One Plus One Is Four: The Bauhaus Photocollages of Josef Albers

  By John Veldhoen

Josef Albers’ effect on past century art cannot be minimized. He was a painter, designer, educator, and though not considered his primary output, a photographer as well. He taught at Black Mountain College, and then later at Yale University, and the list of students who worked with him veritably make him the single most influential teaching artist who may have ever lived. In terms of schools, he is often associated with the Bauhaus movement. He began instruction at the Bauhaus school in Weimar in 1920, wanting to enter the school’s glass workshop, but was denied by the director of the school, the architect Walter Gropius, who insisted that Albers take preliminary instruction in painting. He made glass-painting studies, and as a result of that work was asked to organize a new glass workshop for the school. From there he made the first works that showed the influence of being paired with the painter Paul Klee, work that showed the strong reliance of organizing work using lattices, frames, crossing lines and grids, so characteristic of the Bauhaus method. 

In 1928 Albers acquired a Leica camera. The Leica was a revolutionary photographic device for the time. It made the photographer free to compose, making the lens an eye, moving unfixed to a tripod, and allowing a photographer to carry a camera with them at all times. Combining the residue of photographic work with the portable image, Albers was able to make a body of photographs that he could then lay out and put together in grid patters that would mirror the Bauhaus method, and again break new ground. This book is the first all-in-one collection of these photographs since a 1970’s exhibition curated by John Szarkowski for the Museum of Modern Art, and I think it should stand as a touchstone even for today’s art photographers inasmuch as so much work still seems to me connected to the strange assemblages of time and place that Albers constructed. I am especially thinking of Photoshop composites like those of Jeff Wall, James Mollison, or Stephen Wilkes. These contemporary photographers blend disparate moments into single frames, whereas Albers put frames together, to evoke connections or ruptures in time, but I think the method is still more or less contiguous, and all in all illustrates to me Augustine’s oft-quoted saying “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

This is a beautiful book, not least to mention, the red cover recalls the red in the Leica brand itself, and made me ask an open question for the season, whether Albers most representative work is not the destroyed “Rosa mystica ora pro nobis”? But this is a question for the initiate. The first work of an artist is usually the most representative. Albers said that when you are in school, you are a student, and when you are out, you become an artist. The sub-title of this books “One and One is Four” also has a hint of oracular saying, it is shortened from the longer quote, from 1938, “One and one is two  – that’s business. One and one is four – that’s art – or if you like it better – in life. I think that makes clear: the many-fold seeing, the many-fold reading of the world makes us broader, wider, richer. In Education, a single standpoint cannot give a solid firm stand. Thus, let us have different viewpoints, different standpoints. Let us observe in different directions and from different angles…”   I bought a copy of this as a Christmas gift to myself, and thought I would write a review as a sort of seasonal gift. Understanding Albers, and Bauhaus is indispensible, and a joy.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.