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Squaring the Circle: The Colourful Life of the Bauhaus’s Pale Man

Posted on 13 Oct 2018

We spoke to the author of 'Josef Albers: Life and Work', writer and art critic Charles Darwent, about the Bauhaus power couple, Josef and Anni Albers, and why Josef Albers would have hated his book.

Josef Albers' most sustained body of work was Homages to the Square, a series begun in 1950, and continued until his death in 1976. These apparently detached explorations of colour and form obscure a romantic, emotional depth to Albers' practice, according to author Charles Darwent. ©2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artist's Rights Society (ARS), New York/ DACS, London/ VG Blid-Kunst, Bonn. ​

Josef Albers died 42 years ago, and yet yours is the first full biography to be written – why has it taken so long?

It’s odd isn’t it? It’s partly because he was so secretive. When I said I was doing this book, Magdalena Droste, the queen of Bauhaus scholarship, said: ‘Why did you choose Albers? He’s so pale’. I think what she meant is that he made himself appear colourless and inscrutable and unknowable, and I think that’s probably part of the reason why it has taken so long.

I think it was also that he had gone to America and people couldn’t quite decide what he was. He was quite old when he ‘made it’, so there was the question of whether an old man can really make new art. When they went to America, something that drove both him and Anni Albers mad was that they were treated as artefacts rather than as people, because they had been to the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus became a kind of albatross round his neck.

That he was secretive made the book more difficult to write, but also much more compelling. There’s nothing like secrets to make one dig. I do think he would have hated this book, really. The idea of anybody writing about him personally, he would have loathed. I would love somebody to write the book about him and Anni though. That’s a very important book, because they really were the powerhouse Bauhaus couple.

He comes across as rather a dreadful man! He was a terrible womaniser – Anni had a lot to put up with.

Yes, at one point I thought, gosh this is horrid, he’s grabbing all these girls and squeezing their breasts – in these Me Too days he’d have been in jail. The mere fact that other people were doing it too doesn’t excuse it. All of that and then of course he was going to Mass every day; there’s something tortured in there.

Anni was quite lame as she got older, and an ex student remembered that when they were old and at Yale, Josef had made furniture out of car seats secured on heavy blocks of wood. Anni would have to move them to vacuum – there was no question of them getting in help or of Josef doing the vacuuming.

A flurry of self-portraits coincided with Albers' breakdown in 1917, follwoing the death of his brother. He depicts himself in endlessly varied ways in a concerted search for himself. ©2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artist's Rights Society (ARS), New York/ DACS, London/ VG Blid-Kunst, Bonn. ​

Do you think he respected her as an artist?

Absolutely, although – apart from greetings cards – they never made work together, and kept separate practices. The interplay of their work is undeniable, though, and extremely interesting. They go to the Bauhaus and they hit on the modernist grid at the same time in different ways. He discovers wire mesh in his early glass works that becomes a kind of grid, and she discovers the verticals and horizontals of the loom. It’s like tennis, this back and forth in their work, especially after they begin to travel to Mexico and Peru.

I imagine that his prejudices, at least outwardly, were those of the Bauhaus, which is that women were delicate little things who could do decorative work. But I think inwardly he had huge respect for Anni. In many ways she was cleverer than him, although that’s impossible to know, but I think he was more dogged and she was more inventive.

Albers’ most famous and sustained body of work was his huge series Homages to the Square, 1950-1976. You talk of them very evocatively as romantic paintings – was Richard Anuszkiewicz right to describe them as self-portraits?

The more you look at them the more you realise that if you want to paint squares and you want to paint them perfectly, there are much better ways of doing it than freehand with no underdrawing. It seems that he’d had a complete breakdown in 1917 after his brother Paul was killed. Around that time he produces a sudden rush of self-portraits in wildly different styles: in one, he portrays himself as Mephistopheles – he’d obviously seen that self-portrait by Munch, and he’s just trying to decide who he is. I suppose the squares could be in that sense a rather cryptic abstraction of himself, certainly many of his students thought that you looked at those squares and what you saw was Albers. He destroyed more paintings than he kept, he always said, which is a frightening thought when you remember that there are still something like 2,300 Homages to the Square surviving, but he said when he destroyed them he felt cleaner than when he went to confession: make of that what you will.

Albers enrolled at the Bauhaus in 1920, where he met his wife Anni. It was here that they both discovered the modernist grid, and though they never worked together the interplay of their ideas is evident in their separate practices. ©2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artist's Rights Society (ARS), New York/ DACS, London/ VG Blid-Kunst, Bonn. ​

It suggests an emotional depth at odds with the idea that his work was didactic, that his paintings were made principally to explore and expound his theories.

One thing I discovered, after I’d finished the book unfortunately, was the depth of his Roman Catholicism. He was very, very devout. In fact the only two artists I can think of who went to Mass every day were him and Andy Warhol and they both worked serially, and they both spoke about their art as icons. I’m sure Albers would have hated Andy Warhol, but there is that sense of some kind of sacred practice: you go back to it, like a rosary, again and again and again. I do think the paintings are suffused with this. Albers was desperately private, he would never have spoken about anything like that, but it’s there in his work.

How did you go about cutting through all the layers of secrecy and myth that surround Albers?

I think I gave up actually, I don’t know that that’s a bad thing because what you hope you’re going to do is get to know someone and some people are just unknowable; really he was almost pathologically private. There are all kinds of reasons for that, partly just temperamental, but I think also being brought up a Catholic in Germany was very, very difficult in that era. Not as bad as having Jewish ancestry became later on, but at the time Albers was born it was a very bad thing to be and you just learned to keep your views to yourself.

Interview by Florence Hallett of The Arts Desk.

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