Josef Albers

By Kuspit, Donald | Artforum International, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Josef Albers


Kuspit, Donald, Artforum International


Josef Albers' photographs and his early work with glass suggest that his career might have taken another, perhaps more frutiful, turn had he not abandoned both media in favor of a somewhat didactic investigation of abstract painting. It was not only Germany that Albers left behind when he fled the Nazis and came to America. A glass master of the Bauhaus, he gave up the great potential and innovative expressivity of the medium to concentrate on painting, producing a body of work that was less than inspired and, in the end, had only a minor influence on Minimalist painting and hard-edged abstraction. The question raised by this exhibition, which comprised all three facets of his career, is why Albers felt compelled to limit his production in this way.

In part, at least, this constriction of his range can be traced to the fact that Albers seems to have been caught in the midst of conflicting impulses. As an academic in an alien, artistically backward country, he strove to justify Modernism in general as well as geometric abstraction in particular, though, like many members of the Bauhaus, he had a tendency to turn artistic expression into an object lesson. At the same time, while determined to remain true to his past and his ideals, he hoped to develop artistically beyond the point he had reached in Germany.

As if to support the view that each stage of Albers' development was incompatible, even incommensurable with the next, this miniretrospective was organized into three discreet sections, each devoted to a different period. The glass works, photographs, and various "Homages to the Square" seemed at odds with one another. The contrast from one section to the next was startling: in the last section (supposedly the climactic one), it was immediately apparent how much Albers, devotion to formal concerns had depended on sacrificing the eccentricity of his glass works. The energy of the stained glass grids - in which elements of color, often dense, assume varying shapes that are delineated by thin black wire to form a patchwork - can be understood as a quirky kind of Expressionism. These works invite comparison with the paintings on glass by Albers, Bauhaus colleague Wasily Kandinsky: certain of Albers' sandblasted glass surfaces are almost equally dynamic, if for different reasons. …

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