”Albers was a poet and a moralist“

Estate of Rudy Burckhardt / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

Mr. Darwent, why Josef Albers? Tell us about your first contact with the work of this artist, when did you first noticed him?

I was writing a book about Mondrian. For this I went to the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Cunnecticut, it has a writers residency program and I went to write about Mondrian. As an artist, I knew Albers work but I had never seen a lot of it. At the foundation I saw a lot of it and though it was amazing! You know, like most people, all I really knew was the “Homages to the Square”, he printed lots of them and I suddenly realized the fullness of his long and varied life. Then the foundation asked if I would write about his life and I said yes.

The legacy of the Bauhaus is in many cases closely guarded by the survivors. For your biography you have collected previously unpublished archive material, how did you get to the documents?

Well, I got it from all kind of places. I of course went to the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin and Dessau and to all the big Bauhaus Archives, Harvard for example, because Gropius left a lot of stuff at Harvard. But mostly it was the Albers Archive in Connecticut. He, Josef Albers, was a tireless self-archivist, he kept every piece of paper, every photograph, everything. It is an excellent archive.

How long did you work on it?

Four years. And it will be published on the 4th of October by Thames & Hudson.

Josef Albers, “Kinetic VIb”, 1945, Oil on Masonit, Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Foto: Werner J. Hannappel / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018
Josef Albers, “Kinetic VIb”, 1945, Oil on Masonit, Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop

The contents of his biography seem to be aligned with the stations of the Bauhaus schools and the successor schools – including the Black Mountain College. How important was the Bauhaus in Albers' life?

That’s an interesting question. Well he was quite largely self-taught. He liked to say “I come from Adam and my father and that’s all”. He always said, I never studied with Kandinsky, I never studied with Klee… He liked to give the impression, like a lot of artists, that there was no suggested influences in his work.

Well, no artist likes to be compared.

The problem is that when he went to America he was more seen as an artifact rather than an artist. He was somebody who come from the Bauhaus, and I think that also annoyed him, you know, because he was more than that. When he got to America I think he though the Bauhaus was a bit like an Albatross around his neck. So that a long answer to your question to what the bauhaus might have meant to him, of course it meant a lot to him, although he might deny it. All his artwork at the Bauhaus, he made typescripts, and he made furniture and he made teacups. He made all kind of stuff but all the artworks were made in glass at the Bauhaus right from the begging, 1920 to 1933, all the artworks he produced was in glass. He liked the quality of glass because it was an industrial material but he was also fascinated by the ambiguity to glass. You could look at the surface or you could look though it and that stayed in his art right till he died.

Which aspect has fascinated you most about the person Albers?

He was very difficult to see though, he was very defended, it was very difficult to write about him, he was very enclosed. He was a bit like a performance artist, people like John Cage came to Black Mountain College and said the invented performance but I think that Josef, certainly in America, performed being German for example. But it is difficult to find out, he didn’t like to talk about personal things at all. The Germans call it „Innerlichkeit“:  He hated expressionism, he though it was self-indulgent, so anything that was about the self he didn't like. And he didn’t keep a diary and so you kind of have to construct him from what he said and what he made. It was more like being an archeologist rather than a biographer.

I have the impression that it was typical for this period and especially for the Bauhausler, to avoid focusing on the self and deny authorship.

Yes, that is quite difficult for us to understand. When Anni and Josef went to Mexico for the first time, they fell in love with Mexican Art, but what they also loved about Mexican art is that originality and authorship didn’t matter. When you made a little pot you would not sign it even if you made a thousand little pots. They thought is was industrial in some sort of way. The idea that authorship and originality didn’t matter, in a moral issue.

Insight into the exhibition “Josef Albers. Interaction”
Kulturstiftung Ruhr, Essen 2018
Insight into the exhibition “Josef Albers. Interaction”

For the retrospective “Josef Albers. Interaction” at the Villa Hügel (Essen), you have written a chapter in the exhibition catalog that deals with Albers’ catholic faith – how important was religion and its exercise in Albers’ work?

I certainly don’t think that he was kind of spiritual, or if he was Josef would never have spoked about that, because that would have been exactly this „Innerlichkeit“. But I think it was some kind of daily practice with him, like for some people might say the Rosenkranz, but for Josef part of his religiosity was the daily practice of making art, making the same image again and again. Well, I wouldn’t use the word spiritual but there was something religious about it.

You also participated in the exhibition film “Josef Albers - Outside the Square” by Ralph Goertz and wrote the script for his film. It explains that Albers painted some of his pictures on construction materials rather than on canvas. Is there a later attempt to remember the teachings of the Bauhaus and reconcile material and art?

I could say something about his way of work: On the back of every painting, certainly from the 1940s on, he would write, what he called the recipe. He would write the colors that he used, the people who made the colors. So, he would write “Krombacher, Sage Green, 2” so that anyone could paint those paintings. In a political sense this is very complex because he was very strongly anti-communist, he wasn’t like Max Billfor example. And yet a the same time the way he practiced as an artist was intensely socialistic, he gave away all his secrets.

Josef Albers, “Homage to the Square”, 1976, Öil on Masonit, The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018
Josef Albers, “Homage to the Square”, 1976, Öil on Masonit, The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

The exhibition focuses on Albers 'approach to color and his “Homage to the Square”, where can Albers' work be classified in terms of art history?

It is a very indirect answer, but you might like it: My college and I were standing in front of the Homage to the square in America and, looking at it, she said: “it’s such a very romantic work” and I thought this is very interesting. But of course, it is romantic in an very old, old-fashioned sense. Because, he sets himself the idea of perfection of painting squares in the knowledge they will never be perfect. The edges are always a bit off, he liked the word „Schwindel“, he would set out to paint something, and in his mind he knew what it was going to be like and then the painting would be a swindle, it would fool him...  like a trick! There is humor in it, but I would also say that he was a moralist and a poet.

[Translate to English:] headline

Mr. Darwent, thank you for the interview.

[CG 2018; Transcript: FP]


The movie