With the closure of the Bauhaus, Josef Albers and Anneliese Fleischmann (Anni Albers) were among the first wave of Bauhäusler to flee the threats of the Gestapo. On the recommendation of Philip Johnson, director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Albers were invited by John Andrew Rice and Theodore Dreier to join the faculty of Black Mountain College, arriving in November 1933. Once in America, the couple fulfilled their long-standing desire to travel in Mexico, visiting the country fourteen times between 1935 and 1967.
Rather than to disseminate the foundational principles of the Bauhaus, Mexico offered both artists a laboratory for redefining the relationship between modern art and ancient craft. Whereas Walter Gropius asked in his inaugural Bauhaus manifesto for a generic return to the latter—“Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts!” was his motto in 1919—the Alberses had in mind a more specific agenda: to reconnect modern art with pre-Columbian artisanal philosophies, an aesthetic tradition they believed to be the cornerstone of modern abstraction.
Indeed, through their work the Alberses sought to reinvigorate a social philosophy in which matter and spirit intertwined, a constructive belief Anni identified in the weaving tradition of the Andean region and Josef in pre-Columbian architecture he documented while visiting various Mexican archeological sites. Inverting the traditional relationship between the modern avant-garde and primitivism, Josef viewed pre-Columbian craftsmen as his spiritual comrades and Mexico as a point of origin for the kind of truthful aesthetic experience modern abstract artists searched for. In a letter sent to his friend and former colleague Vasily Kandinsky, dated 22 August 1936, Josef describes Mexico as “truly the promised land of abstract art, [which] here it is already 1000s of years old.”1
I Truthfulness in Art
Truthfulness was for Josef Albers the key concept establishing a spiritual bridge between modern abstraction and pre-Columbian artisans. In a lecture entitled “Truthfulness in Art” (1937), presented on 11 December 1937 at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, he highlighted the spiritual materialism he perceived as an essential feature of the architectural and plastic works he found in Mexico, asserting: “Let us learn from the Mexican artist truthfulness to conception and material, truthfulness to art as spiritual creation … Let us recognize again the great discipline of the Mexican sculptor. It teaches us: Be truthful with materials.”2
For various reasons, “Truthfulness in Art” marks a turning point in Albers’ career as an artist, catalyzing many of his future endeavors. The lessons he learned from pre-Columbian artists’ approach to materials guided his own return to oil painting, to which he had returned after several years away from the medium, beginning a series of abstract oils in the mid-1930s characterized by the exploration of what he described in his lecture as the irrational functionalism of art—an understanding of form, matter, and color that went beyond pure logical thinking. In works such as Angular (1935), Mexican (1936), Temple (1936), and Pyramid (1937) he confronted the dilemma of mixing colors, a pictorial technique he began to perceive as untruthful, potentially obscuring the spiritual materiality of painting. From then on, Albers emphasized the crafted tactility of color, inaugurating what I call his transcendental chromaticism: the spiritual revelation of form and matter through the truthful interaction of colors.3
In his Harvard lecture, Albers also describes photography as an artistic medium capable of showing pre-Columbian plastic works as “active volumes.” For him, “active volume” is the capacity of matter to be animated from within with truthful emotions. Not having a specific word for evoking the half-physical, half-spiritual quality of the architecture and crafted objects he encountered in Mexico, Albers uses technical terms such as “turgescence” and “tumefaction” when explaining the material vivacity of pre-Columbian art.4 His photomontages of clay figurines and truncated pyramids—composed of fragments of contact sheets depicting objects captured from different angles—seem to have been produced in accordance with a rigorous visual syntax, a sequence of multiple perspectives that render cinematic the volume of the objects depicted.
As far as we know, this lecture was one of the few occasions in which Albers publicly presented his photographs of Mexico. Rather than constituting ethnographic evidence, his photomontages of pre-Columbian art were for Albers a sort of secret repertoire of “active volumes,” allowing him to archive a vocabulary of forms to use later in his own art. Interestingly, towards the end of his lecture Albers describes an aesthetic revelation experienced during his third trip to the country. It is possible that Albers granted himself rare license to share these images at Harvard in order to offer students a glimpse of this Mexican epiphany. Contrasting slides of pre-Columbian Mexican architecture, ceramics, textiles, and clay figurines with Egyptian, Greek, Cretan, Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese examples, the talk ends with the following pithy epigram:
“In connecting this talk on old art with my talks of last year on modern art problems I would like to give you to consider a formulation that occurred to me in Mexico:
Rational functionalism is technique,
Irrational functionalism is art.
Art is creation
It can be based on but is independent of knowledge.
We can study art through nature,
but art is more than nature.
Art is spirit
and has a life of its own.
Art in its nature is anti-historical
because creative work is looking forward.
It can be connected with tradition
but grows, consciously or unconsciously out of an artist’s mentality.
Art is neither imitation nor repetition
art is revelation.”5
His Harvard lecture makes clear Albers possessed a great admiration for Mexico’s pre-Columbian culture. Albers not only acknowledged the innately abstract thinking of the pre-Columbian artisan throughout his talk, by using expressions such as “I believe no other country, no other period has such a rich and vital plastic work,”6 he also emphasized his own fascination with the spiritual materialism of the pre-Columbian crafts.