Everything is Hovering. (The Swarm of Mosquitoes)

This letter in the form of a poem—although addressed to “my dear Andres”—was sent by Josef Albers to his closest friend Franz Perdekamp. At the time Albers was teaching elementary school in his hometown, Bottrop. The poem’s German title Alles schwebt. (Der Mückenschwarm) translates into English as Everything is Hovering (The Swarm of Mosquitoes). Its theme is the imperative for the individual to break away from the mindless crowd—represented metaphorically by a swarm of mosquitoes. Albers invokes an earlier, Gothic, era when community was a strong force and each individual contributed to a unified, positive, creative, and orderly forward momentum in society. He compares that social behavior to that of his contemporaries who move restlessly in all directions but never forward, and who self-consciously prefer to take their cues from their neighbors rather than to think for themselves. Unfinished, extensively rewritten and corrected, this poem, dismissed by Albers as an unsuccessful attempt, presciently raises exactly the philosophical credo on which the Bauhaus was founded. It is not surprising that Albers would be attracted by Walter Gropius’s 1919 call to form a community of craftspeople who would develop their individual talents to collaborate for the greater good of society. The poem encapsulates a credo that Albers retained throughout his long life.

(The English translation here is followed by the original German.)

Bottrop, June 22, 1917
To my dear Andres!
(Today I received your letter of May 25.)
Everything is hovering. (The swarm of mosquitoes)

I see many people—many ways.
In all a restless back and forth—
or up and down
with no real escape from the spot.
Everyone senses his place through his neighbor
But anyone who must move beyond cannot bother
about the others,
unlike them—he must forge straight ahead
Then he may well be alone
but he will be outside—and if this should be his death:—
will feel the infinity of the universe.

Will the others follow sometime?
[This cannot concern him]
Perhaps a later swarm will arrive
(without knowing it, unworthy,
blown in by the wind, if you will)
to this one’s place or into his way
and then maybe also feel a new air

I still see the second one,
who would sweep the crowd away with him from the spot
that cannot not fly straight.
He would slide through unnoticed by the others.
At most, advancing slowly
   by moving up and down or left and right
he could wrest the others along in his course
(But he succumbs too early from
the many digs in the ribs from his neighbors
and the bumps from the charger.)

And yet there was a Gothic era,
for there was forward movement in the swarm
It seems this was caused by a concurrence
of many kindred chargers
Later we also had some very strong ones
But they were isolated or not allied
And did not pull the era far along.

As for the “third ones” that wanted to reach it in the “smoothness”
I simply think: cunning is not strong leadership
and a modern hairstyle gives no new life
to an outdated course.

Duty defeats the strongest desire
Thus the first one
The “straight–line mover” goes farthest

And today we feel a strong
   push in the same direction
   and we anticipate and hope for
   a new Gothic era
(Expressionism I mention only as a name)
   That merely brings us
   the unintended unity
   of many "eyes focused on infinity"

Andres was supposed to get this letter
but because it was not written perfectly
I seek to put it to use elsewhere.

Best wishes, Jupp

*(Note: The letter contains many crossed-out words. It is written in Latin script, but a few words are in Sütterlin script.)

Bottrop, den 22. Juni 1917
Für meinen lieben Andres!
(Ich erhielt heute deinen Brief vom 25.V.)
Alles schwebt. (Der Mückenschwarm)

Ich sehe viele Menschen—viele Wege.

Im Ganzen ein rastloses Hin und Her—

oder Hinauf und Herunter

ohne ein rechtes Fortkommen vom Fleck.

Jeder fühlt seinen Ort durch seinen Nachbar

Wer aber weiter muss, kann sich nicht um den

und die anderen kümmern,

muss anders als die anderen—geradeaus

Er wird dann wohl allein

darf aber draussen—und sollte es sein Tod sein:—

das Unendliche des Alls fühlen

Ob die anderen einmal nachkommen?

[Ihn kanns nicht quälen]

Vielleicht gelangt ein späterer Schwarm

(ohne es zu wissen, ohne sein Verdienst

meinetwegen vom Winde hingeblasen)

an des einen Ort oder auf seinen Weg

und fühlt dann vielleicht auch eine neue Luft

Ich sehe noch den zweiten,

der die Menge mit sich vom Fleck fortreissen will

der darf nicht geradeausfliegen.

Er würde durchgleiten, ohne das ihn die anden fühlen.

Höchstens durch ständiges langsam vorwärts—

   ziehendes Auf-und-Niedersteigen oder links—

   und rechtsgehen

könnte er die Nachbarn mit in seine Bahn reissen

(Aber die vielen Rippenstösse bei den nächsten

und die Beulen beim Stürmer

lassen ihn vorzeitig erliegen.)

Und doch gabs eine gotische Zeit,

da es im Schwarm vorwärtsging

Das machte wohl ein Zusammentreffen

vieler starker gleichartiger Stürmer

Hatten wir auch nachher solche von besonderer Stärke

Sie waren doch einzeln oder nicht verwandt

Und gaben der Zeit nicht den grossen Zug.

Für die „Dritten“ die ihn im „Glattsein“ erreichen wollen

glaube ich kurz: List ist keine Führerkraft

und zeitgemäße Frisur gibt veraltetem Kurs

nicht neues Leben.

Müssen besiegt das stärkste Wollen

Darum kommt jener erste

Der „Gradausgänger“am weitesten

Und fühlen wir heute viel starkes
   richtungsgleiches Drängen

   und ahnen und hoffen wir

   eine neugotische Zeit
(Expressionismus nenne ich nur als Namen)
   Das bringt uns nur

   die ungewollte Einheit

   vieler auf „Unendlich eingestellter Augen“

Diesen Brief sollte erst Andres haben

weil er aber nicht einwandfrei geschrieben wurde*

suche ich ihn noch anderswo nützlich zu machen.

Mit Gruß Dein Jupp

*(Anmerkung: Der Brief enthält Wortstreichungen. Er ist in lateinischer Schrift, ein paar Wörter sind jedoch in Sütterlin geschrieben)

Letter from Josef Albers to Franz Perdekamp, June 22, 1917

The Origin of Art

The origin of art:

The discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect

The content of art:

Visual formulation of our reaction to life

The measure of art:

The ratio of effort to effect

The aim of art:

Revelation and evocation of vision

Albers dated this statement to ca. 1940. It was subsequently published in numerous catalogues and articles on Albers. Albers adopted the last line "Revelation and evocation of vision" as the mission for the Josef Albers Foundation, formed in 1971

On My "Homage to the Square"

Seeing several of these paintings next to each other makes it obvious that each painting is an instrumentation in its own.

This means that they all are of different palettes, and, therefore, so to speak, of different climates. Choice of the colors used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction—influencing and changing each other forth and back.

Thus, character and feeling alters from painting to painting without any additional “hand writing” or, so called, texture.

Though the underlying symmetrical and quasi-concentric order of squares remains the same in all paintings—in proportion and placement—these same squares group or single themselves, connect and separate in many different ways.

In consequence, they move forth and back, in and out, and grow up and down and near and far, as well as, enlarged and diminished. All this, to proclaim color autonomy as a means of a plastic organization.

Written in 1954 and published in numerous catalogues and articles and in various languages

The Color in My Paintings

They are juxtaposed for various and changing visual effects. They are to challenge or to echo each other, to support or oppose one another. The contacts, respectively boundaries, between them may vary from soft to hard touches, may mean pull and push besides clashes, but also embracing, intersecting, penetrating.

Despite an even and mostly opaque application, the colors will appear above or below each other, in front or behind, or side by side on the same level. They correspond in concord as well as in discord, which happens between both, groups and singles.

Such action, reaction, interaction—or interdependence—is sought in order to make obvious how colors influence and change each other; that the same color, for instance, —with different grounds or neighbors—looks different. But also, that different colors can be made to look alike.

It is to show that 3 colors can be read as 4, and similarly 3 colors as 2, and also 4 as 2.

Such color deceptions prove that we see color almost never unrelated to each other and therefore unchanged; that color is changing continually: with changing light, with changing shape and placement, and with quantity which denotes either amount (a real extension) or number (recurrence). And just as influential are changes in perception depending on changes of mood, and consequently of receptiveness.

All this will make us aware of an exciting discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect of color. But besides relatedness and influence I should like to see that my colors remain, as much as possible, a “face”—their own “face”, as it was achieved—uniquely,—and I believe consciously—in Pompeian wall-paintings—by admitting coexistence of such polarities as being dependent and independent—being dividual and individual.

Often, with paintings, more attention is drawn to the outer, physical, structure of the color means than to the inner, functional, structure of the color action as described above. Here now follow a few details of the technical manipulation of the colorants which in my painting usually are oil paints and only rarely casein paints.

Compared with the use of paint in most painting today, here the technique is kept unusually simple, or more precisely, as uncomplicated as possible.

On a ground of the whitest white available—half or less absorbent—and built up in layers—on the rough side of panels of untempered masonite—paint is applied with a palette knife directly from the tube to the panel and as thin and even as possible in one primary coat.

Consequently there is no under or over painting or modeling or glazing and no added texture—so called. As a rule there is no additional mixing either, not with other colors nor with painting media. Only a few mixtures—so far with white only—were unavoidable: for tones of red, as pink and rose, and for very high tints of blue, not available in tubes.

As a result this kind of painting presents an inlay (intarsia) of primary thin paint films—not layered, laminated, nor mixed wet, half or more dry, paint skins.

Such homogeneous thin and primary films will dry, that is, oxidize, of course, evenly—and so without physical and/or chemical complication—to a healthy, durable paint surface of increasing luminosity.

J.A.

Written ca. 1954 and published in numerous catalogues and articles and in various languages

To Design is to Plan and Organize

To design is


to plan and organize,


to order, to relate


and to control

In short it embraces


all means opposing


disorder and accident

Therefore it signifies


a human need


and qualifies man’s


 thinking and doing

Consequently,


a school of design


is not first an opportunity


to express oneself

It is an educational area


to teach systematically


and to learn step by step


—through practical work


and thus through experience—


observation and


articulation.


Our department of design


therefore promotes particularly


basic studies:

Basic Design and Basic Drawing


Basic Color and Basic Sculpture,


also Lettering and Drafting


as required training


for specialized studies:

in drawing and painting


in graphic design and photography


in typography and printmaking


elemental and structural sculpture

The success of such a program


obviously depends


on dedicated teaching


directed by love besides method


and devoted students


encouraged by the excitement


of growth of vision.

J.A.

First published as “Art at Yale,” in the Yale Alumni Magazine, March 1958. Later re-published in numerous articles and catalogues, often using only the first six lines

In Behalf of Structured Sculpture

It is an antiquated concept of the 19th century that human action and development follow primarily economic conditions. It is just as erroneous as the equally old assertion that the development of art depends on wealth.

Now, in the midst of the 20th century it should be recognized that psychological reasons are more commanding than economic reasons; that being is more decisive than riches. Also, equality is non-existent, mentally as physically.

In a comparative parallel between architecture and sculpture we have seen that periodic preferences—obvious particularly in fashion—follow the psychological sequence of action–reaction, and reaction–action.

Thus, it was only natural that after a long period of emphasis on volume in sculpture, a pronounced interest in line succeeded. But we have seen also that in both fields only a few were drawn to the other opposite, the inbetween of volume and line, namely the plane as basic form element: the plane which challenges an entirely different articulation, and which opens also new aspects of volume and line. With a thinking in planes, sheets, especially of metal and plastics, have become a focal point, as well as a point of departure.

Working in such material and shape, which means starting sculpture almost within two dimensions, demands readiness for restriction, since limitations obviously reduce possibilities.
Planning again becomes imperative, and with it, preparatory studies, sketches, plans and blue prints, repeated trying and testing. All of which distinguishes and separates initial rehearsing from final performance.

Thus, realization—execution and presentation—are of primary concern. Instead of individual expression and personal handwriting, workmanship and precision dominate. Which explains also why folk art appears anonymous and timeless, why it avoids accidentals—and withstands fashion.

Again, beginning with idea and vision, moves thinking and seeing to the front, and with it self-control and self-correction. After so much drowning in impotent gesticulation and surrender to aimless happenings, a new hope appears justified: for something actually new and promising.

Josef Albers
May 1961

Published in edited form as “The Yale School—Structured Sculpture” in Art in America 49:3, (1961) 74–77 with images of sculpture by Albers’s students exhibited at Galerie La Chalette, New York, in December 1961

1917 Everything is Hovering.
(The Swarm of Mosquitoes)

1940 The Origin of Art

1954 On My "Homage to the Square"

1954 The Color in My Paintings

1958 To Design is to Plan and Organize

1961 In Behalf of Structured Sculpture