Reflections 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.

Among 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.

Visual 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
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 painting–it 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 art–architecture, fine arts, design, photography and all the crafts.

Perceptual understanding is always relevant as it transcends all styles and time frames–it 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 1950s.


Theories on Teaching >  

Download PDF



Joseph Albers: 1914 self portrait




Reproduced by premission of the MIT Press.

Rob Roy Kelly, “Recollections of Josef Albers,”
Design Issues
, 16:2 (summer 2000) pp.3-24.

More information about the journal can be found
at the MIT Press

If you would like to subscribe to Design Issues,
please contact the MIT Press
py phone (617) 253-2889,
or by

Site Index




. 1 2 3 4 5 6


. .