determined and purposely activated when the group comes together to reason through what it sees. Additionally, it disavows a single, overarching reading. Albers speaks to the failings of teachers within this context—that the teacher can also be put to question. Open-mindedness in this instance becomes progress, and a part of the solution by working in a group to solve problems with reasoned consensus and resolve.

One of the more important points brought to light in Interaction of Color is transparency. This aspect involves the best of one's imagination. When two colors are brought together in a transparency mix, the third color becomes a new color, not a mix of the two. This third color, whatever it may be, speaks to uniqueness and specificity. Albers also emphasizes that color should be considered for its value, inasmuch as for its saturation. This helps to give color its meaning within the specificity of a place. Outside of this, it is group perception that can activate colors and give them purpose within a space.

George Floyd's murder by the Minneapolis Police makes it clear that the systematic brutality of institutional racism cannot be ignored, and the killing of Black people by police can no longer be allowed to continue. This abhorrent situation correlates with Albers's insistence against the negative judgment of color. He wants us to recognize our biases and work against "taste" to see that no single color can be called distasteful, nor "ugly." A goal in this book is to understand that color does not stand alone; that it can be understood with greater clarity when it stands next to another color to give it context. This is its value—as a means of encouraging people to work together, to build trust in the process of establishing a consensus that goes far beyond the limits of our individual perceptions.


St. Marys Hospital, London. Photo: Ed Reeve

NHS charity partners with Albers Foundation to transform London children's hospital

The work and ethos of artists Josef and Anni Albers inspires the new interiors for the children's intensive care unit at St Mary's Hospital

This unique project combines state-of-the-art clinical equipment with artworks donated by the Albers Foundation, including, among other works, important wall murals and prints from Josef Albers's Homage to the Square series–a progression that occupied the artist for 25 years of his career. It also sees Anni's therapeutically iterative designs reflected in bespoke bed screens and wallpaper. Implemented in partnership with the interior graphic design team at Sable&Hawkes, yellow is prominent throughout, echoing Josef's belief that yellow was the colour of healing. A warm and welcoming environment greets all.

The children's intensive care unit at St. Mary's Hospital provides care for children with life-threatening conditions and those who have experienced acute trauma. It currently treats over 400 children annually. Since 2016, it has been undergoing a £10 million refurbishment (of which this project is a part), extending the number of intensive care beds from eight to 15, enabling staff to treat an extra 200 children a year.

The partnership with the Albers Foundation started when director Nicholas Fox Weber, (whose grandson Wilder Fox Smith was born at St. Mary's in 2014), learned of the hospital's extension project. "With energy and heart, the people at St Mary's have realised the wonderful transformation of the children's intensive care unit to an unprecedented degree," he explains. "My hope is that it will become the benchmark of what can be done worldwide wherever there are children–and the people who love them–in need."


St. Mary's Hospital, London. Photo: Ed Reeve

Artworks by Josef and Anni Albers installed to brighten up children's unit in St. Mary's hospital

This children's intensive care unit has been transformed by a multi-million-pound art project.

St Mary's hospital, Paddington, joined up with the Albers Foundation to design the interior.

The foundation represents the estates of German artists Josef and Anni Albers whose geometric patterns and calm colours are seen throughout the unit. It includes murals from his Homage To The Square series, as well as bed screens and wallpaper taken from her work.

The head of the unit Dr. Simon Nadel said it was an attempt to "combine state-of-the-art clinical equipment and space with beautiful artworks" to create a "healing and therapeutic environment."

The £10 million refurbishment will almost double the number of beds and enable staff to treat an extra 200 seriously ill children every year. A fundraising campaign—the More Smiles Appeal—raised £2 million and a further grant of £2.8 million came from the Imperial Health Charity, with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust provided the remaining funds.

The foundation's director Nicholas Fox Weber said: "For Anni, abstract art was a source of balance and diversion, a relief from life's troubles. For her and Josef, the universal and timeless qualities of rhythm and colour brighten existence and enable people to withstand life's greatest challenges."