The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College

The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College

by Eva Díaz

ISBN: 9780226067988

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in Education & Teaching/Higher & Continuing Education, Arts & Photography/Study & Teaching

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Sample Chapter


Josef Albers and The Ethics of Perception

Experimentation means learning by experience. Josef Albers, 1941

A most poignant document of Black Mountain College's early years is the snapshot of Josef and Anni Albers's arrival, published in North Carolina's Asheville Citizen on December 5, 1933 (fig. 1.1). "Germans to Teach Art Near Here," the caption reads, though "Fresh Off the Boat" would do just as well; the grainy newsprint depicts the couple posed tensely in formal attire—he in tie and jacket, she in fur, cloche, and veil. Tightly angled in a corner, they look very much the anxious, recent immigrants. While Anni's mild gaze seeks out the viewer, Josef averts his eyes, his stiff bearing and tightly clasped hands registering trepidation, even strain. Fleeing the Nazi regime, the couple left Berlin for the site of a newly founded experimental school in rural Appalachia, a quite improbable relocation under other circumstances. Though they came from the Bauhaus, one of the most radical art institutions of the era, to what was vociferously announced as its successor in the United States, this evidence of a nervous arrival is testimony to their unexpectedly providential exile from Europe.

Josef knew but a few words in English, though Anni was fluent. In their first years, she would serve double duty as both faculty member at the recently founded college and as his patient translator. The newspaper article does not mention this, nor does it quote his famous response to their welcoming ceremony. Rallying his scant English when asked what he hoped to accomplish in the United States, Josef declared simply, "I want to open eyes." Typical of his plain and frank manner, Albers's pronouncement nonetheless encapsulates two concerns that characterize his years in the United States. Most obviously, it indicates the centrality of his pedagogical commitment (the same newspaper article proclaimed Albers as "internationally known ... for his unusual method of art instruction"). His statement also foregrounds the preeminence of a study of vision in his pedagogy and in Bauhaus teaching more generally—it is eyes he wants to open, after all. Pedagogy and vision: together, his words represent a desire to craft an audience for abstraction and, more particularly, for his art, an audience that would be tutored in the perceptual strategies he was developing in his teaching.

The key elements of these perceptual strategies were set out in Albers's three-pronged Preliminary Course, or Vorkurs, brought from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain and later to Yale University. In these drawing, color, and design classes, he proposed an ordered and disciplined testing of the various qualities and appearances of readily available materials such as construction paper and household paint samples. His approach brought out the correlation between formal arrangement and underlying structure, and placed a high value on economy of labor and resources. He stressed the experience, rather than any definite outcomes, of a laboratory educational environment and promoted forms of experimentation and learning in action that could dynamically change routine habits of seeing. He began his drawing and design courses with mirror writing, a simple exercise in defamiliarization. He invited students to draw their names, for example, backward and in cursive, as if reflected in a mirror, and then asked them to render this script using their nondominant hand. Drawing by automatic motor sense invariably becomes a crutch, overwriting any direct consciousness of how the actual forms of a signature are produced. Mirror exercises provided students with a sure way to begin challenging sterile habits of observation, "to develop awareness of what we do out of habit as opposed to choice."

To grasp Albers's proposal of what he came to term a "new visual expression" through acts of experimentation, it is crucial to understand the discursive field he produced around geometric abstraction, that is, how he explained the importance of a continuous study of the constitutive elements of form. The first section of this chapter will undertake a close reading and analysis of Albers's large body of unpublished texts written in his budding English, which can shed light on the process of testing variations in form that his pedagogical strategies elaborated. (One could argue that given its minimal denotation of form and its refusal of naturalistic representation, geometric abstraction always relied heavily on discursive interpretations, offered both in the artists' own writings and by critics.) He redesigned the experience of looking at art as one of "direct seeing," whereby attention to perceptual habits marks routine cognitive associations as social constructions and allows these associations to be influenced and possibly transformed. In that vein, the second section of this chapter will connect Albers's pedagogy with his own work. With careful study of his sketches, studies, and paintings undertaken at Black Mountain (and a few from his subsequent decades in the United States), it will be possible to address how Albers developed methods of articulating form that highlighted its contingency and endless mutability.

The final section of this chapter will explore how Albers went further to find in form an ethics of perception, which he developed in theories of progressive pedagogy concerning experimentation and social change. Drawing on the work of John Dewey, Albers presented the methodology of the experimental test as a forceful corrective against stagnant perceptual habits in the culture at large, bringing attention to the tremendous stake of progressive education in combating forces of social reproduction, that is, the tendency of dominant cultural values to be reproduced as the privileged traditions of a society. He maintained that learning to observe and design form made an essential contribution toward cultural transformation and growth. In brief, in Albers's ethics of perception, careless habits—habits that inhibit self-actualization and social progress—can be overcome with the disciplined study of the constitution of forms, forms that themselves compose the ubiquitous, though often overlooked, material and appearance of our surroundings.


Elements of Josef Albers's teachings have become so familiar and ingrained in current art curricula that it is difficult to recall how radically art education was altered by the widespread adoption of his methods. Developed at the Bauhaus in the early 1920s through 1933 and continued at Black Mountain College from 1933 to 1949 and at Yale from 1950 to 1958, Albers's Preliminary Course consistently challenged conventional art teaching. Indeed, it is important to remember the great influence of Black Mountain's teaching methods generally—especially during Albers's nearly two decades at the College—in positioning invention and experiment as central elements of educational practice in the United States, and to bear in mind that in the years preceding its implementation elsewhere, "it was heresy," according to Albers, "to consider art a central part of a college curriculum or a means of general education."

Visual arts training in the early twentieth century, in Europe as in the United States, took place in specialized art academies modeled on classical Beaux-Arts instructional models or in technical institutes featuring drawing for industrial design, rather than in liberal arts colleges such as Black Mountain. In academies, distinctions among various media were reinforced, and the rendering from life, above all the study of the nude, was central. The emphasis was on repetition (in life studies) and duplication (in copying past works). Advancement was secured by a review process that paradoxically assessed a pupil's fidelity to precursors and his (rarely her) departure from precedent in an "original" work—the academy study of the male nude. In its technical application, drawing accentuated the repeatability of objective nature by creating a strict geometry of form (and in this sense, to use M. Norton Wise's phrase, "drawing is the language of engineering"). This language of reproduced form, as Molly Nesbit contends, was routinized by drills in elementary and higher education toward "blueprints of production" in industrial product design. Even attempts to devise hybrid guild-workshop models of art education spawned by the Arts and Crafts movement, as Howard Singerman has noted, tended to attach more importance to craft traditions than to creative work in art and design. Whatever the model—academy, technical college, or workshop—visual art training beyond high school was not closely integrated with liberal arts concerns or with experimental or progressive approaches.

Albers bemoaned the persistence of such models in the United States:

I believe dominating education methods in this country are not at all typically American with their stereotyped requirements, standardized curricula and mechanized evaluation of achievements. Why do we still have the belief in academic standards while our living reveals variety, youth and freshness ...? Why must exploration and inventiveness, two American virtues, too, play such a minor part in our schools?

He found particularly grating the assumption in standardized art education that talent and an aptitude for art were inherent gifts and prerequisites to creativity. Instead, he fostered a general training in the fundaments of art as "more democratic [and] ... giving a chance to many more people," not just to the exceptional or advanced student. In this sense, Albers was a good fit for Black Mountain; the centrality of art education was emphasized in the College's 1933 inaugural publication shortly before his arrival: "Fine Arts, which often exist precariously on the fringes of the curriculum, are regarded as an integral part of the life of the College and of importance equal to that of the subjects that usually occupy the center of the curriculum." The goal was not to produce professional artists but to consider all individuals as possible creators and to offer training for what Albers termed a "flexible and productive mind that wants to do something with the world ... we are on the way to the researcher, discoverer, to the inventor, in short to the worker who produces or understands revelations."

Art practice offered the ideal site in culture from which to encourage broad-minded thinking, as training in experimentation steered a course toward "coordination, interpenetration ... conclusions, new viewpoints ... for developing a feeling or understanding for atmosphere and culture." The as yet unrealized prospect of education thus could consist of a richer understanding of "action or life," not a stockpiling of mere information or knowledge. Developing an attuned visual sensibility involved testing, dynamism, and action, not the passivity and stasis of education based on study of precedent alone. Albers's series of foundational courses promoted independent thinking and a close study of the mutable nature of form. On a visit to Black Mountain in 1944, Walter Gropius praised Albers's innovation: "He has discarded the old procedure to hand over to the student a ready-made formulated system. He gives them instead objective tools that enable them to dig into the very stuff of life.... This ever-changing approach seems to me pregnant of life, present and future."

Albers's battery of courses constituted a broad foundation in the "stuff of life": a general education in the fundamental elements of visual perception, broken down into a sequence of three classes covering the "main provinces of form"—drawing, color, and design. Yet "fundamental" and "foundational" should not be understood as merely elementary. Rather, through the observation of form's shape, material (in its structure, surface, and appearance), and coloristic qualities, Albers offered a basic training in articulating form, and possibly in rearticulating it creatively. As Peter Galison has observed, this program of "building up from simple elements to all higher forms" was perhaps the central feature of Bauhaus pedagogy.

Albers's first course—Basic Drawing—concentrated on shape through the exact observation and transcription of form in space. Drawing was conceived as a "test of seeing" that graphically reported visual data honed by exercises in foreshortening, overlapping, distance, and nearness. Albers encouraged students to observe the disposition of line in various contexts; in one study (fig. 1.3), the depiction of repeated bent and scrolled planes tested the precise spatial translation of two dimensions into three. Such trained observation excluded what Albers termed "expressive drawing" as a beginning, that is, the depiction of conditions that could not be assessed with some objectivity; the length of each mark in figure 1.3 maps the real behavior of a line in space with respect to qualities of depth and movement. His teaching exercises employed uncomplicated geometric forms such as squares, triangles, and ellipses, as well as simple figures such as letters and numbers, to perform changes in perspective and to create anamorphic effects that demonstrated a mastery of spatial representation. He avoided studies of the nude or classical model, "because that's the hardest thing to do and you come maybe only for the nudes and not for the drawing."

Basic Design (the key Werklehre—handicraft, or literally, the study of how to work—portion of the Preliminary Course) involved explorations of the material constitution of form. Albers divided the subject into two components, which he termed matière and material, and focused on exploration using commonly found materials and the fewest possible tools. Matière studies concerned the appearances of materials, distinguishing among structure, facture, and texture, and sought to characterize materials by their tactile or optical perception. For example, a trompe l'oeil representation of wood grain on paper gave the optical appearance of wood but the tactile experience of paper (fig. 1.4). Essentially, the practice of combining and confusing the superficial qualities of materials tested (mis)perceptions of the appearances of surfaces.

Material studies concerned the immanent capacities of materials, evaluated structurally and analyzed according to features such as compression, elasticity, and firmness, tested through folding and bending. Here, Albers concentrated on the internal organization of forms and their relation to one another, encouraging dynamic relations rather than strictly symmetrical or mathematically predictable ones. An understanding of the dimensional, spatial, and volumetric qualities of form was accomplished through construction exercises, whose parameters were defined through formal economy, that is, the "ratio of effort to effect."

Albers believed the disciplined study of the material organization of form to be a necessary condition of art production. As he reasoned, "Every art work is based on a thinking out of the material." And in pre-Columbian sculpture he found the signal example of a sophisticated understanding of the technical potentials and limitations of medium. Once Albers relocated to the United States, he amassed an extensive collection of Mexican pre-Columbian pottery and figurines; he felt such work amplified the characteristic tendencies of its material, establishing a reflexive relation between an object's structure and appearance. In contrast to many uses of clay in Western art, in which it is applied over a hidden armature, pre-Columbian art keeps "clay clay-like," building "cake-like flat elements or little globular or sausage-like forms" (fig. 1.5). Stonework commonly uses compact forms lacking delicate protrusions that can break. This construction is "proof that the artist has not overaimed and that the material has not been over-charged." Rather than simulating something else, the materiality of pre-Columbian art evokes the constructivist credo: it "teaches us [to] be truthful with materials." Though the appearance of any truthful with materials." Though the appearance of any material can mimic another, its underlying structure and technical capacity can never be successfully imitated. The trompe l'oeil woodgrain drawing on paper, however naturalistic, cannot be mistaken for actual wood in its strength or durability (fig. 1.4).

Excerpted from "The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College" by Eva Díaz. Copyright © 2013 by Eva Díaz. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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