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Josef Breitenbach
American, 1896-1984
Josef Albers Teaching His Color Class at Black Mountain College II, 1944
Gelatin silver print
Image: 32.4 x 27.9 cm (12 3/4 x 11 inches)
Gift of Peter C. Jones, Rhode Island School of Design RISD BFA 1974

in honor of Frank Robinson


The Preliminary Course and the Matière


by Fritz Horstman


When Josef Albers arrived at the Bauhaus in 1920 the preliminary course was already up and running. Johannes Itten, with Walter Gropius’s say-so, had in 1919 laid out the basic shape of the course that would evolve well beyond Itten’s tenure to become the backbone of twentieth-century art and design education. At the heart of the preliminary course was a goal of increasing students’ awareness of the particular ways in which they perceive the world. An exercise called the matière, which addresses a student’s haptic and phenomenological capabilities through very straightforward manipulations and combinations of materials, might best encapsulate the spirit of the entire course.  Present in Itten’s teaching in some form, the matière became more important when Albers was running the course, and even more central when Albers reworked the course at Black Mountain College. 

Born in Switzerland in 1888, Johannes Itten first studied to teach in a Froebel kindergarten. Returning to school in 1909 to study painting, he took a course at the Academy of Art in Geneva where he came across a book on the fundamentals of design written by Eugène Grasset. Méthode de Composition Ornementale, published in 1905, is an instructional guide to creating Art Nouveau ornament, a topic that seems as far as possible from Bauhaus design (Wick 94). Grasset’s method was based on the basic geometry of nature: point, line, triangle, square, spiral, etc. – elements that when isolated were the framework of Itten’s, and later Albers’s, design teaching. 

Itten went on to study under Adolf Hoelzel at the Academy of Art in Stuttgart, Germany in 1913. Hoelzel’s theory of color and his emphasis on contrasts in composition became staples of Itten’s teaching. Using Hoelzel’s ideas about color and contrast and Grasset’s emphasis on geometry, Itten created the exercises that every incoming Bauhaus student, including Albers, first encountered on arriving in Weimar.    

Josef Albers spent his early adulthood as a grade school teacher near his hometown of Bottrop, Germany before changing course and enrolling at the Bauhaus. At thirty-two, he was older than most of his university-age classmates there. Beginning that year, all applicants had to spend their first six months in the preliminary course.

Itten’s preliminary course was designed to allow incoming students to find themselves.  Emphasis was put on liberating the creative potential of each student (Wick 101).  He presented materials and techniques that afforded students the opportunity to find what came to them most naturally. Hoelzel’s rules of composition and color and Grasset’s geometry provided an objective framework through which truly “original” creative work could be made. Students worked with wood, stone, glass, clay, yarn, and metal, practicing planing, filing, cutting, etc. as they were guided through the basics of design  (Itten 9).

Having sampled many materials and techniques in the first months of his trial period, Albers gravitated to colored glass. With little money to fund his experiments, he would go to the town dump with a bag and a hammer, breaking up bottles and other glass objects. He brought his treasures back to the Bauhaus glass workshop to be reassembled with creative wire weaving and grout. His teachers told him repeatedly that if he was to stay at the Bauhaus he needed to focus on something more suitably artistic, like wall painting. His stubborn nature and obsession with the material of glass meant that he would ignore his teachers’ advice and continue exploring the texture and color possibilities of his medium. When he presented his work at the end of that semester, the masters were so impressed with his output that instead of reprimanding him, they told him to continue, and further that he was to set up a larger glass workshop. This was the first step towards Albers taking on more responsibilities at the Bauhaus, which would ultimately result in his promotion to the position of professor. 

Josef Albers

 Untitled, 1921

glass, wire, metal, 14 x 10 in 

© 2017 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Always a bit eccentric, Itten had many of his students following the Mazdaznan spiritual practice of ritual fasting and bathing, leading them in song and activities in devotion to Zoroaster, setting them apart and creating a rift within the school. It seemed to Gropius that this was taking teaching too far, and it was beginning to get in the way of the larger mission of the school. The spiritual and romantic emphasis Itten brought to his students’ lives didn’t fit with Gropius’s vision of a design-based education, so in 1923 he was asked to leave. As Albers had been teaching under Itten, it was natural for Gropius to ask him to continue teaching the preliminary course. Albers, who was at that point ready to focus on his own art and to leave teaching behind, accepted reluctantly. That same year, the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy was brought in to lead the preliminary course (Weber 298). Under Albers and Moholy-Nagy, the preliminary course moved decidedly away from Itten’s spiritualized lessons and towards a design-based exploration of materials. As Moholy put it, he saw the objective of the preliminary course was to make the student “conscious of his creative power” (Moholy-Nagy 21).

IItten had encouraged material exploration, but it was under Albers and Moholy that material was addressed with a pragmatic curiosity similar to a scientific experiment.  According to Albers, Itten taught only about the outer appearance of materials, while he concentrated on the inner qualities (Eggelhofer 114). The lesson known as the matière grew out of fairly straightforward material manipulation.   

Where first a material like wire screen was shredded, stretched, chopped and twisted to learn its capabilities and limits, later it was combined with another material, altering both materials through their juxtaposition. To push clay through a wire screen tells us about the rigidity and strength of the screen and about the consistency of the clay. The screen would visually feel different without having the clay pushed through it, and vice versa. 

Material Study, ca 1928, Bauhaus student work photographed by Josef Albers.

© 2017 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The matière may in fact be the single exercise that best represents the goals and ideas of the preliminary course. Students applied design thinking, explored new materials, made discoveries, but nothing they made threatened to be thought of as a finished work of art. Most of the matières that we know from history survive only as photographs. The very fact of their impermanence enforced that they were merely classroom experiments and not finished works of art. All of Albers’ preliminary course exercises were meant to be understood this way, but the freedom from permanence built into the matière gives both teacher and student greater access to what is actually the subject of the lesson – the students’ understanding of the material, not the material itself. 

The Bauhaus closed under Nazi pressure in 1933. Josef and Anni Albers were very pleased to have an invitation to America to teach art at a new experimental liberal arts school in North Carolina called Black Mountain College. A school with very little funding in the depths of Great Depression was a perfect place to further develop the matière – an exercise that is best done with found materials and scraps from the waste bin. 

Three colors are made to appear as four.

Image copyright 2017 Fritz Horstman

Albers set the course of the art department at Black Mountain with a version of the Bauhaus preliminary course that he called werklehre, or basic design. He also taught color and drawing. As he famously employed Chevreul’s principal of simultaneous contrast in his color course, Albers found that a similar phenomenon could be produced by carefully arranging specific materials and textures. One color can be made to appear as two different colors simply by surrounding two samples of the same color with two different colors – our perception of colors is affected by their context. A material’s texture might be similarly altered by its context. A hard object can be made to look soft, or a rough texture might be made to appear smooth by contrast with the textures of other objects. 

Matière ca 1945, Black Mountain College student work photographed by Josef Albers

© 2017 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Students at Black Mountain became obsessed with matières. They competed with one another to make the best textural illusion (Beggs 86).  Albers’ excitement and charisma in the classroom made the difference. It became so much a part of the culture of the school that there was a song written about it:


Don’t throw the garbage away/It’s Mat-iere…

Don’t clean the ring in the tub/It’s Mat-iere…


Black Mountain is sometimes mythologized, but it must be remembered that it was a real place with real people living real lives. Students and faculty were out digging in the garden, building buildings, and walking in the fields. Their connection to the land and the materials of their lives is evident in the poetry of their matières.


Matière ca 1945, Black Mountain College student work photographed by Josef Albers.

© 2017 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In French, the word matière literally translates as material. When Albers started to use it to refer to a specific exercise he took it to mean how a material felt on the eye. It went from referring to the object or material, to describing a relationship between the viewer and the material. How the material is perceived became its most interesting aspect.  There is a subtle shift in the subject/object relationship here. The beholder’s understanding of the object’s texture and tactility relies on previous experiences that could only have happened through that particular person’s senses. 

We use our haptic sense to know how things feel. This is usually accomplished with fingers, or at least with skin. The matière expands the haptic sense to the eyes.  We understand where our bodies are in the world through proprioception. We use our muscles and haptic sense in combination to become aware of the edges of objects and of our bodies. The Black Mountain poet Charles Olson said of proprioception that it is the “sensibility of the organism by movement of its own tissues.” Albers was always interested in heightening his students’ awareness of the world. In the matière he landed on a technique of activating and cultivating their proprioceptive awareness. 

When approaching topics that are often considered subjective, like consciousness and perception, and treating them objectively, phenomenology proves to be a useful tool.  Phenomenology – literally the study of phenomena – attempts to identify the essential properties and structures of experience. Albers’ matière exercise does this with proprioception. By focusing on the particular visual/haptic understanding a student has of a material, and treating that understanding itself as the subject to be explored, Albers created an exercise that can be understood as a phenomenological study of proprioception. 

A thorough phenomenological assessment of all of the experiments and lessons taught in the preliminary course would show that some were more successful than others in attuning students’ awareness of their experience. The exercises that he selected to continue to teach prove to be those with which he had found the most success in this endeavor. 

When Albers came to Black Mountain College he announced that he was there “to open eyes.”  With that he commenced teaching color, drawing, and basic design. All three classes, as taught by Albers, were meant to heighten the senses, and to make students more aware not only of what they were seeing, but how. The matière is the essence of this way of teaching. Once clued into the existence of their visual/haptic sensibility, it became impossible for the students to not see its effects in every instance of perception.  A pedagogical tool that can bridge the senses in a convincing way invites students to look at everything with more open eyes (Molesworth 71). This was the primary goal of Albers’s preliminary course. The matière is Albers’ preliminary course distilled. 

Albers continued to teach material exploration when he came to Yale in 1950, and some of his students went on to have great success making work that addresses material in terms they would have been familiar with through Albers’ classes. Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines owe a great debt to the matières he saw and made as a student at Black Mountain. Eva Hesse’s sensitivity to the visual/haptic qualities of resin and other materials might be traced to her studies with Albers at Yale. Mid-century photography often exploits texture and rhythm in matière-like ways – think of the extraordinarily visually haptic photographs of peeling paint taken by Aaron Siskind, himself a former faculty member at Black Mountain. And there is a whole raft of artists working today, making art that relies in some way on their materials’ visual/haptic properties – artists who are aware that the effect of two or more materials cleverly combined is greater than the sum of their parts.  A very incomplete list includes David Altmejd, Tom Friedman, Sheilah Hicks, Fischili and Weiss, Sophy Naess, Vik Muniz, Naomi Safran-Hon, Vija Celmins, Leeza Meksin, Martha Burgess, the architect Carlo Scarpa, and the architecture collaborative SO-IL. 

Naomi Safran-Hon, Detail: WS: Light Switch and Coat Rack in Six Parts, 2016,  acrylic, gouache, archival ink jet print, lace and cement on fabric and canvas, 68 x 42”

Image copyright Naomi Safran-Hon

Despite this history and the contemporary relevance, the matière is not an exercise that has remained in the canon of basic design as taught in the second half of the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries. Hoelzel’s directives that passed through Itten and were amplified by Albers – rhythm and contrast, etc. – are far more easily identified in today’s introductory design courses. Color, but not material, is often taught with Albers’s approach. If the purpose of an introduction to design is to teach students to see, then we must acknowledge that there are many ways our vision feeds our understanding of the world. Accessing the visual/haptic sense provides an unexpected facet, and for students and teachers alike, it truly opens eyes.

Works Cited


Beggs, Michael. “Josef Albers: Photographs of Matières.” In Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933 – 1957. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2015.


Eggelhöffer, Fabienne. “Processes Instead of Results; What Was Taught at the Bauhaus and at Black Mountain College.” In Black Mountain: An Interdisciplinary Experiment, 1933 – 1957. Göttingen: Spector Books, 2015.


Itten, Johannes. Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus. Ravensburg: Otto Maier Verlag, 1963.


“Matière Song.” JA 41.4. Josef Albers Papers, Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, CT.


Moholy-Nagy, László. The New Vision. 1928: Fourth Revised Edition 1947 and Abstract of an Artist. Trans. Daphne Hoffman. Wittenborn, Schultz. 1947.


Molesworth, Helen. “Imaginary Landscape.” In Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933 – 1957. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2015.


Olson, Charles. “Proprioception.” In Collected Prose. Edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.


Weber, Nicholas Fox. The Bauhaus Group. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2009.


Wick, Rainer K. Teaching at the Bauhaus. Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2000.

Fritz Horstman is artist residency and education coordinator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, CT. He has developed and presented hundreds of workshops based on the Alberses' teaching for institutions such as the Bauhaus Dessau, Yale University, DIA Center for the Arts, The Drawing Center, Princeton University, Hartford Art School, Bennington College, The New School, Exploratorium San Francisco, and the École des Beaux-Arts Paris, as well as numerous elementary, middle and high schools and community centers. He has taught art at Albertus Magnus College, Southern Connecticut State University, and is currently teaching a course at Yale University. Horstman's artwork is featured in the 2016 deCordova Biennial. He has had recent exhibitions in Brooklyn, California, Japan, and France. In 2016 he participated in the Arctic Circle Residency, making art aboard a ship for a month in Svalbard. In 2015 he was artist-in-residence at Shiro Oni Studios in Onishi, Japan. He holds degrees from Kenyon College (BA) and Maryland Institute College of Art (MFA).  


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