Anni and Josef Albers were pioneering 20th-century artists whose work, writing, and teaching demonstrably transformed the way that people see color and the processes of making art.

1920–1933

The Bauhaus

Josef Albers arrived at the Weimar Bauhaus in 1920, the year after it was founded. He was supported by the Westphalian Regional Teaching System with the understanding that after a year he would return to the Bottrop region and resume his old job. But at the Bauhaus he became too intrigued with making assemblages out of discarded glass shards and bottle bottoms that he found in the town dump to consider leaving, and although he was told he had to try other media, he gained such respect from the Bauhaus masters that in 1925 he was one of the first students to be appointed a master. In 1922, Annelise Fleischmann had arrived from Berlin; she met Josef soon thereafter. She was initially turned down in her efforts to be admitted to the Bauhaus, but Josef helped her for a second set of tests, and she was admitted to the weaving workshop. They married in 1925. Anni would eventually direct the weaving workshop; Josef would work in carpentry, metalwork, glass, photography, and graphic design. At the Dessau Bauhaus, they lived in one of the Masters’ Houses, and in 1932, when the city government of Dessau stopped paying teachers’ salaries, they joined others at the Bauhaus when the school moved to makeshift headquarters in Berlin. In 1933, when the Bauhaus faculty, Josef among them, elected to close the school rather than comply with the Third Reich, the Alberses were left without jobs and with complete uncertainty about the future, especially because they already realized the significance of Anni being Jewish in the Nazi era.

1933

Coming to America

In July of 1933, Anni encountered the young American architect Philip Johnson in Berlin. They had already met at the Bauhaus, where Johnson admired Anni’s work. Anni invited Johnson up for tea to show him her latest work as well as the white linoleum floors in her and Josef’s flat. Johnson, baffled, said he thought that the textiles were by Lily Reich, who had shown them to him earlier and claimed them as hers; he wanted to right the injustice. He asked Anni if she and Josef wanted to go to America; without reflection, Anni replied, “Yes.”

Shortly thereafter, Josef was invited to teach at the newly-formed, pioneering Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The Alberses wired back saying that Josef spoke no English; they were told to come anyway. Everything concerning visas and the paperwork necessary for the trip went unexpectedly easily; in New York, there were “angels”—Anni’s term for them—in the background, Johnson and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller II and Edward M.M. Warburg helping push the permission through while paying for the Alberses’ first-class steamship fare.

Josef and Anni Albers on their arrival in the United States, November 1933. Photo: Associated Press

1933–1949

Black Mountain College

From the moment that the Alberses arrive on the campus of the experimental Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, they felt at home. They quickly made new friends, and Josef started teaching, initially with Anni translating for him, and then, shortly thereafter, on his own. His main language was visual, with the words of lesser importance, and students were wildly enthusiastic for the encouragement he gave them to experiment with form and color while gaining sureness of artistic techniques. Anni began to teach weaving and created wall coverings and drapery and upholstery materials while also making individual textiles to be regarded as independent artworks with no functional purpose. The Alberses traveled to Cuba in 1934, and in in 1936 went to Mexico with their friends Ted and Bobbie Dreier; it was the first of fourteen trips to the country where, they said, “art is everywhere.” By 1949, the internecine difficulties at Black Mountain caused the Alberses to leave and move to New York City, where, that same year, Anni was the first woman and the first textile artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.