Josef Albers believed that teaching art was not a matter of imparting rules, styles, or techniques, but of leading students to a greater awareness of what they were seeing. Albers said his goal as a teacher was “to open eyes.” For Albers, the fundamental building block of an art education was development of the capacity to see more acutely. You can’t be an artist, Albers reasoned, unless and until you’d mindfully explored the visual field through its key elements: line, shape, color, and texture.
Albers taught courses in design and drawing at the Bauhaus. At Black Mountain College, he gave courses in those same subjects as well as in color and painting. When he assumed the chairmanship of the Department of Design at Yale, Albers scrapped the existing curriculum and replaced it with instruction in the fundamentals of design, drawing, and color. His workshops at the Harvard School of Design, his instruction as visiting professor at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany, and his many workshops and courses in schools and universities across the United States and in Latin America were devoted entirely to these same subjects.
Albers’s approach relied on direct observation and self-discovery. His classes were peppered with analyses of such commonplace phenomena as New York City streetlights, monuments in the park, and insect anatomy. Absorbed in visual phenomena, he would point out what others had perhaps viewed cursorily but not contemplated: the shape of the Yale football stadium, the spot of light that remains for a moment when a TV set is switched off, the way a red roof could merge with a blue sky, how the color of tea deepened in a glass. Albers was, as his paintings and graphics reveal, profoundly sensitive to the formal relationships of things, intensely conscious that everything in the visual field exists in a context, and that every line and color affects adjacent line and colors.
What do we actually see? How well do we see it? How can we translate our discoveries into meaningful work? Albers felt that these concerns, rather than theories about form, should be the focus of art training.
Accordingly, his lessons introduced his students to an often-unseen visual reality. Through a battery of simple freehand line exercises, students discovered that lines and shapes formed relationships, established rhythms and tensions, pushed and pulled. By drawing their names in reverse, by imitating newspaper text, or by drawing the block letters or numbers they had seen all their lives, they began to recognize that these were forms having distinct character. Writing their names in reverse or upside down, drawing letterforms, or carefully recording the shapes they saw between the rungs of chairs, they became aware of “negative” or “unfilled” shapes. Painting the spaces between milk bottles, oranges, or the leaves of plants reinforced the lesson that the space is never merely “empty.” By constructing with simple materials, such as paper or wire, students learned that the hollows and voids were as important as the solids. Juxtaposing colors, or combining disparate materials in assemblages, they learned to recognize the influence of one element upon another. The laboratory-like simplicity of the exercises made it possible to observe the smallest, subtlest events in the visual field—the precise shade of a color, the exact nature of a curve, or the character of a paper’s torn edge.
Probably no one has surpassed Albers in finding ways to develop visual skills. His exercises were powerful tools of his pedagogy. But his sense of wonder, coupled with his remarkable ability to share his visual world with others, animated whatever he touched. Albers was imbued with the Bauhaus imperative that art and life are of a piece, but he put his own spin on the concept. “Learn to see and to feel life,” he wrote, “cultivate imagination, because there are still marvels in the world, because life is a mystery and always will be. But be aware of it. . . . Art means: you have to believe, to have faith, that is, to cultivate vision.”
Excerpted from Frederick A. Horowitz, “Albers as a Teacher” in Frederick A. Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz Josef Albers: To Open Eyes. The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale, New York and London: Phaidon 2006