To Open Eyes
(By Frederick A. Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz; Phaidon Press; 288 pages; $75 cloth)
German artist Josef Albers is best known for his series of deceptively simple abstract color studies known as Homage to a Square. The paintings, as Nicholas Fox Weber writes in the introduction to Josef Albers: To Open Eyes, are "spiritual presences: Living, breathing, full of poetry"—not to mention precursors to minimalism and Op Art. But Albers' greatest contribution to art history was as a teacher in three influential schools—in Germany at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, in America at the experimental Black Mountain College of North Carolina in the 1930s and '40s and, finally, at Yale's art department in the 1950s. Eschewing theory, Albers preferred basic hands-on exercises in line, shape and color designed to teach students first and foremost how to see. "There is no substitute for basic skills learned directly through working with materials," the book explains. His classroom techniques included having students trace ellipses in the air, in order to train all their muscles; taking common substances—torn paper, cardboard, wire—and creating self-supporting structures; arranging sheets of colored paper to learn how the eye perceives colors in relationships. Albers was dedicated to form above subject and psychology. His strict approach to abstraction put him at odds with abstract expressionism, but he was never didactic, and once even invited Willem de Kooning to do a "crit" session for his students. This in-depth study of Albers' pedagogical style, based on interviews with nearly 200 of his students, emphasizes the magical effect of his presence—by turns severe and embracing, full of physicality and surprising verbal thrusts. Always, Albers maintained, teaching is "not a question of methods or techniques, but of personality; lasting influence is personal radiation." Proof of the power of Albers' personality can be seen in the work of his more illustrious students, among them Eva Hesse and Ruth Asawa. The is full of examples of Albers' own work and the many fascinating exercises created by his students. Just looking at them makes you want to take up a pencil and start drawing.
Review by Michael S. Gant
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