"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.