Josef Albers: The Artist as Teacher

  • by Jenny Bahn

When you think of graphic designers today, what most easily comes to mind is someone in their early twenties with a flexible work schedule and a coffee habit living in Brooklyn and working doggedly in front of a computer screen. Not so back in the early 20th century, when German-born artist and teacher Josef Albers was crafting hard and simplistic gems, back when graphic design was known, more respectfully, as graphic arts.

Best known for his work as an abstract painter, Albers often dealt with geometry—the most iconic of which being his chromatic interactions with nesting squares (think color-blocking down a hard-edged rabbit hole). He knew a good thing when he saw it, and worked in perfecting it, something that’s paid off posthumously; Albers’ Homage to the Square: Joy (1964) sold for $1.5 million back in 2007.

Even for those who don’t find his work immediately recognizable, the roster of artists who excelled under his guise as a teacher certainly is: Willem de Kooning, Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson, Susan Well, and Cy Twombly were all students of Albers’ at one point or another while he was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and, later, heading up the department of design at Yale. 

Some who can’t, teach, as the idiom goes.

Then again, some who can… they teach, too. 

Images courtesy of the artist.


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