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Josef Albers was born March 19, 1888, in Bottrop, Germany. He learned various trades as a child but became an elementary school teacher in his native Bottrop, where he taught from 1908 to 1913. He also studied painting and printmaking and became an art teacher in 1913. He studied art in Essen, where he learned stained glass making, and Munich before enrolling himself at the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1920.
His most important creations from that time were in stained glass, though he also studied painting, furniture design and typography. His expertise with glass led him to join the faculty in 1922 and he began to teach a basic design course in 1923 at the behest of founder Walter Gropius, because of his background in handicrafts.
He became a professor in 1925 when the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, where he continued to work with glass and design furniture and where taught alongside established artists, Oskar Schlemmer, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, with whom he collaborated in glass workshops for many years.
When the Bauhaus closed under Nazi pressure in 1933, Albers moved to the United States. On the recommendation of architect Philip Johnson, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, he became head of the art department at the newly established and experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In his time there, his students included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Susan Weil.
In 1936, he was given his first solo show at J. B. Neumann’s New Art Circle in New York for his work in photography and photographic collages. He became a US citizen in 1939.
He remained head of the painting department at Black Mountain College throughout his tenure which ended in 1949. That same year, he began his iconic Homage to a Square series which explored chromatic interactions with nested squares which were usually painted on Masonite. Albers used a palette knife with oil paints and often recorded the colours he used on the back of his works. He continued the series, creating hundreds of works, for the rest of his life.
In 1950, he became the head of the design department at Yale University. He continued to teach and lecture at various colleges and universities until he retired from teaching in 1958.
A major Albers exhibition, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, travelled to South America, Mexico, and through the United States from 1965 to 1967. His Homage to a Square series has been exhibited worldwide and formed the basis of the first solo exhibition given to a living artist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1971. He became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1973.
In addition to painting, printmaking, photography, murals and architectural commissions, Albers published poetry, articles, and books on art. As a theoretician and teacher, he was an important influence on generations of young artists.
He continued to paint and write, in New Haven with his wife, artist Anni Albers, until his death in 1976.