There were many occasions where Albers talked about teachers
and teaching. One view that he expressed was that only the
best teachers should be permitted to work with students during
the first year of studies. It was this period where students
learned work habits, acquired values, became motivated and
began the learning process that would shape what they did
in the future. The first year of study was the most important
year of education.
To better appreciate this viewpoint, it can be compared to
an ongoing practice in the majority of American art schools
and universities of staffing the first year of study with
young, inexperienced teachers beginning their career, older
teachers who have passed their prime, and in some instances,
teachers areas assigned to basic courses as administrative
punishment. At numerous universities, the first year is taught
with graduate assistants which in most instances, is the blind
leading the blind.
Albers explained to our class one time, that in order
to be a good teacher, you had to be a good actor. There
would be times in dealing with students when you might be
extremely angry with a student, but it was a time to speak
softly and be encouraging. Likewise, there might be an instance
where it was in the best interest of the student to affect
great anger even though you felt none. This reflects an insightful
and disciplined teacher. Albers often commented that when
students can anticipate a teacher, much of that teachers
effectiveness as an instructor is lost. It is a credit to
Albers that although he was in his seventies and might be
expected to be more routine in his teaching, we never knew
what he was going to say or do next.
In color class, which met twice a week, the students were
often intimidated. Albers was so highly respected by students
that if he was critical of the work, an immediate response
was to want to crawl under the desk and hide. Secondly, Albers
color classes were so famous that frequently there were visitors.
Sometimes they were people from other departments of the university
or from other parts of the country or Europe. As a result
of these conditions, a number of students did not put work
up for critique.
One day we came to class, and there was Albers standing at
the head of stairs in front of the door to the classroom.
No one knew what was happening and so a line formed that ran
all the way down the stairs to the front door. At two oclock,
Albers looked at his watch and with a great flourish, announced,
It is time for the show to begin. He turned to
the first student and said, Your ticket, please.
The student mumbled something about not knowing he had to
have a ticket. Albers explained, Your work is your ticket.
The student pulled work from his knapsack and showed it to
Albers. Albers then said to the student, You have your
ticket, go in and find a seat up front, we have a good show
today. The procedure continued with several other students.
Finally, he came to a student who confessed that she had not
finished her work. Albers put his arm around her shoulders
and walked her to the head of the stairway saying, It
is too bad you do not have a ticket young lady, but you come
back on Thursday with your ticket and we will have another
fine show. All students who did not have tickets
were turned away. That was the last time it was necessary
for him to address this problem that year. The problem of
students not putting work up for critique is a common one.
I have often thought about how the rest of us handle it. Most
often we bluster and threaten students with low grades if
they do not mend their ways. Albers method of handling
the situation was not only more intriguing, but it was also
I remember one rather humorous situation with Albers when
four or five of my classmates and I pulled an all nighter
in preparation for a Graphic Design presentation. Around six
in the morning, Albers walked into the Graphic Design studios.
We froze in our tracks because we were not supposed to be
in the department all night and we had been caught, and by
the Department Head. He had his car loaded with drawings and
evidently was looking for a janitor or someone to help him
carry the work to his office. Of course we jumped at the opportunity
to help. As we went by him on the way to his car, he smiled
and said how nice it was to find young men willing to come
to school so early in the morning to do their work. He did
not fool us as we knew he was aware that we had been there
Punishment & Reward
Albers was very Germanic in that he used himself
to punish or reward students. On several occasions, I would
pass Albers on the sidewalk and speak to him with a good
morning or good afternoon. He never acknowledged that
he even knew me. Several of the graphic design students asked
Albers if he would critique our work if we set up a non-credit
painting class. He agreed to do so. When the class began,
there were about nine of us. In six weeks, it was down to
four who regularly participated. I was one of the four. The
next time I met Albers on campus and spoke, he gave me a hearty
greeting, put his arm around my shoulder and asked me what
all I was doing. I felt good all over.
Yanik told me about an occasion with Albers when he asked
her how studio work was going? She said that it was terrible.
Nothing was coming out the way she wanted. He smiled and said,
Good! Good! Albers understood the role of frustration
and struggle as an essential part of the educational process.
was capable of incredibly intensity, and I think for some,
it was intimidating. Each year when I would go back to Yale,
Clancy, who was Albers secretary, would always make
certain that I was able to see him. I would go into his office
and he would pull up a chair for me. We would be sitting almost
knee to knee, and we would begin talking. After twenty or
thirty minutes, I would leave with my head spinning. All the
way back to Minneapolis, I would be trying to remember everything
he had said. Sometimes it was weeks before it was sorted out.
Josef Albers was an incredibly intense individual.
have no idea whether it is true or not, but I did hear that
there were times when Albers was upset and went to see Dean
Smith, the Dean would hide behind his desk and instruct the
secretary to tell Josef that he was out. Knowing Albers when
he was upset, I can easily believe this story although it
is extremely doubtful that it ever happened.
Albers retired, Rico LeBrun, a West coast painter was appointed
as Visiting Lecturer in Painting. A year after Albers left
Yale, he was invited back to critique a painting class. A
young teacher at Minneapolis recorded the critique, and I
only heard the tape. It was apparent that he was quite disturbed
by what students were doing in the new program. Also, some
of the students had worked with him earlier, and he was not
pleased with how they were currently being directed. At one
point in his critique, he shouted, Big brushes do not
make big painters. You heard a young lady say, What
if your teachers tell you to use big brushes? His reply
was, Did you hear what I just said? PERIOD!
one occasion, when our critic in graphic design could not
make class, we requested Albers to critique the work. The
student work was pinned on the board and Albers came into
the room and began to examine the work. While looking over
the work, he explained how teachers were like circus clowns
that entertained the audience between main acts. The teacher
was expected to walk into the room, look at the student work
and give a performance by telling them what was good and what
said that he found this extremely difficult to do. Often there
was work that he would like to hang in his house for a week,
a month or longer so he could look at it every day. Only then
might he be able to give a constructive critique.
then began to take each students work and point out
those places in the composition where the student had to make
a visual decision. He talked about the decision they made,
the result of that decision and what other options could have
been explored. It was one of the most enlightening critiques
that I ever experienced.