The Sacred Modernist: Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist

By Harris, Mark | Art Monthly, June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Sacred Modernist: Josef Albers as a Catholic Artist


Harris, Mark, Art Monthly


Lewis Glucksman Gallery Cork 1 April to 8 July

The Lewis Glucksman Gallery is a remarkably sympathetic setting for Albers's work. The oak-clad building's cantilevered floors stretch out over vast outdoor spaces where lawns, trees and a stream are framed by floor-to-ceiling windows. A full chronology of drawings, glass works and paintings is dispersed through well-lit, spacious rooms. The utopian impulse of Albers's late 'Hommage to the Square' paintings is keener in this idyll of contemporary architecture and pastoral setting.

The university context is apt since his leadership at the Bauhaus, then at Black Mountain College and Yale University, made Albers a celebrated teacher. An outspoken anti-expressionist and rigorous foundation instructor, he served a key role in enabling students like Eva Hesse, Ray Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra to break with the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism. Earlier, Albers was a Bauhaus wunderkind, one of Johannes Itten's students in 1920, then by 1922 in charge of the glass workshop and by 1923 teaching the keystone Preliminary Course with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. By 1930 he was assistant director under Walter Gropius and only left for the US in 1933 when the school was shut by the Nazis. For 13 years his life centred on the Bauhaus. He met his wife Anni there, undertook Bauhaus commissions, published in Bauhaus magazines and exhibited furniture and artwork in Bauhaus exhibitions. The Bauhaus intention for art and design to ameliorate the impact of industry on social and domestic life drives the relentless geometry of Albers's work. His long immersion in what was effectively a publicly funded experimental art commune formed the mould of a charismatic teacher who demanded exceptional discipline in skill-based learning as the cornerstone for innovative work.

Nicholas Fox Weber, this exhibition's curator and director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, argues through his installation and catalogue essay for Albers's art being underpinned by Catholicism even while he worked with institutions pioneering Modernism. Given the ascetic formal discipline of Albers's practice it is questionable whether this stress on religion is more curatorial devil's advocacy than an opening of paths towards a profound revision of scholarship. Admittedly there are drawings of churches among the juvenilia, along with the destroyed 1918 'Rosa Mystica Ora Pro Nobis' stained glass window (of which a recently completed facsimile is featured). Albers also produced a curious archive of montaged photographs of medieval cathedrals and sculpture. We learn that he regularly attended mass until the end of his life and provided frontispiece illustrations for a new edition of the Bible. Yet in the US his corporate commissions greatly outnumber ecclesiastical ones and in his writing he avoided the subject of faith. The extensive correspondence with the fabricator of the 'Rosa Mystica' window reveals an Albers obsessed with ensuring the precise translation of formal properties of his cartoon without explicitly linking this to content.

From the evidence of the current Barbican exhibition there was no shortage of religious imagery or of expressionism in early Bauhaus work, as the school established its direction with founder Gropius calling for a new kind of multidisciplinary craftsman to forge a future 'which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith'. …

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