Visiting Josef and Anni Albers at their suburban Connecticut home, an art historian finds insights into the artists’ approach to fast food, teacups, and even Heinz ketchup.
Nicholas Fox Weber was a 22-year-old graduate student in art history at Yale when he made his first pilgrimage to the Orange, Connecticut, home of Josef and Anni Albers. It turned out to be the first of many, as his role gradually evolved from acquaintance to assistant to salaried employee to, in 1977, director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. The intimate connection he formed with the couple is at the heart of his 14th book, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism. The book, which also chronicles the lives and work of Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is not just a collection of individual biographies, it is also the story of a school and of a philosophy that deeply influenced contemporary life. The following excerpt highlights a main theme of the book: “every detail of how we live, every aesthetic choice, affects the quality of daily human experience.”
I was taken to meet the Alberses for the first time on a fall day in 1970. In my mind’s eye, the last surviving Bauhaus masters would live in a sleek, flat-roofed house, glistening white, with a band of industrial windows. I imagined them appearing on a balcony railed in stovepipe—just like the ones I had seen in photos of the Dessau headquarters of the revolutionary art school. They would eat lean, geometrically organized food—possibly in keeping with the Mazdaist rules of vegetarianism—and drink tea poured from one of Marianne Brandt’s streamlined metal teapots.
This was one of the many ways I had pictured a very different encounter from the one I had. I certainly had not anticipated that within a couple of hours I would watch Anni Albers put Kentucky Fried Chicken out on a three-tier hospital-style rolling cart, explaining, with her soft voice and German-accented English, that it was always essential to specify “extra-kahrispy”—in order to have chicken like the classic Viennese version. Nor had I imagined that the former Annelise Fleischmann would arrange that takeout chicken on her perfectly plain white Rosenthal porcelain plates in a way that created a lunch with an esthetic harmony I had never before witnessed….
Nor had it occurred to me that in extolling the merits of Heinz ketchup and observing the value of a recipe with 57 ingredients precisely meted out, making me consider the excellence of a glass bottle properly shaped to fit into the palm of one’s hand, Josef Albers would lead me to an understanding of the goals of the Bauhaus. This was my way into an appreciation for the Bauhaus’s fundamental values: knowledge of materials, the need for an object to be designed according to its purpose and executed with a respect for human scale, the willingness of businesspeople as well as artists to devote themselves to bettering the experience of others, and the real emotional benefits of such intelligent, moral, generous thinking.
All that I knew was that the Alberses had been associated with a lot that was pioneering in 20th-century art. Josef’s Homages to the Square had made such an impact on modern painting that he was soon to be the first living artist to be given a solo retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Shortly after the end of World War II, Anni had been the first weaver to have a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art and had subsequently become an innovative printmaker. I looked forward to encountering living history, but I did not yet grasp what the lives of serious artists were like.
As I went off on that autumn day nearly 40 years ago to meet the only remaining gods of the Bauhaus, I looked forward to the encounter with combined thrill and anxiety. But I did not imagine that my eyes would be opened to an entirely new way of seeing. Nor did I realize that with Anni and Josef, and the link they gave me to Klee and Kandinsky and the architects who led the Bauhaus, I would glimpse the humor and pain and the everyday realities as well as the consuming goals of the great Bauhauslers. More important still, I would discover that dedication to one’s passion, and the celebration and attenuation of what is wonderful in life, could become the fulcrum of earthly existence. The immersion in the visual world, not as something peripheral but as the central issue of one’s being, was strong enough to assure not merely one’s survival but an abiding sense of joy.
Turning the corner from from a divided state road onto the Alberses’ winding residential street in the suburban Connecticut town of Orange, 15 minutes from New Haven, I could have been anywhere in America, but I still expected to end up at a streamlined Modernist villa with the style and perfection of a movie set. Instead we turned into the driveway of an awkward, raised-ranch house, its wooden shingles stained the flat beige of Band-Aids, its slanted roof covered with the same asphalt as every other house on the block. I was astonished by its ordinariness.
But the exterior of the Alberses’ house did have some startling elements. The graceless pair of standard rolling garage doors, the first thing that faced us when we stopped the car, had their windows painted out, as if to conceal something important. (I would later discover that there was a treasure trove of paintings behind them.) And the concrete foundation around the perimeter of the house was bare. Whereas most people shielded such foundations behind shrubbery, the Alberses had elected to leave exposed a rough, off-white expanse that conjured images of diggers and cement mixers and boldly acknowledged the demands of building in a climate with frost.
Perceptive visitors noticed. Joseph Hirshhorn, the collector and museum founder, went to the homes of many artists, as well as to those of his rich friends. He told me later that he could not get over the impact of that absence of foundation planting.
The barebones American idiom that suggested L.L. Bean ruggedness more than the international style of Gropius and Mies was deceptive. For, as I would come to learn through the Alberses, this unusual place was more emblematic of Bauhaus values than I initially realized. Its true simplicity and the use of standardized components made this shingle-covered raised ranch the perfect extension of the values of the art school that was one of the glories of Weimar Germany. The way that house facilitated the work and creativity of its residents, and made possible a pleasant standard of everyday living, achieved a Bauhaus ideal.
The essence of the Bauhaus workshops in glass and metalwork and furniture, all of which Josef was in, and of textiles, where Anni ended up, and glass and ceramics had nothing to do with a set style. The importance of Bauhaus ideology was in the way it addressed the connection between our surroundings and our feelings. Morality, emotion, religion, humor: all could be echoed and nourished by what we look at and touch.
The Alberses exemplified this spirit in ways that were, like this house in Connecticut, surprisingly usual and completely unusual at the same time. Josef and Anni were direct and unaffected in their manners; they bought their groceries at the large local supermarket, as well as at the more upscale family-owned market nearer by; they went to nearby discount stores and knew the ins and outs of the nearest strip mall. It’s just that as they did these ordinary things they brought magic to the experience, through their astuteness and powers of observation. Moreover when they returned to their studios from their errands in Middle America, they made art that was poetic, original, and inestimably rich….
The man I encountered that day in 1970 was in many respects unchanged from the person who had started giving the Bauhaus foundation course in 1923. Albers followed a teaching method and approach he had developed even before Moholy-Nagy joined the staff, and which he considered superior to Moholy’s ideas. He deemed Moholy’s teaching, like the man himself, confused and unpleasant. His own teaching was, in contrast, an extension of the training he had received from his father, and therefore eminently sensible. He determined that the physical properties of the components of one’s work should be the starting point. While he believed that [Johannes] Itten went no further than texture—Albers often compared himself favorably to his contemporaries, stressing not just that they were second-rate, but also that they were morally corrupt—he was determined to investigate the real properties of materials. He would recall telling his students, “Let’s try what we can do new with wire. Give it a new shape, what can we do with matches, what can we do with matchboxes in a project. And then later I introduced the study of paper, what [sic] was at that time considered a wrapping material.” He exposed the students, he explained, to “the most important craft materials, such as wood, metal, glass, stone, textiles, and paint, and to an understanding of their relationships, as well as the difference between them. In this way we tried… to develop an understanding of the fundamental properties of materials and of the principles of construction.”
Albers had the students work with their hands with materials ranging from paper to steel, with rock that was resistant to cutting and rock that quickly crumbled, and with a diversity of artistic media. He also arranged for them to observe professionals using various techniques. “We visited the workshops of box, chair, and basket makers, of carpenters and cabinetmakers, of coopers and cartwrights, in order to learn the different possibilities of using, treating, and joining wood.” The students were then assigned to make objects, among them storage containers and toys and toy furniture, first from a single material and then from various materials combined. Once they had achieved the necessary mastery, he encouraged inventiveness, but the know-how came first.
In the early ’70s, half a century after he taught this use of materials in Weimar, Josef Albers had a favorite restaurant on the Boston Post Road, in the strip mall nearest his home. It was called the Plank House; even the name appealed to him, with its straightforward reference to solid materials.
The Plank House—which Albers pronounced “zee Puh-lehnck Haus”—was part of a chain, a forerunner of the restaurants that have proliferated since, with a menu that consisted mainly of broiled steaks and a copious salad bar. It also featured an offering of fish sturdy enough to stand up to firing on a sizzling grill, which fascinated Albers because it showed an understanding of the chemical components and structures of the fish in relation to the way its flesh responded to heat, and also because he liked swordfish. What has since become a restaurant cliché seemed, at the time, excitingly inventive, and it was to the Plank House that Anni and Josef would take Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lord Snowden, Henry Geldzahler, Maximilian Schell, and the other interesting visitors who came to see the master in his modest studio. The regular lunch crowd of bank tellers and car salesmen seemed impervious to the colorful art-world figures who arrived with the elderly German couple in their dark green Mercedes 240 SL, while the Alberses marveled at every detail of this ordinary slice of American life.
On one of these state occasions when I was lucky enough to be invited along, the first thing Josef pointed out was the laminated tables. Their heavy wood veneer tops were coated in a thick layer of shiny polyurethane. Josef liked to rub his hand across the surface, saying it was a perfect use of technology, because it was comfortable to eat on, satisfying to look at with the wood grain shining through, and, most important of all, easy to clean. With one wipe of a damp sponge after every use, it always looked brand-new, he explained with unabashed joy—the same delight with which Anni, discussing new materials, would say, “I love ‘drip-dry.’ ”
Josef also admired the salad bar. For this there were many reasons. The clear plastic domed shield that served the purposes of hygiene while one looked at the produce was, again, a perfect match of a modern material with multiple goals. The array of salads and condiments thrilled him—especially the pickled beets and the various seeds, which reminded him of some of the tastes and textures of his youth. But what was best of all was the way that the serving bowls and the plates were all kept chilled. He noted particularly how the metal containers retained their coldness even longer than other vessels.
He didn’t just make casual comments about these details; he marveled at them. They reflected an intelligence, a knowledge, and a clarity of thought that had, he told me, been the very essence of what he had tried to impart at the Bauhaus….
One afternoon when I arrived at the Alberses’ house, Josef had me join him in his studio right away. He had just solved a major problem and was eager to tell me about it.
At the Bauhaus, he explained, he had designed an alphabet in which every letter was constructed from small squares and circles or fractions thereof. These were the only components allowed.
Having drawn the letters, he also made them out of white milk glass, cutting the geometric components out of a sheet about a centimeter thick. This was so they could be used in relief. The arrangement was such that if these letters were applied to outdoor surfaces, neither falling snow nor dead leaves would get stuck on them. Rather, they would fall through the letters, which had vertical slits and concave, never convex, shapes at their tops. Besides having in common with Klee’s work the artist’s self-imposed restriction to a bare minimum of underlying units, the “Kombinationsschrift” adhered to these inviolable rules. Thus Albers outsmarted nature.
At the Bauhaus, however, Josef had never been able to resolve the letter Z. He had tried reversing the S, but deemed the mirror image of the S’s right-angled triangles and semicircles not quite fluid. Now, after all these years, he had figured it out and designed a Z that satisfied him. He had drawn it in pencil on top of a photograph of the original glass alphabet he cut at the Bauhaus. Looking triumphant, he showed me the new Z and then handed me the photograph. “Here, Nick. You are the keeper of the Z.”
I tried not to overread the moment, but I took the responsibility seriously.
In Albers’s tea glasses, two ebony handles, each half of a flat disk, one vertical and one horizontal, are attached to a curved stainless-steel band that holds the glass cup under its slightly flared lip. Here Albers was accommodating the way in which human beings instinctively pass or receive small objects. He explained to me, with considerable satisfaction, that for the person handing over the tea glass, it made sense to hold the horizontal handle, while the recipient did better with the vertical one. To deduce this, he had studied the way people cocked their wrists and used their fingers. That attentiveness to everyday experience, with its implicit reverence for human capability, was fundamental to Bauhaus thought. This was Josef Albers’s vital message: “Observe! Celebrate! Apply your intelligence to every act! Make the most of things. Relish the moment.”
Excerpted from Nicholas Fox Weber’s The Bauhaus Group, published by Alfred A. Knopf. ©2009 Nicholas Fox Weber.