Josef Albers

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Selected Press

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When a $1 Million Painting Is a Bargain

The markets for deceased artists can oscillate wildly. They depend on trends in art collecting, changing tastes, and the influence of foundations or galleries. But trends and taste are fickle, galleries can fail, and foundations are only as effective as whoever is managing them.

A savvy collector, then, might be wary about buying into a market that is described as ascendant. No one wants to buy at the top. But how, then, do you account for the vast, much-hyped trove work of Josef Albers, a modernist painter who died almost 40 years ago?

There are two reliable barometers to gauge the popularity of a dead artist’s work: museum shows and auction results. Starting in May 2016, the market for Albers got both.

That was when mega gallery David Zwirner announced it was representing the estate of Albers, who died in 1976, as well as his wife Anni, also a noted artist who died in 1994. Around the same time, MoMA in New York and the Yale University Art Museum announced upcoming shows of Albers’ work. Meanwhile, the exhibition Josef Albers in Mexico was scheduled to open at the Guggenheim on Nov. 3.

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Bauhaus Masters Josef and Anni Albers Obsessively Collected Latin American Art

When Josef and Anni Albers fled Germany for the United States, in 1933, the New World offered them more than refuge from the rise of Nazism. It also gave them access to one of their chief fascinations: Latin America. “They had gone to museums in Germany and seen the pre-Columbian art, what the Mayan and Incan cultures had done, and loved it,” says Albers Foundation director Nicholas Fox Weber. “That’s what America meant to them as much as anything else.”

Not long after the Third Reich shut down the Bauhaus, the avant-garde art school where Josef and Anni had both studied and taught, Josef was fortuitously invited to lead the art department at the newly founded Black Mountain College, the North Carolina art school that would soon become a hotbed of modernist experimentation. “When they arrived,” says Fox Weber, “they knew more about Central and South America than the United States.”

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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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