Josef Albers and the Pre-Columbian Artisan

Fig. 01
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Guarded, 1952
Oil on Masonite, 60.9 x 60.9 cm
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.1.1341
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

In his inaugural manifesto for the Staatliche Bauhaus, Walter Gropius proposed a new artistic agenda and pedagogical practice based on craft and artisanal principles. “Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts!” was his motto in 1919. This article analyzes how prominent Bauhaus teacher and artist Josef Albers, entered into dialogue with a very specific kind of artisanal aesthetic: the pre-Columbian crafts he encountered on his many trips to Mexico. Revisiting a lecture (“Truthfulness in Art”) delivered in 1937, after his third trip to the country, the article studies the way in which Albers learned from the abstract tradition of pre-Columbian artisans, incorporating their knowledge into his own artistic and pedagogical practice.

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.

II Art as spiritual creation

The profoundly intimate connection between Josef Albers and Mexico has not gone unnoticed among scholars and curators. Series such as Graphic Tectonic (1942), Structural Constellation (1955), or his well-known Homage to the Square (1950–76) have been characterized as formal transpositions of Mesoamerican architectures and Mexican pyramidal volumes.7 However, the spiritual or even religious correlation between his oeuvre and pre-Columbian aesthetics has been systematically disregarded, mainly because of the popular belief that his work is cold, secular, and rationalist. This misconception contradicts his notion of “art as spiritual creation,” as well as his assertion that the “aim of art [is the] revelation and evocation of vision.”8 As Nicholas Fox Weber has argued, “He was not totally secular; although Albers may not have used known religious imagery, what he evoked through color is magical and intensely spiritual.”9

From this point of view, far from simply evoking ancient diagrammatic architecture projected from a bird’s-eye perspective, his Homage to the Square series (fig. 01) can be properly described as a spiritual revelation involving pre-Columbian architecture—that is, an attempt to visually unfold the interior of matter, color, and form from the metaphysical foundations of pre-Columbian art, allowing the beholder to look the external world from within. In accordance with his idea that “Art is not to be looked at; art is looking at us”10 my argument in this text is that his Homages synthetize his Mexican epiphany: a Bauhausian encounter with the very essence of pre-Columbian artisanal philosophy. Though Albers never explicitly connected the symbolism of the Mexican pyramids he obsessively photographed with his Homages, the series seems to suggest a chromatic journey to the center of the pyramid, to the ritual architectonics of matter and color.

In speaking of a ritual tectonic experience revealed throughout his constructive implementation of color, I am not suggesting Albers attempted any sort of ethnographic or archeological transposition in this series. Instead, I argue that what it truly reveals is the cumaltive somatic experiences Albers captured—sometimes literally through the photomechanical lens—when visiting places such as Mitla, Tenayuca, Uxmal, and Monte Alban. (fig. 02) What Josef Albers learned from the pre-Columbian sculptor was not a formulaic constructive technique. Rather, he was inculcated in a philosophical principle derived from the intersection of artisanal crafting and aesthetic thinking.

Following this hypothesis, I argue that the Homages derive from the chromatic condensation of an abstract visual concept: the stepped-fret motif known as xicalcoliuhqui in Nahuatl.11 (fig. 03) This motif was for Albers the most eye-opening architectural element of the Oaxacan archaeological site Mitla, excavated by Alfonso Caso and Daniel Rubín de la Borbolla in 1934 – 35. Albers extensively photographed this motif and composed photomontages with the resulting images. (fig. 04) His Homages cannot be detached from his understanding of the motif as a grounded signifier; that is, as the spiritual gateway to the architectonic center of the pyramid, conceptually represented in the woven steps and rhythmic openings of this ancient abstract form.

Josef Albers, Tenayuca with stone serpents seen from above, 1939
Gelatin silver print,
8.6 x 11.6 cm
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.7.461;
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020; photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art.

Josef Albers, Detail of stonework, Mitla, Mexico, ca. 1937
Gelatin silver print,
24.7 x 17.7 cm
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.7.376;
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020; photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Fig. 04
Josef Albers, Mitla, 1956
Gelatin silver prints and postcards mounted on cardboard, 20.3 x 30.5 cm
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.7.994
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

II Tectonics of the Xicalcoliuhqui

Found throughout North America, Mesoamerica, and the Andean region, the xicalcoliuhqui is a sophisticated abstract concept with no definite archeological meaning. This Nahuatl expression could be translated as “volute of the curcubit basin” (voluta de jícara). For some scholars it evokes aquatic elements such as waves and seashells or atmospheric phenomena such as storms, clouds, and hurricanes. For others, the cosmographic symbolism of the xicalcoliuhqui is closely linked to the underworld of Mictlán (or Mitla, in Spanish), the abode of the dead.

Formally, the xicalcoliuhqui divides into three, four, or five different elements, depending on the interpretation of the motif as a whole and the specific variant in question. Archaeologists have recognized at least thirteen versions of the motif in Mitla, the site where Albers was exposed for the first time to xicalcoliuhqui.12 In the pattern located in the central panel of the Palace of Columns (photographed by Albers), art historian Mauricio Orozpe identifies five distinct elements: the stairs, the spiral, the hook, the center, and the column.13 (fig. 05) For Orozpe, most interpretations focus on the positive sign of the isolated symbol, overlooking the multidirectional complexity of the xicalcoliuhqui when presented unfolded and duplicated, intertwining the positive space of one motif with the negative space of a contiguous rotated one. By means of accumulation, the serial tableau adds meaning to the symbol, embedding high and bas-reliefs, active and passive forms, in a non-hierarchical arrangement. In doing so, the symbolism of the xicalcoliuhqui becomes unstable, polysemic, expansive, and rotatory: descending stairs suddenly appear as ascending passages; the deepest core of the spiral unexpectedly becomes the access door to a new journey.

Basing his analysis on the correspondence between the geometric pattern of the xicalcoliuhqui and the numeric composition of the tonalpohualli, the 260-day ritual calendar widely used by the Zapotecs, Orozpe argues that most interpretations fail to understand its significance because they are blind to the architectural background, the negative space hidden in the relief. “Surprisingly none of the examined studies embrace the natural graphic relation between shape and background of this design,” he contends. “Devoted to solving the mystery of the form and its symbolism, those studies disregard the background, an inexcusable omission for artists and graphic designers.”14

Orozpe’s observations are based on the same visual insights that allowed Albers to revamp the Vorkurs in 1923, establishing him as a prominent meister at the Bauhaus. Familiar with gestalt principles such as figure-background proportionality and passive-active forms, Albers asserted in 1928, in the second Bauhaus school bulletin, that “the activation of negativa (of remainders, intermediate, and negative values) is perhaps the only entirely new, perhaps the most important aspect of contemporary interest in forms … If one gives equal consideration and weight to positive and negative values, then there is no ‘remainder’.”15

Unusual in Western art, the overwhelming presence of active negative designs across Mexico encouraged Albers to feel at home as a Western abstract artist in search of pre-modern visual truths. As he posited in 1939, pre-Columbian plastic works “present form problems very little known in [the] Western tradition (but alive again in abstract art). For instance, the problem of equal activity of form and rest-form.”16 Thus it is unsurprising that after visiting Mitla and Monte Albán, among other places, Albers was amazed at the sophisticated nature of the activated negative space of the xicalcoliuhqui. As he states in his Harvard lecture:

Fig. 05
Joaquín Barriendos, stepped-fret motif scheme, 2017
Repository: Personal archive

There we can study again a very modern art problem. The relationship between active and passive, a certain proportion between positive and negative elements, a proportion very rare throughout all European and Oriental art work. … It teaches us a very high social philosophy, namely, real democracy in this way: Every part serves and at the same time is served.17

IV Squaring the Stepped Gateway

At some point between his first two sojourns in Mexico (1936–37), Albers started a new series of drawn and painted works devoted to exploring his encounter with Tenayuca, a set of ruins located northwest of Tenochtitlan, dated as having been built between 1200 and 1521. Based on modulations of color, juxtaposed volumes, and displaced perspectives, his Studies for Tenayuca reiterates geometric drawings similar to those of the Linear Constructions. The ruins of Tenayuca that inspired Albers’s work consist of a double pyramid projecting from a large platform base, bordered on three sides by 138 stone sculptures of snakes. The pyramids sit side by side, their facades marked by ascending dual stairways that lead to twin temples at the pyramid’s apex suggesting from above a mirror image. (fig. 06)

Tenayuca has been evoked as concrete proof of the direct link between Albers’ art and pre-Columbian architecture, where most of the cases providing formal juxtapositions between ancient and modern abstract designs. Scholars such as James Oles, have argued that pieces such as Variation on Tenayuca (ca. 1938) literally represent the diagrammatic profile and three-dimensionality of the double pyramid.18 (fig. 07) Art historian Kiki Gilderhus suggests that rather than the architectonics of the pyramid Variation on Tenayuca depicts the stone sculptures known as xiuhcóatl, the coiled solar serpents surrounding the whole Tenayuca complex, guiding the sun’s journey along the coatepantli (wall of serpents). She argues: “The painted Tenayuca motif is actually inspired by the serpent sculptures at the base of the pyramid rather than of the pyramid itself … He translated the tightly coiled serpent body and spiral shaped head into two stylized squares.”19 (fig. 08)

Fig. 06
Josef Albers, Pyramid of Tenayuca, n.d.
Gelatin silver print,
17.6 x 24.9 cm
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.7.631;
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020; photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Fig. 07
Josef Albers, Variation on Tenayuca, ca. 1938
Watercolor wash with black ink and lithographic crayon,
24.1 x 39.4 cm
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.2.245;
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020; photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Fig. 08
Josef Albers, Tenayuca June ’39, 1939
Gelatin silver prints mounted on cardboard, 25.7 x 40.6 cm
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.7.630
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020
Photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

Both interpretations are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I sustain that in Variation on Tenayuca the architectural base and the stone serpents coexist in dialogue with other elements of the xicalcoliuhqui. In other words, Variation on Tenayuca represents the symbolic interaction of components of the stepped-fret motif instead of schematizations of isolated parts. As previously asserted, Albers understood art as neither imitation nor repetition but revelation instead. He never intended to literally translate Mexican forms into his own abstract art, and explicitly rejected literal extrapolations based on his admittedly toponymic titles. On the contrary, Albers endeavored to reveal aesthetic truths and to give form through his oeuvre to impossible compositions. Since the arrangement of the coatepantli (column), the devouring entrance-mouths attached to the bottom of the pyramid (stairs), and the squared composition of the coiled serpents orienting the calendric function of the double structure (spiral – hook) are components of the xicalcoliuhqui, it is my belief that all these elements collide visually in the Tenayuca series.

More to the point, Albers aimed in this series to disassemble the xicalcoliuhqui, splitting up and distributing in different planes the five elements of the motif: stairs, spiral, hook, center, and column. Confronting one part with another, Albers offers a mirror image in which figure-ground spaces, negative-positive areas, and passive-active lines combine in a floating constellation. In the same way that his Linear Constructions produce visual paradoxes, his Studies for Tenayuca make use of tectonic volumes, folding and unfolding in zenithal, frontal, and diagonal directions. In this way, the viewer’s gaze is invited to meander, traverse the portals, scan the murus (Latin for “wall”), circle the columns, and climb the stairs of the multilayered constellation.

Instead of functioning as a technical study of the xicalcoliuhqui, the series reflects an experience of the motif’s transcendental and spiritual basis. His Studies for Tenayuca function as tectonic multilayered excavations of the xicalcoliuhqui in the sense that they allow the viewer to see the inside of the stepped-fret motif, comprehending both the whole and the parts as if beholding a rotating image. The application of color emphasizes the painting’s deceptive construction as a spatial suspension of form. Albers’ photomontages featuring the architectural materiality of the xicalcoliuhqui allowed him to create a montage chain for animating and disassembling the stepped-fret motif—a sort of slow-motion cinema he developed for revealing the functional irrationalism of the motif.

After several years dissecting the visual morphology of the xicalcoliuhqui through his photomontages, Albers came across an obvious but audacious proposition: to reverse the strategy—condensing the sections of the xicalcoliuhqui in a single frontal chromatic formulation instead of breaking them up into sequences. In this way, the floating images of the Tenayuca series inspired the transition of the xicalcoliuhqui into pared-down chromatic propositions, the Homage to the Square series. The activated chromatic volume of this series are the end result of contorting the five elements of the xicalcoliuhqui, subsuming each one into another and forcing them to coexist in a confined visual universe. The quasi-concentric composition of the Homage series subsumes three attributes characteristic of ancient Mesoamerica’s symbolic architecture under one single chromatic superposition: the fauces-gate, the core-tomb, and the serpent-base. (fig. 09)

V The Hidden Code of the Square

As early as 1956, Jean Charlot, a member of the group of Mexican mural painters and a good friend of Albers, had the intuition that, as reversible or deceptive pyramids, his Homage series contained a hidden mystery.

“Albers favors these deceptive figures that the mind apprehends in one way, only to discover at a second reading new terms incompatible with the first ones, and equally valid … Pyramidal shapes will be at first convex, as monuments surveyed from a plane in flight, only to reverse themselves, become concave shells, their sides receding to the caved-in tip, as if it were a mummy’s outlook from the burial chamber to the pyramid’s outward slopes.”20

This early observation proposes a journey deep within the pyramid. By descending inside the painting, Charlot induces the viewer to see the world from within the square. His interpretation of the series also coincides with understandings of the pre-Columbian pyramid as a “sacred mountain” falling under the custody of Cocijo, the owner and provider. As archeologist and art historian Robert Markens asserts, “Considering their characteristics, the temples of the Columns Group at Mitla were arranged and perceived as models of the ‘Sacred Mountain’ (Cerro Sagrado) or ‘Provision Mountain’ (Montaña de Sustento).”21

Charlot’s description of the Homage paintings as tombs also intersects with Mauricio Orozpe’s interpretation of the xicalcoliuhqui at Mitla, in which the stepped-fret motif represents a two-way (ascending-descending) ritual journey. In Orozpe’s words, “entering Mictlán means you must be swallowed by the stepped fauces of Cipactli, graphically represented with the downward spiral of the xicalcoliuhqui,” only to take “the reverse path, that is, the upward stairway toward the place where clouds and winds are formed, represented with an ascending stair.”22 In the same vein, art historian Maria Teresa Uriarte describes a variety of stepped elements in pre-Columbian architecture as facilitating purifying immersions into the realm of Mictlán. She asserts, “stairways, caves, and the centers of ball courts serve as gateways for accessing and at the same time for leaving the underworld; so much as a celestial body finds its way to a rebirth at the end of the descending nocturnal journey.”23

Fig. 09
Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square (Autumn Scent/Smell), 1966
Oil on Masonite,
40.6 x 40.6 cm
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, 1976.1.124;
© 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; photo: Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art

If the xicalcoliuhqui symbolizes a mythical stairway, the quasi-concentric stepped squares of the Homage series should be approached as spiritual gateways granting access to the very center of the pyramid. In other words, if the motif condenses the entire symbolism of the pyramid, Albers’ chromatic volumes serve as gateways for those in search of universal aesthetic truths and timeless abstract forms. It is not coincidental that the earliest prototype for the series, a painting dated 1936 (the exact moment when he began the Studies for Tenayuca, Graphic Tectonics, and Linear Constructions), is titled Gate (1936), as if he were preparing his initial descent through the passages of pre-Columbian architecture. (fig. 10)

Following his Harvard lecture, Albers produced a number of important paintings, woodcuts, and drawings illustrating core gateways—including To Mitla (1940) and Study for Airy Center (ca. 1938)—forms that anticipate the architectural openings of his Variant/Adobes, such as Luminous Day (1947–52), and the penetrable squares of the Homage paintings. Photomontages from this period also suggest his interest in gates and passages. In various photomontages featuring Mitla, Albers included shots in which a portion of Anni Albers’s body appears, standing under lintels. In one surprising shot, Theodore (Ted) Dreier seems to be entering the interior chamber of the Palace of Columns, as if about to be devoured by the architecture.24 As Neal Benezra asserts, “As seen by Josef Albers, this is an architecture of mystery; while the outermost stones are bleached with light, the interior spaces are shrouded in darkness and ambiguity.”25

Josef Albers’ former Bauhaus colleague Marcel Breuer once called him a “frustrated architect.” Indeed, there are many clues about his fascination with architectonic woven volumes as well as stonemasonry. A mystical architect of vision, his devouring squares are gateways to the spiritual realm of the Bauhütte and the constructive foundations of the pre-Columbian sculptor. From positive to negative, descent to ascent, the terrestrial to the eternal, the xicalcoliuhqui and its gestalt require a reconciliation of parts to the whole, epitomizing many lessons within Albers’s lifelong quest for a truthful, modern abstract art.

Fig. 10
Josef Albers, The Gate, 1936
Oil on Masonite,
49.5 × 51.3 cm
Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Collection Société Anonyme; © 2019 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

  • 1 The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation preserves the originals in German. English translations are taken from Brenda Danilowitz, Heinz Liesbrock (ed.): Anni and Josef Albers: Latin American Journeys, MNCARS, Madrid 2006, p. 227.
  • 2 The original typescript of “Truthfulness in Art” remained unpublished for more than seventy years and has been only slightly investigated. This lecture was first published in English in 2014 in Josef Albers: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect, Fundación Juan March, Madrid 2014. All quotes were taken from this edition, p. 238.
  • 3 “Constructive color’ is an expression coined by Johannes Itten, the Bauhaus professor who conceived the preliminary course (Vorkus). As chief curator of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation Brenda Danilowitz has shown, Albers rigorously practiced a “very strict painting diet”: applying oil paint directly from the tube to the Masonite surface. See Danilowitz: “From Variations on a Theme to Homage to the Square: Josef Albers’s Paintings 1947–1949” in: Danilowitz and Liesbrock: Anni and Josef Albers, op. cit., p. 143.
  • 4 Albers: “Truthfulness in Art,” op. cit., p. 237.
  • 5 Albers: “Truthfulness in Art”, op. cit. p. 238.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 237.
  • 7 See Irving Leonard Finkelstein: “The Life and Art of Josef Albers” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1968); Neal Benezra: “The Murals and Sculpture of Josef Albers” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, April 1983); Brenda Danilowitz: “‘We Are Not Alone’: Anni and Josef Albers in Latin America” and Kiki Gilderhus: “Homage to the Pyramid: The Mesoamerican Photocollages of Josef Albers” in: Brenda Danilowitz and Heinz Liesbrock (ed.): Anni and Josef Albers: Latin American Journeys, exh. cat., Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2007; Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye: “Making Mesoamerica Modern: Anni and Josef Albers as Collectors of Ancient American Art” in: Small Great Objects: Anni and Josef Albers in the Americas, exh. cat., Yale University Press, New Haven 2017; Karl A. Taube: The Albers Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Hudson Hills, New York 1988; Nicholas Fox Weber: “A Beautiful Confluence,” in: A Beautiful Confluence: Anni and Josef Albers and the Latin American World/Anni e Josef Albers e l’America Latina, exh. cat., Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Conn. 2015.
  • 8 In Josef Albers: “Truthfulness in Art”, op. cit. p. 238, and Josef Albers: “The Origin of Art” (ca. 1940); reprinted in Josef Albers: Minimal Means, op. cit., p. 253, respectively.
  • 9 Fox Weber: “The Artist as Alchemist,” in: Josef Albers: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York 1988, p. 14.
  • 10 Josef Albers: “Seeing Art” (ca. 1952), Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin 24, October 1958, pp. 26–27; reprinted in Minimal Means Maximum Effect, p. 274.
  • 11 Herman Beyer coined the expression “greca escalonada,” locating its origin in Mesoamerica. See Bayer: “El origen, desarrollo y significado de la greca escalonada,” El México Antiguo vol. 2, 1924, pp. 61–121.
  • 12 In 1924, Herman Beyer described twelve morphological variations. Apud. in: Ortiz, El huracán. Su mitología y sus símbolos, FCE, Mexico City 2005, p. 204.
  • 13 Mauricio Orozpe Enríquez: “La greca escalonada,” in: El código oculto de la greca escalonada: Tloque nahuaque (Ciudad de México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas, 2010), pp. 21–32. Ortiz also recognizes five essential graphic elements in every variant, “each of them with its specific emblematic value, but integrated in a sole complex symbol. They are: the spiral, the conoidal or triangular base, the zigzag, the stairs, and the opening”. See Ortiz, op. cit, p. 185.
  • 14 Mauricio Orozpe Enríquez, op. cit., p. 25. All translations from the book are by the author.
  • 15 Josef Albers: “Teaching Form through Practice” (1928), in: Minimal Means, Maximum Effect, op. cit., p. 212; originally published as “Werklicher Formunterricht,” Bauhaus Zeitschrift für Gestaltung 2, no. 2/3, 1928, pp. 3–7. Emphasis in original.
  • 16 Josef Albers: “Concerning Abstract Art” (1939) in op. cit., p. 245.
  • 17 Ibid.
  • 18 See James Oles: South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination, 1914–1947, exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 1993, p. 167.
  • 19 Gilderhus: “Homage to the Pyramid”, op cit., p. 127.
  • 20 Jean Charlot: “Nature and the Art of Josef Albers,” College Art Journal 15, no. 3, Spring 1956, p. 196.
  • 21 Cira Martinez, Marcus Winter, and Robert Markens: Muerte y vida entre los zapotecos de Monte Albán (Arqueología Oaxaquena, 5), Centro INHA, Oaxaca 2014, p. 13.
  • 22 Orozpe: El código oculto …, in op. cit. pp. 127–28.
  • 23 Maria Teresa Uriarte: “Tepantitla, el juego de pelota” in: Beatriz de la Fuente (ed.): La pintura mural prehispánica en México, vol. 1, book 2, Teotihuacán, UNAM, Mexico City 1990, p. 262. All translations from this book are by the author.
  • 24 Albers was always intrigued by portals and entrances, as can be seen in Two Portals (1961), a monumental mural in the Time-Life Building in New York.
  • 25 Benezra: “Murals and Sculpture of Josef Albers”, op. cit., p. 80.
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Für die Entwicklung seiner abstrakten Bildsprache und seines Bauhaus-Unterrichtes bediente sich Paul Klee unterschiedlicher Quellen, die er im Alltag, auf seinen Reisen oder in Büchern entdeckte. Das Studium nicht-europäischen Designs von Gebäuden und Stoffen, die Fantasiearchitektur der aus Tunesien mitgebrachten Aquarelle oder die auf Papier entworfenen Stoffmuster der Weberinnen bildeten die Grundlage für Werke wie Teppich, 1927, 48. → more

Weltkunstbücher der 1920er-Jahre — Zur Ambivalenz eines publizistischen Aufbruchs

Um 1900 erschienen die ersten Kompendien und Handbücher über sogenannte Weltkunst. Nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg explodierte dann die Anzahl der Publikationen über außereuropäische Künste. Diese fanden auch sogleich Eingang in die 1919 neu etablierte Bauhaus-Bibliothek. Diese Buchreihen lassen erkennen, unter welchen Bedingungen nichteuropäische Kunst in den 1920er-Jahren rezipiert wurde: als Inspirationsmaterial, als Ausdruck der Kanonkritik an einer europäischen Hochkunst und als Plädoyer für die Aufhebung zwischen Kunst und Kunsthandwerk, aber vor allem auch welches Verständnis von „Welt“ hier reproduziert wurde. → more

Dry Time — Anni Albers Weaving the Threads of the Past

When the Bauhaus was formed it was meant to be the reversed image of contemporary history and society. If the outside world was a field where opposing forces, in the form of class and national struggles, raged, the Bauhaus aimed to extricate itself from these conflicts in order to establish an alternative primordial community. In this essay, Maria Stavrinaki comments on what seems to be Anni Albers’s problematic relationship to the past in general and to history in particular. Anni Albers is not a unique case though, but rather a case study, which despite its particularities, can be considered as analogical to the Bauhaus in general. → more

Working From Where We Are — Anni Albers’ and Alex Reed’s Jewelry Collection

Not by nature acquisitive and certainly not art collectors, Josef and Anni Albers began in 1936 to collect Mexican figurines and other artifacts unearthed from that land’s memory. They described the country, which they first visited in 1935, as “the promised land of abstract art.” Returning to Black Mountain College Anni Albers and Alexander Reed began experimenting with everyday articles to create a strange and beautiful collection of objects of personal adornment inspired by their visit to Mexico. → more

Andean Weaving and the Appropriation of the Ancient Past in Modern Fiber Art

Ancient and Indigenous textile cultures of the Americas played a critical role in the development of the work of fiber artists who came of age in the U.S. in the late 1950s and 1960s. Anyone who has studied fiber art of this period, myself included, knows this well. They openly professed an admiration for traditions ranging from Navaho weaving, to the use of the backstrap loom in Mexico and Central America, to the ancient weaving techniques of Peru. → more

Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles

At the time Anni Albers wrote On Weaving in 1965, few discussions of Andean textiles “as art” had appeared in weaving textbooks, but there were numerous publications, many of which were German books published between 1880 and 1929, that documented and described their visual and technical properties. Albers almost single-handedly introduced weaving students to this ancient textile art through her writing and her artistic work.  → more

“Every Moment Is a Moment of Learning“ — Lenore Tawney. New Bauhaus and Amerindian Impulses

“I felt as if I had made a step and maybe a new form. These evolved from a study of Peruvian techniques, out of twining and twisting. Out of that came my new way of working, of dividing and separating the piece.” Lenore Tawney’s “Woven Forms” are not purpose-built in a (Western) crafts sense; they move beyond traditional European rules of weaving and attempt to approach an indigenous attitude towards craft and technique. This essay shows how Tawney charted her own unique path in fiber art by linking Amerindian impulses with Taoist concepts of space and Bauhaus ideas. → more

Questions about Lenore Tawney — An Interview with Kathleen Nugent Mangan, Executive Director of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

The search for the spiritual characterized Lenore Tawney’s long life, and was reflected in both the iconography and materials she used in her work. She was a regular diarist and her journals provide valuable insight into this deeply personal search. bauhaus imaginista researcher Erin Freedman interviews Executive Director of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation, Kathleen Nugent Mangan, about Tawney’s approach and work. → more

kNOT a QUIPU — An Interview with Cecilia Vicuña

In this recorded interview, Vicuña describes how after she first learned about quipu, she immediately integrated the system into her life. Quipu, the Spanish transliteration of the word for “knot” in Cusco Quechua, is a system of colored, spun and plied or waxed threads or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. They were used by the Inca people for a variety of administrative purposes, mainly record-keeping, and also for other ends that have now been lost to history.  → more

Diagonal. Pointé. Carré — Goodbye Bauhaus? Otti Berger’s Designs for Wohnbedarf AG Zurich

Gunta Stölzl. Anni Albers. These are the most prominent names today when one thinks of actors in the Bauhaus textile workshop. Both had been involved in the textile workshop since Weimar times, shaping it through their understanding of textiles and their teaching. Otti Berger did not join the workshop until Dessau. Stölzl and Albers succeeded in leaving Germany in 1931–32. And they succeeded in continuing to work as textile designers and artists. Berger succeeded in doing this, too, but accompanied by an ongoing struggle for recognition and fair remuneration. → more

The World in the Province from the Province to the World — Bauhaus Ceramics in an International Context

In this article Hans-Peter Jakobson presents the various influences, both national and international, and direct and indirect, influencing the views on ceramics taught in the Ceramic Workshop of the State Bauhaus Weimar Dornburg. Based on the life paths, inspirations and influences of the few ceramists who emerged from the Bauhaus workshop in Dornburg, he traces possible worldwide developments in ceramics to the present day. → more

Reading Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture in North America, 1957

In the 1960s, the interest in a regional and vernacular architecture evolved into a sort of counterculture against the prevailing modernism in the USA. Sybil Moholy-Nagy’s book is an early document of this movement and today a classic of architecture history. It features buildings and construction techniques that emerge from social practices and whose builders remain anonymous. They include Amerindian settlement forms, Mexican pueblos and churches, as well as barns and houses of the first European settlers. → more

Vernacular Architecture and the Uses of the Past

In sending out the manuscript of Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture to a publisher, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy added a note on the “Genesis of the manuscript,” which is quite revealing about the intellectual trajectory that gave rise to it. She positioned herself as first and foremost a traveling observer, learning from direct contact with artefacts and buildings, curious about their histories and willing to interpret material evidence and local narratives. → more

The “Workshop for Popular Graphic Art” in Mexico — Bauhaus Travels to America

The global developments that led in 1942 to the appointment of Hannes Meyer, second Bauhaus director, as head of the workshop for popular graphic art, Taller de Gráfica Popular (henceforth referred to as the TGP), made it a focal point for migrating Europeans in flight from fascism. This essay aims to shed light on how the TGP was influenced by Europeans granted asylum by Mexico before and during World War Two, and, conversely, to explore the degree to which these exiled visual artists, writers, and architects’ ideas came to be influenced by their contact with artists active in the TGP. → more

Lena Bergner — From the Bauhaus to Mexico

The story of Lena Bergner is relevant to the history of architecture and design on account of her career passing through different ideological and cultural contexts. Here we will discuss her life and work, focusing on her training in the Bauhaus, her time in the USSR and her time in Mexico, where, along with her husband the architect Hannes Meyer, over a ten-year period she undertook cultural projects of great importance. → more

Of Art and Politics — Hannes Meyer and the Workshop of Popular Graphics

The Mexico of President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río was a fertile ground for the development of ideological questions, especially those originating from the left. The expropriation of oil fields, mining and large estates in 1938, the refuge granted Spanish republicans and members of the International Brigades in 1939, and the accord of mutual support between the government and syndicalist organizations all favored the formation of artistic and cultural groups willing to take part in the consolidation of revolutionary ideals which, until that point, had made little progress. Among these organizations was the Taller de Gráfica Popular, the Workshop of Popular Graphics. → more

bauhaus imaginista — and the importance of transculturality

What bauhaus imaginista has documented thus relates to a particular historical phase, one that opened a path to the renewal of the art situation in Morocco. And yet, although more recent generations of Moroccan art historians and critics often mentioned the period as a formative and unavoidable reference point, they never really deepened study of that period. It somehow remained in the shadows of other phases and realities. But cultural memory has its rhythms, and the moment arose when the years of the Casablanca Group called for attention, demanding its artistic accomplishments be better understood. In this regard, the bauhaus imaginista project came at the right moment and has had important repercussions. → more


I was sixteen years old when I undertook my first journey into finding a professional vocation, first in Asilah, then in Fez followed by Tétouan. 1952. Tangiers was, to me, an open book, a window on the world. The freedom of seeing, of discovering and of feeling, of weaving the narratives of my dreams. → more

The Bauhaus and Morocco

In the years when Western nations were committed in new projects of partnership, with what was then called the “Third World”, young artists and students from the Maghreb had grown up in the passionate climate of the struggle for independence, were talented, open to modernity, and eager to connect with twentieth-century international art movements, which were different in production and spirit from colonial ideology and culture. → more

École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca (1964–1970) — Fonctions de l’Image et Facteurs Temporels

Utopie culturelle vécue, posture éthique et préfiguration de la modernité artistique et culturelle marocaine, l’École des Beaux-arts de Casablanca est, de 1964 à 1970, le lieu de cristallisations d’aspirations sociales et artistiques portées par un groupe d’artistes et enseignants responsables d’une restructuration des bases pédagogiques. → more

Les Intégrations: Faraoui and Mazières. 1966–1982 — From the Time of Art to the Time of Life

Les Intégrations exemplified a specific conceptual motif, one that acted not within a single field but rather implied a relationship of interdependence between different media (visual arts and architecture) and techniques (those of graphic arts and architecture). They thus allowed for the emergence of disciplines that were not static in formation but evolving in relation to one another. The intermedial relationship they created between art and architecture raises the question of what lies “between” these disciplines: how do they communicate with each other? What are the elements of language common to this “spirit of the times,” to the particular atmosphere of the late 1960s? → more

Chabâa’s Concept of the “3 As”

“Architecture is one expression of the fine arts” (Mohamed Chabâa, in: Alam Attarbia, No. 1, p. 36, 2001.)

Mohamed Chabâa’s consciousness of his national heritage and his interest in architecture both emerged at a young age. His concept of the “3 A’s”—art, architecture and the arts and crafts—grew out of his discovery both of the Italian Renaissance and the Bauhaus School during a period of study in Rome in the early 1960s. From then on, bringing together the “3 A’s” would become a central interest, a concept Chabâa would apply in various ways and fiercely defend throughout his long and varied career. → more

Don’t Breathe Normal: Read Souffles! — On Decolonizing Culture

The need for a synthesis of the arts and, with this, a change of pedagogical principles, was not only present at the beginning of the twentieth century (forces that prompted the Bauhaus’s foundation), but after WWII as well, during the “Short Century” of decolonization. This second modern movement and its relation to modernism and the vernacular, the hand made, and the everyday was vividly expressed through texts and art works published in the Moroccan quarterly magazine Souffles, published beginning in the mid-1960s by a group of writers and artists in Rabat, Casablanca and Paris. → more

A Bauhaus Domesticated in São Paulo

In March 1950, Pietro Maria Bardi, director of the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP, which opened in 1947), wrote to several American educational institutions requesting their curricula as an aid to developing the first design course in Brazil—the Institute of Contemporary Art (IAC), which was to be run as a part of the museum and would also be the country’s first design school. Despite being brief and objective, his missives did not fail to mention the “spirit of the Bauhaus,” explicitly linking the institute he hoped to found with a pedagogical lineage whose objectives and approach he aimed to share. → more

In the Footsteps of the Bauhaus — Its Reception and Impact on Brazilian Modernity

Through the strong German-speaking minority and its active work in the creation and mediation of culture in the spirit of modernity, the application of Bauhaus formal language, especially in the first phase of Brazilian modernity, has played a considerable role. It was only with the equation of German culture with National Socialism and the ensuing intolerance of German protagonists that these architectural and cultural activities were severely disrupted. In Brazil during this period, a style of modernism based on the principles of Le Corbusier finally gained acceptance. The impulses of the Bauhaus, however, which were not perceived for many years, were also reinterpreted and further developed within Brazil, although they remained occulted in comparison to the public reception of Corbusier. → more

Ivan Serpa, Lygia Clark, and the Bauhaus in Brazil

The art school of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro was established in 1952, led by Ivan Serpa, who gave classes for both children and adults—including artists who would go on to form the Grupo Frente (1954–56) and later the neo-concrete movement (1959–61). Writer and critic Mário Pedrosa described the “experimental” character of these classes, but the fact this experimentation was structured through study of color, materials, technique and composition has encouraged art historian Adele Nelson to claim Serpa’s teaching method was substantially based on the Bauhaus preliminary course. → more

Walking on a Möbius Strip — The Inside/Outside of Art in Brazil

This text investigates how the topological figure of the Möbius strip, famously propagated by Bauhaus proponent Max Bill, was used in Brazil within dissident artistic practices of the 1960s and 1970s as a tool for reflection on the subject, alterity and public space. The Möbius strip is revisited in this essay as a conduit for thinking critically about possible subversions of Eurocentric forms, as well as various appropriations of traditional popular culture by modern and contemporary art in Brazil. → more

The Poetry of Design — A search for multidimensional languages between Brazilian and German modernists

In the 1950s and 1960s, intense debates and exchanges took place between Brazilians and Germans working in the fields of design, art, and their various manifestations—from architecture and painting to music and poetry. These intertwined lines are identifiable in myriad events: journeys, meetings, exchanges of letters, exhibitions, lectures, courses, and publications. Common modes of production emerged out of these different encounters where, more than relations of influence, one can observe how entangled realities led to a questioning of the directionality of the flow between center and periphery. → more

The Latent Forces of Popular Culture — Lina Bo Bardi’s Museum of Popular Art and the School of Industrial Design and Crafts in Bahia, Brazil

This text deals with the experience of the Museum of Popular Art (MAP) and the School of Industrial Design and Handicraft, designed by the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, in Salvador (capital of the state of Bahia), Brazil. Such a “school-museum” is based on the capture and transformation of latent forces that exist in Brazilian popular culture. → more

Teko Porã — On Art and Life

Cristine Takuá is an Indigenous philosopher, educator, and artisan who lives in the village of Rio Silveira, state of São Paulo, Brazil. She was invited to present a contemporary perspective on questions and tensions raised by interactions between the Indigenous communities and the mainstream art system, as well as to address Brazil’s specific social and political context. → more

Times of Rudeness — Design at an Impasse

In 1980, Lina Bo Bardi began working on a book concerning her time in the northeastern part of Brazil. With the help of Isa Grinspum Ferraz, she captioned the illustrations, revised her contributions to the book and drafted the layout and contents. The latter also included texts by her collaborators who, in a truly collective effort, had tried to envision the project of a true Brazil—an unfettered and free country with no remnant remaining of the colonial inferiority complex which had plagued the country earlier in its history. Bo Bardi discontinued her work in 1981. In 1994, the Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi published this project as Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse. → more

Connecting the Dots — Sharing the Space between Indigenous and Modernist Visual Spatial Languages

Ever increasing numbers of design institutes note the merits of cultural diversity within their pedagogy and practice. Rather quixotically, however, Eurocentric modernist ideals remain dominant within design curricula. This ambiguity results in non-Western social, cultural and creative practice, remaining side-lined, albeit while still being lauded as of great value. Critical of this duplicity, this paper introduces three Indigenous visual spatial languages, identifying a number of correlations and contradictions these offer to the establishment and implementation of Bauhaus pedagogy and subsequent examples of modernism adopted beyond Europe. → more

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