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Anni and Josef Albers: Equal and Unequal  by Nicholas Fox Weber

Nicholas Fox Weber 

 with Deanna Sirlin 

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Nicholas Fox Weber met Josef and Anni Albers at their home in Connecticut in 1970 when he was 22 years old and a graduate student in art history at Yale. It seems that from the moment NFW met the Albers, he understood and empathized with both the artists and their art.


NFW’s book Equal and Unequal chronicles the life and work of Anni and Josef in a first-hand account. Understanding their relationship leads to a clear and perceptive reading of their work. The book is filled with wonderful accounts of how the artists thought about making their work, their influences, and their life. Especially delightful is Josef Albers’ description of his approach to painting: “he applied ‘paint the way I spread butter on pumpernickel.’”


A revelation concerning Josef Albers’s approach to painting is that he did not mix his colors NFW writes about a painting of Josef’s in which he used a particular shade of cobalt green that had a particular “light intensity.” This color, Winsor & Newton #192, had been discontinued and replaced by the new color #205 which was not the same. Josef was glad that the company acknowledged the difference by changing the paint’s number, but wanted the older formula. An American executive for Winsor & Newton insisted there was no difference between the colors, but when he heard it was for Josef Albers he had the company find and send him 5 tubes of #192!

Josef and Anni Albers at Black Mountain

Josef and Anni Albers at Black Mountain College, 1949  photograph by Theodore Dreier

Courtesy the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

The Albers came to the United States when Hitler closed the Bauhaus in 1933. The couple understood that it was necessary for them to flee Nazi Germany, and the architect Philip Johnson helped secure an invitation for them to teach art at a new college in North Carolina, Black Mountain College. The Albers spent 16 years in North Carolina and had an appreciation for the South. Josef exhibited his work at The High Museum in 1939 and also at Agnes Scott College in 1944, both located in Atlanta. Since this publication is based in Atlanta, this discovery was particularly wonderful.


In 1949 the couple moved to New York and, in 1950, to Connecticut where Josef had been invited to head the design department at Yale University. This is where he wrote Interaction of Color in 1963, a groundbreaking book for artists and educators. It is amazing that this book, which Albers wrote in English, has been translated into German, Finnish, Japanese, French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Norwegian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean paperback editions, “all still in print.”


As great and important as Josef Albers was as a teacher, his life’s work was that of an artist. His series Homage to the Square is probably the work for which he is best known, but he did not begin this series until he was 62 years old. His glass works, which he began in the 1920s, are significant, as is his rich and powerful output of photography.


The Albers did not hang many artworks in their Connecticut home. However, Josef’s painting Equal and Unequal (1939), a black and white oil painting on Masonite, hung in Anni Albers’ bedroom on picture wire (the Albers never wanted to make holes in the walls in case they had to leave at a moment’s notice). Anni Albers would lie in bed and look at Equal and Unequal contemplating its composition of two geometric forms that are not quite the reverse of one another. This is not a painting of opposites but a conversation between two forms in sympathetic harmony. It can be read as a portrait of the couple – not as opposites, but as each was to the other: similar, yet different.


This is the premise of NFW’s Equal and Unequal, a book that gives the reader an intimate history of the artists’ lives and works and a portrait of them as a couple. As a cultural historian, NFW writes about the Albers’ relationships to the Bauhaus and their friendships with Klee and Kandinsky, and their life at Black Mountain College, where their students included Ruth Asawa, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ray Johnson, to name but a few, and where they were colleagues with Buckminster Fuller and Jacob Lawrence (whom Albers invited to teach summer school). Above all, the book is a love story of two of the most significant artists of the twentieth century who shared a vision for art and passion in the creative process.


NFW and I corresponded about Equal and Unequal in December 2020 via email.


Josef Albers, Equal and Unequal, 1939, Oil on Masonite, 19 x 40 in. (48.2 x 101.6 cm) © 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Aritsts Rights Society (ARS), New York

Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Deanna Sirlin: When the Nazi government closed the Bauhaus in 1933, Josef and Anni Albers knew they had to leave Germany. Philip Johnson arranged for the Albers to have teaching appointments at Black Mountain College, a new experimental college in Asheville, North Carolina. During this time, Josef had many solo exhibitions in the South. Did they ever speak about the American South and what it was like for them to be there at this moment in history? Did they develop a connection to the region?


Nicholas Fox Weber: Anni and Josef developed strong attachments to wherever they were. For them, the South meant not just the American south, but Cuba—where they went on their first year in the US—and Mexico and the rest of Central and South America. As for North Carolina itself: what they talked about was the discovery that the fried chicken there was as good, if not better, than in Vienna.


That said, I discovered, not because they spoke about it, that at a pivotal meeting at Black Mountain, the Alberses were strong voices against racial prejudice. Josef hired Jacob Lawrence, the first black faculty member at the school. He was so aware of what it meant for Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn that he arranged train tickets that would spare them the humiliation of switching to a segregated car once they passed the Mason Dixon line.


Josef and Anni Albers at Black Mountain College, 1938
photograph by Theodore Dreier, Courtesy the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

DS: In 1946, Albers asked Jacob Lawrence to teach a summer course at Black Mountain College. At twenty-three, Lawrence had made a sixty panel work, the Migration of the Negro (1941) that chronicles the exodus of African Americans from the South to the North. Do you think there was an emphatic  parallel between the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and what the Albers experienced in 1933? Did they ever speak about this painting, artist and migration?


NFW: Anni and Josef were among the people who were very careful not to compare the experience of Nazism with what it meant, and means, to be Black. That said, they had a keen understanding of what it meant to be one of society’s scapegoats.


Josef Albers,Study for Four X’s, ca. 1938

Oil on blotting paper, 17 1/2 x 14 3/4 in. (44.8 x 37.5 cm)

© 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Aritsts Rights Society (ARS), New York

Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

DS: Josef had two solo exhibitions in Germany in 1957. Did Josef or Anni ever articulate their experience of returning to Germany?

Did the Albers make peace with the country of their birth, which they had to leave? Were they ever nostalgic about their time in Germany? Did they identify themselves as German or American?


NFW: They identified themselves as American. It would be tactless of me to say how they felt about Germany the first time they returned there—but, then again, my objective is to present the Alberses truthfully, and as they really were, so I can tell you that Anni said that when they crossed the border to leave Germany during that first return trip, they sang with joy.

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Interior view of Trunk at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 2015

Photo © Chris Kendall

DS: Josef Albers’ early work was composed of repurposed glass. Do you think these early works in glass contributed to his profound understanding of color and luminosity through their transparency and the effect of light?


NFW: Yes, he used the white background of his paintings to allow maximum luminosity of the oil pigment on top.


Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1950–54, Oil on Masonite, 12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm)

© 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Aritsts Rights Society (ARS), New York

Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

DS: Cézanne was important to Josef Albers (he saw his first two paintings in 1908). In your book, you state: “The subjects and techniques extend in many directions, but the underlying intensity is in-variably in keeping with what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke observed of Cézanne: ‘After all works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.’” Do you think that Josef, an artist who lived through two world wars, expressed this feeling of danger and risk in his art? Was risk part of both Anni’s and Josef’s  studio practice?


NFW: Risk! They loved it. It was the essence of artistic experimentation for them.


Anni Albers, Untitled, 1941, Rayon, linen, cotton, wool, and jute, 21 x 46 in. (53.3 x 116.8 cm)© 2020 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Aritsts Rights Society (ARS), New York

Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

DS: Did Josef know his color theories were being taught across the United States in the 1970s? Did he approve of university art professors teaching his work by having their students recreate versions of his Homages to the Square? (When I was an art student in 1975, one of my first assignments was to create 15 Homages to the Square using color aid paper and then paint 3 successful ones – although no one discussed which ones were successful.)


NFW: He absolutely knew and approved—right up until the time of his death in 1976. By the way, the latest translation of Interaction of Color is into Mongolian.

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La interacción del color. Spanish paperback edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color. (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1979).

Färglära: Om färgers inverkan på varandra. Swedish hardbound edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color. (Stockholm: Forum, 1982).

A ineração da cor. Brazilian Portuguese revised and expanded paperback edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color. (São Paulo: wmf martinsfontes, 2009).

DS: Were the concepts of Modernism and of being a modern person important to the Albers? How did coming of age in the era of Modernism affect their ideas on art and life?


NFW: They lived in the present, admire technology and machinery, and avoided class hierarchy. They were modern in attitude and taste.

DS: Equal and Unequal, the title of your book on Josef and Anni Albers, is also the title of an oil painting by Josef from 1936 that hung in their bedroom. This painting is composed of two geometric forms in dialogue with each other, a kind of yin and yang of inseparable yet contradictory opposites. What new understandings of the Albers and their art can we get from seeing this work as a portrait of the couple and their relationship?


NFW: That they were two powerful presences, equivalent in force and dynamism, simultaneously attracted to each other as a magnet is to a receptive metal, yet at odds with each other as two magnets are when facing one another. I really hope that my book answers your wonderful question.

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Nicholas Fox Weber is the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and founder and president of Le Korsa, a nonprofit organization devoted to medical care, education, and the arts in isolated villages in rural Senegal. He has written fifteen books, including biographies of Balthus and Le Corbusier, and, most recently, Freud's Trip to Orvieto and iBauhaus and Anni and Josef Albers: Equal and Unequal; his current project is a biography of Mondrian. Weber's writing has appeared in numerous exhibition catalogues and the New YorkerNew York TimesLos Angeles TimesWall Street JournalLe MondeARTnewsTown & Country, and Vogue, among other publications. He is married to the novelist Katharine Weber, has two adult daughters, and lives in Connecticut, Paris, and southwest Ireland.

Photo: Chiara Gussoni/Fondazione Sozzani

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Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

Photo: Haley Hamel

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