A beautiful confluence

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A beautiful confluence
6
A beautiful confluence
Nicholas Fox Weber
To understand the reasons for this exhibition devoted
to the passionate connection between Anni and
Josef Albers and anonymous art made in distant and
remote locations centuries before they were born,
please picture a tennis lesson on an isolated court in
the mountains. It makes sense, because it was a
tennis court in the mountains that, half a century
ago, caused me to meet these extraordinary people.
It is 7:00a.m., a good hour to play before
the sunlight is too strong on Majorca in summer.
Rain and sunshine and the earth's nutrients are the
ruling forces here, and the mountain peaks reach
heavenward. Nightingales are singing tO celebrate
the recent dawn, and wild mountain goats, skipping
along the jagged cliff face from which they might
observe the intense exchange of forehands and backhands, bleat loudly, communicating in a language
we do not understand. The air is as pure as the clean
white spaces Anni and Josef always lived in.
Majorca is a place where visitors fr om all
over the world converge because they love natural
beaury and the pleasures of life, and the pro, Miguel,
half-English, half-Spanish, a strong and wiry player
and first-class teacher, makes some observations
about German clients. I hate generalizations about
nationalities, but listen. Miguel opines that one
would expect Germans to do as told, to follow
instructions. "But they do not. They have it in their
heads that their way is the right way, and they don't
listen. They won't change, and don't want to
challenge what they think has been good enough
until now. I tell Jurgen, who is two meters tall, to
come tO net, but he has always played at the baseline
with his unwieldy strokes, and won't consider
anything new. He is afraid tO switch his approach."
Since the Alberses made similar statements
abo ut their childh ood worlds, I am all ears. They did
not hesitate to speak of what they considered
indigenous tO the people of Germany, where they
were both born. Class or fi nancial situation were
never the issue; the sense of inviolable rules
pervaded. Anni and Josef spoke of the people and
institutions they deemed the exemplars of Miguel's
cliches because they were so determinedly the
opposite. These two individuals devoted to making
art and redesigning the visible world were always
searching, responding to the new, and delighting in
being open-eyed and open-eared.
And how they relished the panoply of
human existence, so that, on this summer morning
nearly forty years after Josef's death, and over
twenty since Anni's, they are, as ever, whether
considering national traits or imbibing the sort of a ir
they loved at Machu Picchu when they trekked there
in the 1950s, whether smiling at a little clay Aztec
image of a ball player or applying deep black ink to
white paper, designing at every moment, alive still.
8
A BEAUTIFUL
CONFLUENCE
For Anni and Josef Albers were, in their thinking,
always young, as were the artists they loved when
they immersed themselves in the lively, free,
imaginative objects of civilizations long gone.
Anni was brought up, wealthy, in Berlin.
She was raised to follow social rules and traditions,
and to meet precise expectations. In the industrial
Ruhr valley, choked in coal smoke, Josef was
trained by his father, an impecunious laborer skilled
with wood and paint and stone, to apply known
techniques and familiar tools to work his materials,
to copy the old rather than search for the new.
Both of them, over many marvelous conversations
with me in the house I thought of as the Americanized Bauhaus, in Connecticut, in the early 1970s,
would characterize such hidebound rigor as "the
old German way, and all we wanted to get away
from." They loved some aspects of the culture
in which they were raised-we were eating their
preferred apple strudel, from Mrs. Herbst, a gifted
baker of German classics in New York; it was the
only strudel they felt was light enough in the pastry
and sufficiently tart in the apple filling, with the
raisins offering just the right staccato-but, they
told me, "We were always happy to move on.
We liked adventure: new ways."
Miguel's observations made the memories
flow. Martin Brandenberg, Anni's art teacher, was
like a father figure to her during World War I.
He forbade her, as a teenager, from using black
pigment in her painting. It was inadmissible in
Impressionism, his preferred method. She argued
and insisted otherwise. That night, she cried when
her mother instructed her that she had to obey or
stop lessons with him. Anni did as told, but only
briefly. In little time, she told her parents she would
not assume the expected role of homemaker in
their world of bourgeois luxury but was going to
a new school, with unprecedented ideas, called
the Bauhaus. Off she went, to a small room on
the outskirts of Weimar, alone in the world until
she met "the lean, half-starved, ascetic looking
Westfalian"-Josef-whom she would marry three
years later. She immediately put bold expanses of
black in her minimalist, geometrically abstract wall
hangings. They extolled their physical components,
using threads and knots as a source of beauty,
avoiding any of the floral patterns or decorative
motifs of the draperies and upholstery materials of
her childhood. For the rest of her life she sought
new ways of doing things, listening to the loom
as she made pioneering textiles, letting the thread
guide her as much as she guided it. She learned and
expanded on what the machinery could do before
she embarked on a printmaking project in which
she used techniques-acid bath lithography,
photo-offset and silkscreen mixtures-no one had
ever before considered.
Josef violated the norm as a young grade
school teacher, near his hometown of Bottrop, by
emphasizing experimentation rather than the
accumulation of knowledge. He advocated
independent thinking rather than learning by rote.
Then he, too, "threw everything out the window
and started life all over again"-his words to meby going to the Bauhaus. At age thirty-two, he was
so broke when he got to Weimar that he could not
afford art supplies. At the town dump, he hacked
up bottle fragments, and then in the school's glass
workshop he assembled them as glorious, radiant,
abstract artworks of a type never before imagined.
The Masters told him he would be thrown out if
he did not try other media. He defied them, gave
himself a solo show of his glass compositions,
and invited the vaunted gentlemen responsible for
his future . Rather than expel Josef, Gropius and
Muche and Kandinsky and Klee invited him to join
their ranks as a Master.
No, they were not Miguel's typical
Germans, and they took conscious delight in their
revolution. For they were more interested, always,
in what was universal and timeless. In spring of
1933, the SS padlocked the doors of the Bauhaus.
The Third Reich proposed that the school reopen in
compliance with them; Josef was one of the seven
masters to decide to close the Bauhaus forever
rather than submit the school to totalitarian rule.
The Alberses went to America, quickly, a surprise
even to themselves because the founders of Black
Mountain College invited Josef to make art the
focal point of the curriculum. Rather than bemoan
the change, they embraced the benefits of exile, and
immersed themselves in Latin American culture.
They started in Cuba. Then they went to Mexico,
where they would make fourteen journeys, and,
in later years, to Peru and Chile and Argentina.
New worlds opened to them.
On the first trip to Mexico, a road
journey from Black Mountain College, taken with
their friends Ted and Bobbie Dreier in the Dreiers'
Model "A" Ford, a child standing on the side of
the road tried to sell Anni a goat wrapped in a
blanket. She said no to the goat, but wondered
about the blanket. The little boy showed her an
old clay figurine he would also sell her. She bought
the blanket and the little figurine for a few pesos.
Soon, with little money, truly no more than a
pittance, Anni and Josef were acquiring Maya pots
and Tlatilco figures. They acquired them because
they felt at home with them. These earlier
civilizations were inhabited by people like them.
The Alberses felt complete camaraderie with
everyone, everywhere, who loved the pleasures of
seeing, who delighted in manipulating form, who
saw color as a direct source of human well-being.
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10
A BEAUT IFU L
CO NFLU ENCE
"Art is everywhere," they said of Mexico.
There and elsewhere, so long as people were true
to their instincts and savored the feasts of the eyes,
celebrating universal wonders rather than indulging
in needs too selfish or personal, Anni and Josef
were happy.
I had gone to Majorca in part to visit
friends who have become passionate devotees of
the Alberses' art, feeling its unique radiance and
warmth, and in part to work with Petro Kohut.
Perro is a massage therapist and expert on the
human body, whose essay linking Josef and Anni's
artistic approach with that of pre-Columbian
potters appears in this catalogue. Anni used to say
"You can go anywhere from anywhere," and liked
to quote Kandinsky saying, "There is always an
and." Josef was passionate about "thinking in
situations" and "minimal means for maximum
effect. " Those precepts apply to every corner of the
globe, at any period of rime, for all human beings.
It is these universal points-evident in the objects
Anni and Josef collected, as in a well-played tennis
point, as in the work of Perro Kohut-rhar link
all people, and that are revealed, we hope, in this
exhibition.
One day, in 1974, I arrived at the
Alberses' house when Josef's face, often pink, was
a florid red. I asked how he was. He was furious.
A well-known American artist, a man reputed for
the chic restaurants he went to and for his sequence
of glamorous wives, had said, in an interview
in The New York Times that morning, that " he
achieved eternity in his art. " Josef was outraged.
"Eternity?!" he shouted. "Not even Michelangelo,
not even Piero, not even Leonardo would say he
achieved it. Who claims it ? That swine."
Suddenly Josef wa lked, full steam, to the
windowsill of the kitchen. He picked up a small,
hand-painted, Mexican folk art clay bird. "You see
this bird, Nick. We bought it for a couple of pesos
in a marketplace. It is no different from many of
the objects you find in all marketplaces. But it has
more of eternity than those fa ncy artists in New
York and the Hamptons. For whoever made it, he
or she, back then or now, loved color, and knew
how to work clay. Look at that pink flower and the
green background! Beautiful! We don 't know who
the person is, but the person did not want to call
attention to himself, or herself. Rather, it is about
birds, and flying, and color, and art, and life."
The qualities ava ilable to all of us,
everywhere, always.
I met the Alberses beca use, as a Columbia
College undergraduate, happily studying art history
with Meyer Schapiro and Rudolf Wittkower and
others of those splendid teachers guiding us to the
joys of art, I spent my summers working at a tennis
camp in the White Mountains of New H ampshire.
I fancied a girl who taught with me; she did not
return the feeling. But we could be "just friends,"
she said-the statement few men want to hear,
even when stated kindly and warmly-and she
introduced me to her parents. They collected Josef
and Anni's art, and, a couple of years later, when
I was at Yale Graduate School, they rook me to
meet the legendary artistic couple, by then the only
surviving masters from the Bauhaus. An amazing
friendship began.
After a couple of months of getting to
know one another, I showed Anni two Esmerelda
pots I had bought in Ecuador when I was fifteen.
I am sure I paid no more than a dollar each for
them in 1962. They were, as was so much else,
signs to her that we were soulmates. I had not
thought myself unusual. She maintained, though,
that for a boy brought up in the Connecticut
suburbs to spend a summer, at that age, in Quito,
when there was a coup d'etat, and to return merrily
with these sublime objects, was a sign of looking
with fresh eyes.
T he same can be said for all people who
adore good air, the pleasure of games, the marvels
of seeing. On behalf of Anni and Josef, I thank,
most especially, Nick Murphy, who has played an
invaluable role at every stage of this endeavor, and
in addition, the group of independent people w ho
all appreciate what make human beings similar
rather than different, which was so important to
these two great a rtists. With th eir hard work and
devotion to vision, this exhibition and its catalogue
extend, in a new way, the Alberses' appreciation
and perpetuation of earthly joy.
A beautiful confluence
Nicholas Fox Weber
Per comprendere le ragioni di questa mostra
dedicata alia passione che lego Annie Josef Albers
all'arte anonima di luoghi lontani e remoti, risalente a secoli prima delloro tempo, vi invitiamo
ad immaginare una lezione di tennis su un campo
sperso tra le montagne. Si, perche fu grazie ad un
campo da tennis tra le montagne che, mezzo secolo
fa, conobbi queste due straordinarie persone.
Sono le 7 del mattino, abbiamo un'ora
buona prima che il sole estivo di Maiorca sia
troppo violento per poter giocare. La pioggia, Ia
luce del sole e le sostanze nutrienti della terra sono
le forze che regnano in questo luogo, dove le cime
dei monti svettano verso l'alto dei cieli. Gli usignoli
stanno cantando in omaggio dell'alba appena nata
e le capre selvatiche, balzellando lungo Ia parete
frastagliata della falesia da cui possono osservare
l'imenso scambio di dritti e rovesci, belano sonoramente, comunicando in un linguaggio che non
comprendiamo. L'aria epura come i limpidi spazi
bianchi che Annie Josef han no sempre abitato.
Maiorca e un luogo in cui convergono
visitatori da rutto il mondo, accomun ati dall 'amore
per Ia bellezza della natura e i piaceri della vita e iJ
professionista, Miguel, mezzo inglese e mezzo spagnolo, giocatore forte dal fisico asciutto e istruttore
di primissimo livello, decide di condividere le sue
osservazioni sui clienti tedeschi. Detesto le generalizzazioni in base alia nazionalita, rna lo ascolto.
Secondo Miguel, da un tedesco ti aspetteresti che
faccia quanto gli viene detto, che segua le isrruzioni.
"Manon e cos!. Sono cocciutamente convinti che il
loro modo sia quello giusto e non ascoltano. Non
cambieranno mai e non sono minimamente disposti
a mettere in discussione cio che per loro ha funzionato fino ad ora. Continuo a dire a que! gigante
di due merri che eJurgen di andare a rete, rna lui
ha sempre giocato sulla linea di base con i suoi tiri
goffi e si rifiuta di considerare qualcosa di nuovo.
Ha paura di cambiare approccio".
Dato che ho sentito gli Albers parlare
in modo simile dei loro mondi d'infanzia, sono
tutto orecchie. Josef e Anni si sono sempre espressi
liberamente su quanto di autoctono ritenessero
appartenere al popolo della Germania, il loro paese
natio. Non era mai una questione di classe sociale
o di posizione economica; tutto aveva sempre e
solo a che fare con un senso inviolabile delle regole.
Se Annie Josef parlavano di persone ed istituzioni
che consideravano esemplificativi dei cliche di
Miguel era perche ne erano decisamente agli
antipodi. Q uesti due individui dediti a creare arte
e a ridisegnare il mondo visibile erano sempre alia
ricerca del nuovo, viaggiavano in risposta al nuovo,
e traevano piacere dall'essere di am pie vedute e di
ascolto attento.
Quanto era grande illoro entusiasmo per
il vasto e variegato spettacolo della vita umana!
Tanto grande che, in questa mattina d'estate a
circa quarant'anni dalla morre di lui e pili di venti
da quella di lei, che stiano disquisendo di tratti
nazionali o assaporando Ia qualira dell'aria di
Machu Picchu, di cui si innamorarono durante le
!oro escursioni negli anni '50, che stiano sorridendo
una figurina azteca in terracotta raffigurante un
giocatore di pallone o siano intenti ad applicare
inchiostro nero ad un foglio di carta bianca,
disegnando in ogni momenta, Anni e Josef Albers
sono sempre e ancora vivi.
Sl, perche nelloro modo di pensare, sono
sempre stati giovani, come lo erano gli artisti che
adoravano quando si immergevano negli oggetti
vivaci, liberi, e fantasiosi di civilizzazioni antiche.
Anni e cresciuta a Bertino. La famiglia,
benestante, le insegno a rispettare regole sociali e
tradizioni e a soddisfare aspettative precise. Nella
valle indusrriale della Ruhr, soffocata dal fumo
nero delle ciminiere, il giovane Josef imparo dal
padre, un lavoratore indigente rna bravo con il
legno, Ia pitrura e Ia pietra, a lavorare Ia materia
con tecniche note e attrezzi comuni, a replicare il
vecchio piuttosto che cercare il nuovo. Entrambi,
durante le tante meravigliose conversazioni che
abbiamo condiviso nei primi anni '70 nella !oro
casa nel Connecticut, quella che io consideravo Ia
Bauhaus Americanizzata, erano soliti caratterizzare
que! rigore retrogrado come "Ia vecchia maniera
tedesca, ovvero tutto cio da cui volevamo fuggire".
C'erano aspetti della !oro cultura d'origine che
adoravano- dopotutto, stavamo mangiando iJ
loro strudel aile mele preferito, quello della Signora
Herbst, talentuosa fornaia di prelibatezze tedesche
di New York; er a l'unico strudel che ritenevano
sufficientemente leggero nella sfogli a e aspro
quanto basta nel ripieno alia mela, con le uvette
a dare il giusto staccato-rna, come mi dicevano
spesso, "Non abbiamo mai esitato a voltare pagina.
Ci piaceva l'avventura: modi nuove".
Le osservazioni di Miguel fecero riaffiorare i ricordi. Martin Brandenberg, il professore
di arte di Anni, fu quasi una figura paterna per lei
durante Ia prima guerra mondiale, quando era solo
ru
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