Josef Albers, who played a leading role in transmitting the modern design principles of the Bauhaus to the United States, was born in Germany in 1888. As a young man he was a teacher, but also spent much time visiting museums in Hagen and Munich, where he was first exposed to the paintings of Cézanne, Matisse, van Gogh, and Gauguin. In 1915 he earned a diploma from the Royal Art School in Berlin and later attended the School of Applied Arts in Essen. He moved to Munich in 1920 to study at the academy, and one year later enrolled at the Bauhaus in Weimar, where he met leaders of avant-garde art: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. He began to work in stained glass and printmaking and in 1923 became the first Bauhaus student promoted to the role of instructor, teaching the introductory course. When the Nazis closed the school in 1933, Albers and his wife Anni, a textile artist at the Bauhaus, were invited to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. This important school of art attracted leading artists and talented students, many of whom forged notable careers in later years.
Albers is well known for his compositions that explore the relationships of color through a single, simple form, usually the square. In choosing the square, Albers revealed his knowledge of the work of Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, both of whom had explored the form’s spiritual and formal possibilities. Albers was also aware of the Neo-Platonic significance of the square as a pure form. His main interest, though, was in color and understanding the rules guiding visual experience, an interest that had been sparked at the Bauhaus by Paul Klee’s introductory courses, where superimposed squares demonstrated compositional and spatial effects. Albers developed his own theories regarding spatial effects, contrasts, and harmonies of colors and in 1963 published an influential book Interaction of Color, which elucidated his color theories. He was a key faculty member at Black Mountain College until 1949, though he also taught at times at Harvard University and lectured in Latin America. In 1950 Albers became the head of the Department of Design at Yale University. A venerated teacher and theorist, Albers died in New Haven in 1976.