Josef Albers is a quiet hero of 20th-century modernism. Born in Germany in 1888, he taught at the hugely influential Bauhaus art-design school before moving to America in the 1930s. In his biography, Josef Albers (Thames & Hudson £24.95), Charles Darwent examines not just Albers’s artwork — stained glass, furniture, colour-theory paintings and murals — but how he became probably the most important art teacher of the century, influencing the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra and Cy Twombly. When a student once asked him what he was going to teach, Albers answered: “To open eyes.”
The result is a rather austere, academic introduction to an artist we accept as influentially omnipresent, but nonetheless under-represented in mainstream art writing... Josef Albers: Life and Work doesn’t establish Albers as an artist of the 20th century’s first rank. That would have required from Darwent more personal appreciation, criticism and redescription of the works. But the book does provide a sense of Albers’ tremendous imaginative stamina: his ideas remained cutting-edge for six decades.
Not the most promising subject for a biography, perhaps. But that is to overlook two important factors. First, that Darwent (for many years critic on the Independent on Sunday) is a highly engaging writer on the visual arts. And second, that Albers lived through a remarkable period, mixing with some extraordinary people... This book is hard work, and not just to read — in his preface, Darwent admits it was a struggle to write too... Rightly or wrongly, Josef has gone down in history as...the exemplar of a rigorous Bauhaus modernism...there’s little in this biography to change that.