Josef Albers’s Science and Soul of Seeing

"Purity of heart is to will one thing," the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote. It's tempting to think of the painter Josef Albers, renowned for his late-career devotion to—not to say obsession with—the mechanics of color in art, as someone who was pure in that narrowing-down way.

He wasn't, though. Where Kierkegaard called for a spiritual discipline that would shut the world out, Albers developed a hands-on, eyes-on art practice that opened the world up, a world he approached with a craftsman's care and experienced with the scintillated focus of a mescaline high. And in a pair of concurrent exhibitions, one at the Museum of Modern Art, the other at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, we can see his expansive version of single-mindedness unfold.

Craftsmanship came naturally to Albers, who was born in Germany in 1888 and learned practical skills from his father, a builder and house painter. When painting a door, his father told him, start in the middle and paint outward. "That way you catch the drips, and don’t get your cuffs dirty."

Keeping cuffs clean took practice, and Albers liked the dynamic of learning through repetitive doing. He had the patience and the curiosity for it, which made him an avid student and a tireless teacher. He enjoyed craft—the manipulation of forms and materials—as an end in itself. When, in 1920, he discovered the Weimar Bauhaus, where art and craft were on a par, he knew it was the place for him.

The Bauhaus encouraged multitasking. He arrived as an abstract painter with a particular interest in color, or how colors changed in intensity and mood when one was put next to another. That interest would stay with him, but in Weimar he explored many others, from furniture-making to stained-glass design to photography.

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