of Josef Albers *
For anyone with an interest in teaching, Josef Albers was,
and still is, an exemplary role model. He had enormous experience
and insight into teaching and students. He was the most effective
and inspirational teacher I encountered in my career. I came
to Yale during 1953 from Minnesota so naive and visually ignorant
as to cause others to wonder how I ever got there. The truth
is that I came to Yale through the good graces of Dean Charles
Sawyer rather than through admissions. The East coast and
Yale University were total cultural shock for me. Perhaps
even more so than for students coming there from much more
exotic parts of the world than Minnesota. I did not understand
anything that was happening, but I did recognize that it was
all very important.
I am certain it was Albers, and not coincidence, that led
to so many of his graduates going into teaching. Graduates
gained enormous confidence and inspiration from Albers and
were eager to share their newfound understanding with others.
Yale graduates were often resented by colleagues at other
institutions as their self-confidence was interpreted as arrogance.
When graduates from Yale are asked how they most benefited
from studies with Josef Albers, they invariably reply, Albers
taught me to see. The word see has several meanings.
One is in the optic sense using the eyes and another definition
of see is to discern, to understand. I believe that students
of Albers are referring to both definitions.
those things that I learned from being a student in classes
taught by Albers were: to see nuance in color and drawing;
to use color with confidence and differently than before;
to understand spatial relationships; to better understand
the illusion of form; to see nature abstractly; to understand
activation of color or space and to realize that suggestion
is more powerful than delineation in visual art. In viewing
Albers the teacher, there was much to be learned in terms
of beginning with simple exercises with criteria being understood
by students and the sequencing of related problems where one
builds on another. Also, awareness of the teacher knowing
what can and cannot be taught.
My experiences at Yale were the foundation for what
I was to do as a teacher, and it prepared me at a later date
to better appreciate the teaching of Armin Hofmann. My views
and appreciation of Albers, and his contribution to education
were not shared by all my colleagues in graphic design. Most
felt influenced more by men such as Alvin Lustig, Herbert
Matter, Leo Lionni, and Lester Beall. I found these men to
be interesting, they presented challenging problems and were
excellent role models, but they did not teach. Albers did.
When you completed an Albers course, you learned, you
could apply what you learned, and you viewed your work and
that of others in an entirely new way than before.
Being a graphic design graduate student, I did not have as
much contact with Albers as did the Fine Art students, but
there was a great deal of interaction between painting and
design students in printmaking where I was an assistant to
Gabor Peterdi, and I heard stories from painters and sculptors
about Albers. I was teaching at The Minneapolis School of
Art before entering Yale, and knew that I would return to
teaching following graduation. It is likely that because of
vested interests, I focused more attention on teachers, the
problems, critiques and methods of instruction than did my
classmates. While I did not actually understand everything,
I made notes regarding problems and comments by instructors.
The notes became my bible during the early years of teaching.
Upon returning to Minneapolis, I was the only faculty member
with a graduate degree. Consequently, whenever there was a
faculty opening, I was always asked if there was someone I
could recommend. My strategy was to recommend anyone from
Yale that I felt understood what was happening there. Within
a relatively short time, we had about six Yale graduates on
faculty. At every opportunity, each was pumped for every bit
of understanding I could get.
education can be broken down into at least three broad areas
such as history and precedent, technical knowledge based on
equipment, processes and materials and perceptual understanding.
Some might include professional practices as a separate segment.
An effective education requires an appropriate balance between
the various emphases. The various concerns are taught both
in sequence and sometimes concurrently. In the most general
sense, perceptual studies are at the beginning and form the
foundation for the other areas. Technical instruction is strongly
emphasized during the second and third years. Professional
practices is concentrated in the last year with history and
craft being taught throughout the program.
Perceptual understanding is the most confusing, misunderstood
and the weakest link in visual education. Too often the educational
emphasis is focused in technology or professional practice.
Style and example are substituted for perceptual understanding
and students are expected to learn through imitation. Too
many instructors admonish students to just keep drawing
and paintingit will come. Other instructors impress
students with the notion that only feeling, emotion or mood
can lead to real art.
Albers peculiar genius was in formulating a pedagogy
that resulted in student abilities to grasp and incorporate
perceptual factors into their work and to recognize them in
the work of others. Albers color course is a pedagogical
model that can be applied to introductory studies in drawing,
design, fine arts or crafts. The unique qualities of perceptual
understanding in visual education are that they are applicable
to all areas of artarchitecture, fine arts, design,
photography and all the crafts.
Perceptual understanding is always relevant as it transcends
all styles and time framesit is never in or out of date.
Albers would be as valid today as he was during the 1930s
at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain in the 1940s or Yale in the