Albers, Josef: “Concerning Art Instruction” in BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE BULLETIN 2. Black Mountain, NC: 1944.

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“Concerning Art Instruction”

Josef Albers


Josef Albers: BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE BULLETIN 2. Black Mountain, NC: Black Mountain College, 1944. Second printing with revised text and photographic cover.Stapled self wrappers. 8 pp. Revised text from 1934 essay “Concerning Art Instruction” illustrated with a study from the Werklehre class Plastic construction in paper. Edges spotted and fold lightly worn. A very good copy of a rare document.

6 x 9 bulletin presenting Josef Alber’s essay “Concerning Art Instruction,” where he presents an approach to learning color systems which does not follow a rational epistemological path but an immediate ethical and aesthetic relation.

When Rembrandt was asked how one learns to paint, he is said to have answered "One must take a brush and begin." This is the answer of genius which grows without school and even in spite of schooling. At the same time we know that he had a teacher and became a teacher.

Delacroix went further when he wrote in his diary: "How happy I should have been to learn as a painter that which drives the ordinary musician to despair." He meant by this the study of harmony and especially the "pure logic" of the future: "which is the basis of all reason and consistency in music."

These two assertions are not contradictory. They merely emphasize different aspects of an artist's work: on the one hand the intuitive search for and discovery of form; on the other hand the knowledge and application of the fundamental laws of form. Thus all rendering of form, in fact all creative work, moves between the two polarities: intuition and intellect, or possibly between subjectivity and objectivity. Their relative importance continually varies and they always more or less overlap.

I do not wish to assert that the practice of art cannot be learned or taught. But we do know that appreciation and understanding of art can grow both through learning (the development of intuitive perception and discrimination) and through teaching (the handing on of authoritative knowledge). And just as every person is endowed with all the physiological senses,—even if in varying degrees both in proportion and quality,—likewise, I believe, every person has all the senses of the soul (e. g. sensitivity to tone, color, space) though undoubtedly with still greater differences in degree.

It is of course natural for this reason, that the schools should at least begin the development of all incipient faculties. But going farther, art is a province in which one finds all the problems of life reflected—not only the problems of form (e. g. proportion and balance) but also spiritual problems (e. g. of philosophy, of religion, of sociology, of economy). For this reason art is an important and rich medium for general education and development.

If we must accept education as life and as preparation for life, we must relate all school work, including work in art. as closely as possible to modern problems. It is not enough to memorize historical interpretations and aesthetic views of the past or merely to encourage a purely individualistic expression. We need not be afraid of losing the connection with tradition if we make the elements of form the basis of our study. And this thorough foundation saves us from imitation and mannerisms, it develops independence, critical ability, and discipline.

From his own experiences the student should first become aware of form problems in general, and thereby become clear as to his own real inclinations and abilities. In short, our art instruction attempts first to teach the student to see in the widest sense: to open his eyes to the phenomena about him and, most important of all, to open his eyes to his own living, being, and doing. In this connection we consider class instruction indispensable because of the common tasks and mutual criticisms.

Many years' experience in teaching have shown that it was often only through experimenting with the elements in various distinct branches of art that students first recognized their real abilities. As a consequence these students had to change their original plans. As an instance, a student of painting discovered his real talent was for metal working. Our first concern is not to turn out artists. We regard our elementary art work primarily as a means of general training for all students. For artistically gifted students it serves as a broad foundation for every special study.

We have three disciplines in our art instruction: Drawing, Werklehre (work with materials and forms), Color. These are supplemented by exhibitions and discussions of old and modern art of handicraft and industrial products, of typographic and photographic work. The exhibitions are used to point out special intentions (e.g. art related to nature or remote from nature; the so-called primitivism; monumental form, pure form; and realism or imitation) and conditions due to working material (e.g. wood form, stone form, metal form; silver form in the Baroque, and gold in the the Gothic). In addition collections of materials (different woods, stones, metals, textiles, leathers, artificial materials) are shown. By excursions to handicraft and manufacturing plants we seek to develop an understanding of the treatment of material and of working in general (both as matters of technique and as social matters).

Drawing we regard as a graphic language. Just as in studying language it is most important to teach first the commonly understood usage of speech, in drawing we begin with exact observation and pure representation. We cannot communicate graphically what we do not see. That which we see incorrectly we will report incorrectly. We recognize that although our optical vision is correct, our overemphasis on the psychic vision often makes us see incorrectly. For this reason we learn to test our seeing, and systematically study foreshortening, overlapping, the continuity of tectonic and of movement, distinction between nearness and distance.

Drawing consists of a visual and a manual act. For the visual act (comparable with thinking which precedes speaking) one must learn to see form as a three dimensional phenomenon. For the manual act (comparable with speaking) the hand must be sensitized to the direction of the will. With this in mind we begin each drawing lesson with general technical exercises: measuring, dividing, estimating; rhythms of measure and form, disposing, modifications of form. At the same time the motor sense acts as an important corrective.

It will be clear that we exclude expressive drawing as a beginning. Experience shows that in young people this encourages artistic conceit but hardly results in a solid capability which alone can give the foundation and freedom for more personal work.

For this reason our elementary drawing instruction is a handicraft instruction, strictly objective, unadorned through style or mannerism. As soon as capability in handicraft has been fully developed, more individual work may follow. As artistic performance it will develop best afterwards and outside the school. We repeat, our drawing is the study of the most objective representation.

In Werklehre — design with material — we cultivate particularly feeling for material and space. It stands in contrast to a pure manual training in various handicrafts, which only applies traditionally fixed methods of work. We do not aim at "a little bookbinding", "a little carpentry", but rather a general constructive thinking, especially a building thinking, which must be the basis of every work with every material. Werklehre is a forming out of material (e. g. paper, cardboard, metal sheets, wire), which demonstrates the possibilities and limits of materials. This method emphasizes learning, a personal experience, rather than teaching. And so it is important to make inventions and discoveries. The idea is not to copy a book or a table, but to attain a finger-tip feeling for material. Therefore we work with as few tools as possible and prefer material that has been infrequently used, such as corrugated paper, wire, wire netting. With well-known materials we seek to find untried possibilities.

Werklehre deals mainly with two subjects, with matiere studies on the one hand and material studies on the other.

Matiere studies are concerned with the appearance, the surface (epidermis) of material. Here we distinguish structure, facture, texture. We classify the appearances according to optical and tactile perception. We represent them by drawing and other means.

In combination exercises we examine the relationship of different surface qualities. Just as color reacts to and influences color — in contrast or affinity — so one matiere influences another. We call the demonstrations of such relationship combination exercises.
Material studies are concerned with the capacity of materials. We examine firmness, looseness, elasticity; extensibility and compressibility; folding and bending — in short technical properties. These studies in connection with the mathematical inherence of form result in construction exercises. With these we try to develop an understanding and feeling for space, volume, dimension; for balance, static and dynamic; for positive and active, for negative and passive forms. We stress economy of form, that is the ratio of effort to effect.

Comparisons of various examples in architecture, sculpture, painting, help to make clear the conceptions of proportion, function, constellation, and composition as well as those of construction and combination.

In short, Werklehre is a training in adaptability in the whole field of construction and in constructive thinking in general. Although we do not actually make practical things, the Werklehre is not opposed to handicraft work but is its very foundation.

Color we consider first as working material and we study its qualities. Sound production conies before speech, tone before music. And so at first we study systematically the tonal possibilities of colors, their relativity, their interaction and influence on each other, cold and warmth, light intensity, color intensity, physical and spatial effects. We practice translating color combinations into different intensities, and from colorful to colorless colors. We practice color tone scales, color mixtures and interpenetrations. We study the most important color systems, not for the sake of science or to find the harmony of colors in a mechanical way, but to learn to see and feel color. To prepare for a disciplined use of color and to prevent accident, brush, or paint-box from taking authorship.

Even after these fundamental studies that occupy half a year we are not in a hurry to make paintings. The studies that follow, from nature or model, are in principle concerned with the relationship between color, form, and space. Serious painting demands serious study. Rembrandt, at the age of thirty, is said to have felt the need of twenty years of study for a certain color-space problem.

By making an extended study in the three provinces of form, material, and color, we provide a broad foundation for the widest variety of tasks and for later specialization. No problem of form lies outside our field. Thus we do not cultivate dilettantism — just something to do — (Beschaeftigungstrieb) but develop the creative, productive possibilities (Gestaltungstrieb). Class instruction with common tasks and criticisms coming from the students and then from the teacher communicates understanding of different ways of seeing and of representing, and diminishes the tendency to overestimate one's own work.

It will be clear that this method is meant for mature students. For teaching children we should use other methods.

Life is more important than school, the student and the learning more important than the teacher and the teaching. More lasting than having heard and read is to have seen and experienced. The result of the work of a school is difficult to determine while the pupil is in school. The best proofs are the results in later life, not, for example, student exhibitions. Therefore to us the act of drawing is more important than the graphical product; a color correctly seen and understood more important than a mediocre still-life. It is better to be really able to draw a signboard than to be content with unfinished portraits.

We are content if our studies of form achieve an understanding vision, clear conceptions, and a productive will.

                                                                                  — Josef Albers

Black Mountain College (1933 – 1957) was a new kind of college in the United States in which the study of art was seen to be central to a liberal arts education, and in which John Dewey's principles of education played a major role. Many of the school's students and faculty were influential in the arts or other fields, or went on to become influential. Although notable even during its short life, the school closed in 1957 after only 24 years. Founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, and other former faculty members of Rollins College, Black Mountain was experimental by nature and committed to an interdisciplinary approach, attracting a faculty that included many of America's leading visual artists, composers, poets, and designers.

The center of the curriculum, we said, would be art. The democratic man, we said, must be an artist. The integrity, we said, of the democratic man was the integrity of the artist, an integrity of relationship…the artist, we said was not a competitor. He competed only with himself. His struggle was inside, not against his fellows, but against his own ignorance and clumsiness…Also just as the artist would not paint his picture with muddy colors, so this artist must see clear colors in humanity; and must himself be clear color, for he too was his fellow artist’s color, sound, form, the material of his art. But, different from pigment, bow, granite, not used up in the use; rather, made more of what he would be, a note within the symphony, the clearer for having been written; giving up, and asked to give up, nothing of himself. That was the integrity of the artist as artist. That should be the integrity of man as man.
                                                                          — John Andrew Rice

Not a haphazardly conceived venture, Black Mountain College was a consciously directed liberal arts school that grew out of the progressive education movement. In its day it was a unique educational experiment for the artists and writers who conducted it, and as such an important incubator for the American avant garde. Black Mountain proved to be an important precursor to and prototype for many of the alternative colleges of today.

I think art parallels life. Color, in my opinion, behaves like a man–in two distinct ways: first in self-realization and then in the realization of relationships with others. In my paintings I have tried to make two polarities meet–independence and interdependence, as, for instance, in Pompeian art. There’s a certain red the Pompeians used that speaks in both these ways, first in its relation to other colors around it, and then as it appears alone, keeping its own face. In other words, one must combine both being an individual and being a member of society. That’s the parallel. I’ve handled color as a man should behave. With trained and sensitive eyes, you can recognize this double behavior of color. And from all this, you may conclude that I consider ethics and aesthetics as one.
                                                                                     — Josef Albers

Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) was a German-born American artist and educator whose work formed the basis of some of the most influential and far-reaching art education programs of the twentieth century.

Albers enrolled as a student in the Vorkurs of Johannes Itten at the Weimar Bauhaus in 1920. Although Albers had studied painting, it was as a maker of stained glass that he joined the faculty of the Bauhaus in 1922, approaching his chosen medium as a component of architecture and as a stand-alone art form. Walter Gropius, asked him in 1923 to teach in the preliminary course Werklehre of the department of design to introduce newcomers to the principles of handicrafts.

In 1925, Albers was promoted to professor, the year the Bauhaus moved to Dessau. At this time, he married Anni Albers (née Fleischmann) who was a student there. His work in Dessau included designing furniture and working with glass. As a younger art teacher, he was teaching at the Bauhaus among artists who included Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. The so-called form master, Klee taught the formal aspects in the glass workshops where Albers was the crafts master; they cooperated for several years.

With the closure of the Bauhaus under Nazi pressure in 1933 the artists dispersed, most leaving the country. Albers emigrated to the United States. The architect Philip Johnson, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, arranged for Albers to be offered a job as head of a new art school, Black Mountain College, in North Carolina. In November 1933, he joined the faculty of the college where he was the head of the painting program until 1949.