Letter from Anni Albers to Ted Dreier, June 27, 1939
Color Slides of Black Mountain College
Notes on Josef Albers's Studio practice
In the Summer of 1939, the Alberses made their fourth trip to Mexico in the company of their friend and Black Mountain College student Alexander ("Bill") Reed. At the end of June, Reed and both Alberses traveled to Veracruz where they met Anni's parents who were fleeing Nazi Germany. In this letter, part of the
Junio 27. 39
Ich habe lang nicht geschrieben, but it really was impossible: These last 5 days down in the city of Vera Cruz were terrifying.
See Rome and die, —go to Vera Cruz to see how bad the world, the people, can be. We, with Bill went down to Vera Cruz to meet the boat with my parents and my oncle [sic] which arrived on the 22. They and all the German refugees were not permitted to land my parents not for 4 days! It is an unpenetratable [sic] mystery what really had happened and we probably will never know. Why it finally ended well, I cannot understand, as I acted as complete dilettant [sic] in this close net of briberay [sic] and arranged all for 8 american [sic] Dollars instead of a few hundred. I think I met 3 or 4 better characters, one high mex. official, the German Consul, and the 2 porters for the luggage; our porter probably only cheated me for a few pesos and some small change he did not return. Even to get handed out a letter addressed to you in your hotel normally costs a tip. The terrible difficulty was to find out, whether you followed the right track, as nobody tells the truth. My oncle had a friend down there who worked for him and got him out a day earlier than I my parents, but even him you could not trust. It was so exhausting, you cannot believe how. To think, that my poor parents would have to go back to Germany, as had actually happened in other cases, after having lost everything, was terrible. And seeing them on the boat as prisoners like that, too.
I had made, besides, a very dangerous mistake, I had not paid one of the gangsters, who had promised to get them off at a certain time, the tall sum because he did not do it. He threatened with the police and so on, but I did not believe that he had any real influence, as he did not get the thing done. But later I found out that he very likely really had to do with the real thing and probably had reported about me to the officials for whom he did the work. There was constantly a complete shift from fierce coldness to great amibility [sic] and I never could tell why or how. Also sometimes I could get on the boat without difficulty, than again I was not allowed to come near the stairway. After I had them finally off the boat and through the migration office I knew, my punishment would still come somewhere, at the custom house most likely, and there it was. A friend of my gangster, I had seen them together before, was the man to inspect. As I expected this here, I had in the morning already found out the name of the chef of the custom. When finally the blow came, I went though different steps of higher and higher custom officials who all of course took the gangster side and only at the chef the whole thing broke down and in my presents the others were shown their wrong. It was high time for me to leave Vera Cruz, I had made many and dangerous enimies [sic]. I finally also paid my gangster still a little more, just to feel a little safer that he would not have a friend do something in Mexico City about us. Had I known how close this net was, I never would have risked not to pay.
Bill was an angel to have at your side and quite a help besides. He has an amazing feeling for situation and sensed many of the tricks and dangers.
Now my parents and Juppi [Josef] and I are here in Jalapa, 2 hours up from Vera Cruz, in a cool and clean and spacy [sic] Hotel owned by Wells Fargo. We are cought [sic] here by the general strike, which is to last 24 hours. We arrived here last night late, with a feeling of having escaped the hell. At 7 this morning the strike started. At 6 Juppi bought food and water and beer. We have to stay in the house all day as there is a watchman in front of the door. But it is a wonderful house and garden and the nicest prison you can think of. Tomorrow morning we hope to go on via Puebla to Mexico City.
Bill left Vera Cruz by bus yesterday morning after having seen the parents safely on land. He missed quite an exciting end at the migracion-office [sic] and all the custom joke. My oncle went by train last night and probably reached Mexico City just before 7 o'clock this morning. Tomorrow we hope all to meet at 23 Calle le Paris. This is my story.
Today we all feel as if life begins again. The parents out of Germany, my sister and husband and 3 children are in England, and nobody, also for them, left behind in Germany, to worry about!—My father owns for his future life 40.– Dollars!
L-s, L-s, L-s, L-s,
Color Slides of Black Mountain College
These twenty images, selected from dozens of color slides housed at the Albers Foundation, vividly depict life at Black Mountain College.
When the Albers Foundation transported the contents of Josef Albers' Orange, Connecticut, studio to the Foundation's new home in nearby Bethany, great care was taken to maintain everything in its original order. Trays of half-used tubes of oil paints, cartons of pristine paints as yet unopened, jars of powdered pigments, boxes of pens and pencils, samples of glass and plastics for architectural commissions—all of the tools and materials that populated Albers' s creative life were kept in the same order, in the same boxes, and atop the same shelves on which they had rested since the artist's death in 1976.
This effort to keep everything just as it was in Albers's lifetime might seem like a sentimental gesture, but in fact it also makes good scholarly sense. By maintaining the original order, the Foundation preserved relationships that Albers himself saw between materials. In 2009 when the contents of the studio shelves were carefully inventoried, photographed, and catalogued by Foundation interns Emily Geller and Greg Swan, a wealth of new information came to light.
While Josef Albers primarily used manufactured oil paints throughout his career, he also kept a supply of powdered pigments. He referred to these colors in his studio notes as Weimar Farben, suggesting that the powders dated back to his years at the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 1930s, an inference supported by the old-style German lettering on the bottle labels. The ground minerals would have been mixed with oil or egg to form a paintable consistency.
Throughout his career as a painter, Josef Albers kept extensive notes about which pigments from which manufacturers he used for each painting. He studiously wrote the colors and brands used on the reverse side of his panels, as well as recording them in notebooks. These notes, which are a distinctive hallmark of Albers's work, are analytical and archival, but also poetical and magical. Josef Albers loved color. And his eyes were tuned to the smallest differences in hue and value. In the 1960s he noticed that paint manufacturers were making incremental alterations in the recipes between batches of paint. He thereafter began to write the dates of purchase on the labels of the paints. A few tubes of paint found among his studio supplies can, therefore, be traced back to specific paintings.
While paintbrushes were used in the very early works and for some studies on paper, Albers's tool of choice for painting was the palette knife. With a tube of paint in one hand, and a thin-bladed knife in the other, Albers spread the oil paint across his prepared masonite boards, laid flat on a table instead of mounted upright on an easel. He was a master of the challenging palette knife technique, working freehand without any masking tape or straight edges, and controlling density and stroke to create velvety and luminous surfaces.
The extensive collection of drafting tools among Josef Albers' studio supplies is a clue to his working method. For Albers, as for many artists, drawing was thinking. And Albers liked to think things through very completely. But 'completely' here does not mean that he aimed for a single answer to his explorations. Rather, through playful experimentation he sought to discover how simple means could generate complex, even inexhaustible results. How a line through relative thickness or thinness could suggest convexity or concavity. How a square, through rotation, repetition, overlap, and reversal, could create an irresolvably complex, non-Euclidean form.
In my paintings I adhere to what in other arts is considered a matter of course. Namely, that performance is prepared by rehearsal. That exercises precede recital, or plans, execution. [Josef Albers, "On My Variants," undated notes, from the Albers Foundation Archive, Box 81, Folder 22]