The work of Josef and Anni Albers is not about a rejection of aesthetic enjoyment. And it’s not about the absolute usefulness of things. It’s about the perfect synthesis between material, form, and service, a specific approach that they helped pioneer at the Bauhaus as students and then as teachers from 1922-1928.
Josef was a professor of handicraft, including stained glass, while Anni—who shied away from the more physically arduous workshops—found herself enamored with textiles, their history, process, use, and potential. As artists both reveled in materials, but more than that, their interest was to raise the look and feel of a given material—its ‘matiere’ or materiality—to the level of aesthetic appreciation in and of itself.
For all their common beliefs however, this seemingly similar pair came to their respective understandings in different ways. Josef had received what he referred to as a “Prussian” teacher’s education—extremely rigorous and well rounded—and had taught various disciplines before finally having the means to study and teach art. Anni on the other hand, had come to learn about textiles largely on her own at the Bauhaus, citing a decided lack of attention from touted teachers of hers like Klee.
This difference in initial education may have influenced an approach to the aesthetic experience that based these two equally academic minds in different camps. The older Josef grew—moving on to teach with Anni at Black Mountain College and then becoming head of the Department of Design at Yale—the greater his interest became in a philosophical approach to art, highlighting the viewer’s role in the process of perception with works like his now famous Homage to the Square series.
In opposition to this method, Anni stressed the history of her materials in an anthropological sense. While fiercely intelligent and rigorously theoretical in her work and teaching, her understanding led to something different than Josef’s philosophically engaged style. Rather than turn to philosophy, she asked her students to forget all they knew, to imagine themselves at the dawn of textiles, what nets they could make of fish skin or what forms of protection they could weave from grass. It was a method that led to an utterly new appreciation for textiles as art and useful object, as well as technical advancements.
“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness,” Anni said in 1968, but we’d like to turn that statement around. The Albers made glass, textiles, and the entire art world breathe with a different kind of happiness, the kind of artists that invigorated up-and-coming generations with their work, but perhaps, more importantly, their ideas and parallel understandings.
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