Josef Albers: Glass, Color, and Light (2017-12-07) by Kristopher McKaySolomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
Josef Albers is renowned for his vivid, colorful Homage to the Square paintings—some of which are currently on view at the Guggenheim in the exhibition Josef Albers in Mexico. The interplay of color, light, and composition in evidence in those works can also be seen in pieces he created using other materials, including glass, metal, and brick.
In 1995, the Guggenheim held an exhibition of Albers’s glass pieces—Glass, Color, and Light—organized jointly by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Josef Albers Foundation, and the catalogue is now part of the Guggenheim Museum Library Main Collection. The book tried to be an exhaustive compendium of all of Albers’s glass art, though many pieces were destroyed during World War II, whether they had been installed in buildings and subsequently wrecked by the Nazis or broken into shards after being shipped to America. Even some of Albers’s later pieces, made in the United States, are now in storage or otherwise no longer on view, making the catalogue one of the few places where any description—written or visual—of these lost artworks still exists.
When Albers first arrived to study at the Bauhaus in 1920, he began using glass as one of his primary mediums, fusing together pieces of glass he found at the town dump. In 1925, he was the first Bauhaus student to be asked to become a professor, and he became an apprentice master of works in the glass workshop.
Albers’s first public commission, in 1918, before he went to the Bauhaus, was for a church’s stained-glass window in his hometown of Bottrop, Germany. The photograph in the catalogue shows a piece that retained some of the traditional elements of a cathedral’s stained glass window, including a central circular motif, creating a modern rose window, using a mix of abstract shapes and Albers’s own version of Gothic lettering.
Eventually, Albers began working with fellow Bauhaus artists Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, creating colored glass windows for a residential house in Berlin, in 1922. In 1926, Albers worked with the Berlin firm of Puhl & Wagner, Gottfried Heinersdorff, to create large glass windows that were installed in the Grassi Museum, Leipzig, and the Ulstein Printing Factory in Tempelhof, Berlin. All of these early windows were destroyed; the black-and-white photographs in the catalogue are all that remain.
Albers was profoundly interested in craftsmanship, and invented a new way of creating his glass art, which he referred to as “wall glass paintings.” He started with a sheet of white milk glass covered with a very thin piece of glass film and then layered with stencils before being sandblasted. The results, as Albers himself wrote, had “unusual color intensity, the purest white and the deepest black and the necessary preciseness as well as the flatness of the design elements offer an unusual and particular material and form effect.”
In America, he accepted a number of commissions for large works in glass: In 1955, he designed the White Cross Windows at St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota, in a building designed by Marcel Breuer, and in 1957, he designed door panels for the Todd Theater in Chicago, designed by Bertrand Goldberg. In 1928, when Albers was still in Germany, he had created a glass painting that he entitled City. This was the basis for a later work, a giant Formica screen, entitled Manhattan, that was installed above the escalators in New York City’s Pan Am (now known as the MetLife) building. Manhattan currently sits in a landfill site in Ohio, where it has been located since its removal from the building in 2000.
In some ways, glass is a sturdy medium, neither fading nor decomposing as time passes. Yet its relative fragility means that it often ends up being destroyed, whether by negligence or intent. Though it is difficult to find surviving examples of Albers’s glass work on display today, this catalogue remains as a memento.
By Claire Lui