What Josef Albers Taught at Black Mountain College, and What Black Mountain College Taught Albers by Frederick A. Horowitz

Frederick A. Horowitz

Josef Albers was at the center of things at Black Mountain College from the time he arrived in 1933 to his departure in 1949. His were the courses you took, whether or not you intended to continue studying art. Although he knew practically no English when he arrived, he hit the ground running, transplanting to Lee Hall the design and drawing courses he’d taught at the Bauhaus, and initiating his now classic course in color. A basic painting course would come later. So powerful was Albers’s influence on the nature of the school that many people today assume that Black Mountain College was a school of art.

Much of what Albers brought from the Bauhaus was congenial to Black Mountain College: The principles of “practice before theory,” “learning by doing,” and “study, not art”; the dissolution of the hierarchy that elevated fine arts above everything else; recognizing that art is an experience rather than a commodity. Less widely considered are the ways that Black Mountain College shaped Albers and his teaching. This paper will investigate those ways.

The Bauhaus was a training school for professionals; Black Mountain College was a school of general studies. At Black Mountain College, Albers shifted his objectives from teaching professional skills to teaching the whole person. He was confident that he could improve anyone’s life by exposing that person to visual training, and welcomed John Dewey’s then-novel assertion that art should be integrated into the general curriculum. As a consequence of his work with young, non-professionals, he began increasingly to emphasize thinking for oneself as a primary goal of his teaching.

The unique character of Black Mountain College also shaped Albers’s teaching. The poverty of the school forced Albers and his students to improvise. In Lee Hall, where sufficient chairs were lacking, Albers and his students worked on the floor in an atmosphere of playful informality. Their having to rely on cheap and discarded materials encouraged Albers’s students to experiment and take risks, took the preciousness out of art, and underscored the idea that this was study, not art. Not having grades—a principle of the school—also encouraged freedom and experimentation. The surroundings of the college provided autumn leaves that found their way into Albers’s color course. The abundance of natural materials encouraged Albers to expand studies of texture in the basic design course.

But it was the intense hothouse climate of Black Mountain College, with its inescapable, ongoing topic of social norms and expectations, of individual rights versus community obligations, that produced the most remarkable effect on Albers’s teaching. This paper will show that, in response to the communal character of the college, Albers’s lessons in art came to articulate unmistakable social, political, and moral values.

Asked by a student upon his arrival at the College, “What are you going to teach?” Albers famously replied, “To open eyes.” He would repeat this statement of objectives often in his lectures and writings. Central to Albers’s teaching was the teaching of visual perception, and central to that was his emphasis on formal relationships. He was aware that relationships, especially the left-overs—the background or neighboring spaces—often went unnoticed, as demonstrated by the Gestaltists in their well-known goblet and profile illusion. Look at the goblet, and you miss seeing the profiles. Look at the profiles, and you miss the goblet.

Albers was intrigued by fluctuating figure-ground patterns, such as one finds in pre-Columbian designs and in the so-called “Greek meander.” In his basic design course he challenged students to create fluctuating patterns of black and white, thereby teaching them to be aware that the leftover spaces were as crucial to the design as the black shapes.

As Albers saw it, formal relationships between the elements determined whether a composition “worked” or not. Therefore, to teach perception meant, in great part, to sensitize students to the formal relationships that they would otherwise likely overlook.

These lessons played out in Albers’s assignments in every course. Fluctuating figure-ground patterns taught that every element counts, and that there’s one place where everything comes right. Free-hand drawings of the meander and other designs taught that every line creates a shape to either side, and relates to every other line on the page. Constructing abstract forms with wire or paper taught that the so-called leftover spaces must be made active agents in the piece. Similarly, the painting course demanded that the white ground be incorporated into the painting, appearing as both volume and space. Using direct application of watercolor, as in the paintings of Cézanne, reiterated the lesson that every mark affects every other mark on the paper. The color course was entirely about relationships. Its many prescribed exercises and abstract color collages—the “free studies”—taught the many ways that colors influence one another and come alive in relationship with other colors.

In his crits of the results, Albers conceived of talking about the formal elements as though they were living creatures. Lines, shapes, colors, and materials “should know about each other,” they “should pay attention to each other.” Eventually, he linked the interactions of these elements to human interaction. Lines, shapes, and colors “should not exist for themselves,” they should learn to “cooperate;” “should integrate,” “should get along,” “they should help each other,” or as he told one class, “they should support each other, not kill each other.” In this way he impressed upon his students the reality of the forces inherent in the formal elements as they appear in the percept. Lines, shapes, and color actually behave [italics]. Simultaneously, he impressed upon his students the parallel he found between the behavior of the formal elements and human, social behavior.

Carrying his ideas about relationships further, Albers developed his unique concept of “respect.” He’d say: “Respect the other material, or color—or your neighbor. Respect the one you weren’t paying attention to.” Persistently and emphatically, in crits, classroom admonishments, and in writing, Albers emphasized that respect for the other was the sine qua non on every level of life, art, and education. A student’s course notes record his telling one class, “Respect is the parallel between art and life.” Another student recalled: “I don’t think there was one comment he made pertaining to the visual world that he didn’t intend to pertain to the human world. He told us over and over that there is no meaning to teaching art unless it is a teaching for how to live your life. This was not a little side note. It was fundamental to his teaching.”

That Black Mountain College was a small, compact community as well as a school exerted perhaps the greatest impact on Albers and his teaching, leading him to recognize that the formal lessons he brought to his courses could be applied to life, as well. Central to his teaching was the teaching of perception, especially of the relationships between elements in the visual field. Linking the behavior of formal elements to the behavior of people, he developed his distinctive concept of “respect”: for the other color, material, or shape—or for one’s neighbor. Lessons learned from formal behavior—balance, proportion, relationships—could be applied to human behavior, and vice-versa. Lessons for life increasingly suffused his teaching, as he argued that a sound education meant learning to balance respect for other people with the obligation to think for oneself. The moral component of Albers’s teaching, typically overlooked in accounts of his teaching, was immensely important to him. Through this extraordinary leap of the imagination, Albers reconciled the demands of art training with the social imperatives imposed on individuals sharing the small, ever-boiling community that was Black Mountain College.