Josef Albers is the artist with the longest association to the Bauhaus. Initially as a student and later as a teacher, he was there from 1920 until its closure in 1933 and coincided with some of the most prominent artists and architects of the twentieth century. His most public and recognised works were the glass paintings he began creating from 1921 onwards; his most private and intimate works, his photographs, which he began taking in 1928. His stained-glass paintings led to his consecration as an artist, after the Bauhaus Dessau exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Basel (20 April – 9 May, 1929), where he exhibited 20 works with other artists including Lyonel Feininger, Vasili Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer. By contrast, the majority of his photographs remained unpublished until after his death in 1976; Albers kept them as a small treasure for his own personal consultation. The visual relation between two such disparate techniques is, notwithstanding, close. Both reflect his deep interest in tectonics and his fascination with discovering the many spatial interpretations of one particular form.
In his stained-glass paintings, Albers tried to discover a personal compositional strategy, initially using fragments of transparent glass that he found and randomly put together, and subsequently using pieces of industrial glass assembled in a regular pattern, until he formed his most idiosyncratic style, that of the “thermometric strip”, in which he introduced rays of colour in columns of different widths to create a versatile spatiality in an indivisible piece of opaque glass. Photographs, which he used as a search and recording tool, played an instrumental role in the subsequent creation of his stained-glass paintings. They allowed him to isolate the abstract condition of natural phenomena and capture the tectonic qualities of his built environment. He almost always obtained various points of view for a particular object, assembling them in the form of a collage and thus demonstrating their different qualities and their change over time.
His photographs have allowed us to reconstruct his trip to Europe during the summer of 1929, when he met up with Kandinsky and Klee in the Atlantic Pyrenees, and with an earlier stop in Barcelona to visit the exhibition and the famous pavilion that Mies van der Rohe had designed for the German section of the International Exposition. The photographs he took between these two borders enabled Albers to explore the levels of absorption and reflection of light on materials and to come to understand the many structural and expressive variations that can be achieved with very limited means. After his trip, and probably also inspired by the Mies pavilion, he began a new type of painting on grey glass in which a series of floating windows of different intensities of colour form the basis of his early experiments with optical illusions, using more complex patterns consisting of continuous lines.
In 1933, the closure of the Bauhaus didn’t prevent Albers, who was already in America, from remaining in close contact with Mies, Kandinsky and Klee, the three master painters with whom he shared the memories and visual discoveries of his trip to Spain in 1929.
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