Pedagogy Josef Albers page 4


Albers on Teaching
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 teacher’s 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.

Come Prepared
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 o’clock, 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 more effective.

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 all night.

Albers: 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.

Dorothy 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.

Albers 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.

I 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.

When 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!”

On 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 was bad.

He 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.

Albers then began to take each student’s 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.


Anecdotes >

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"Big brushes
do not make big painters."

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