Josef & Anni Albers

We met Nicholas Fox Weber, art historian, author and Executive Director of The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, over lunch at a fashionable terrace across the street from the Musée d’Art Moderne where Weber and his team were busy mounting the upcoming Anni and Josef Albers show. Nicholas Weber first met the Alberses as a young art history student at Yale University in the early 1970s and they became friends and collaborators for life. The artistic and historic significance of the Anni and Josef Albers – Art and Life show in Paris is undeniable. Yet, for Nicholas Fox Weber, this first major retrospective of the couple’s work is clearly also a very personal tribute to the friends he loved and admired.  

Hannah Starman for Arteez : You met Anni and Josef Albers in 1971 when you were in your early 20s and studying art history at the University of Yale. Can you describe your first encounter with the legendary Bauhaus couple?

Nicholas Fox Weber (NFW): A few days ago, I flew back from the US and I bought the latest issue of the Beaux-Arts magazine featuring the 50 most important exhibitions of the season. I opened the magazine and there it was, on a two-page spread, the most glorious of Josef’s variants, 4 Central Warm Colours Surrounded by 2 Blues, 1948, and a couple of pages later, an incredible weaving of Anni’s, Intersecting, 1962. The connection to these works was intensely personal for me. Josef’s variant belonged to a marvellous couple named Herbert and Ruth Agoos, parents of a young woman who thought of me as “a very nice guy, but…” Luckily, she still took me to meet her family and it was at their house that I saw that Variant, but also two of Anni Albers’ weavings. I knew nothing about weaving, I don’t know how to sew, I don’t understand textiles, but I thought they were incredible because they were like abstract paintings. And Anni’s weaving reproduced in Beaux-Arts is the one that I bought in 1972 with a commission I earned from selling a small Jackson Pollock for Ruth Agoos. 

Anni Albers
Intersecting, 1962
Cotton and rayon
15 3/4 x 16 1/2 in. (40 x 41.9 cm)
Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop
© 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ProLitteris, Zurich

Unlike her daughter, Ruth Agoos really was enthusiastic about me, which, of course, was a kiss of death as far as the girl was concerned, but she took me to meet the Alberses. I was driving a black MGB GT sports car at the time and on the day that we were going to meet the Alberses, I was dressed Bauhaus-neatly in clean corduroys and a decent sweater. The car wouldn’t start and I had to get under it to hammer the fuel pump, so I now had grease on my pants. And Josef Albers, without even saying hello to me, looked at my pants and he said: “What do you do, boy?” And I said: “I’m studying art history at Yale, Sir.” “Do you like it, boy?” I was on a full fellowship, which I didn’t want to risk losing, yet I realised I couldn’t dissemble in front of this man, so I replied: “No, Sir, I really don’t.” “Why not, boy?” “Well, I’m losing my passion for looking at art. I’m taking a course called ‘Seurat and the iconography of entertainment’ and I asked the teacher about Seurat’s use of colour and he replied that he wasn’t teaching a course on colour.” Josef said: “This I like, boy. Which of those bastards don’t you like at Yale?” Anni hadn’t spoken, but she was smiling at me and I thought I was passing a test. We talked about people in art history and Josef said: “what does your father do?” I wanted to tell him about my mother who was a painter and very excited that I was meeting the Alberses, but I said “My father is a printer, Sir.” “Good boy, then you know something about something.” That was the beginning. 

Josef Albers
4 Central Warm Colors Surrounded by 2 Blues, 1948
Oil on Masonite
26 x 35 3/4 in. (66 x 90.8 cm)
Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop
© 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ProLitteris, Zurich

How did you feel about this encounter? Did the feeling persist throughout your friendship with them?

NFW: I felt utterly exhilarated. On that first day, Ruth Agoos and I showed up at the Alberses at a socially wrong time of the day, in late morning. Anni said, “well, we have to get lunch.” So, Anni Albers driving, we went to pick up Kentucky fried chicken. Anni was a Berliner and had the most wonderful way of speaking. I was fascinated by her accent. My grandmother was born in Breslau and I suppose the accent was not unrelated. Anni said, rolling her ‘r’: “you must always order extra-crispy Kentucky fried chicken.” I thought: “This is impossible. I’m here with one of the few people still alive from the Bauhaus and I’m hearing her order extra-crispy Kentucky fried chicken. We then got back to the Alberses house and she put the chicken out on the most beautiful, absolutely plain Rosenthal white plates, on a rolling cart that was very simple, white, and I thought “this is magic. When Anni Albers puts extra-crispy Kentucky fried chicken on a plate it becomes absolutely beautiful.” Every time I left that house for the rest of Anni’s life – I met them in 1971 and she lived to 1994 – I was in a spell of enchantment and I couldn’t wait to go back.

Anni Albers and Nicholas Fox Weber, 1981
Photo by Faith Haacke
Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

You were a young man in your 20s and they were in their 70s and 80s. Did you think of them as old?

NFW: They were so young; they were so much younger than people my age who were going into their family businesses. They were so alive to life and funny. For example, there was this very big deal New York interior designer named Jack Lenor Larsen.  He was a very effeminate man and he showed up in the Alberses house in a floppy hat and big pink sunglasses. Josef and I were upstairs in the kitchen, Anni let Larsen in and suddenly, Josef looked over the stair railing and said “Larsen, you look like a rabbit.” Anni used to say that she always felt like the youngest person in the room and she was hilarious. She once said to me after some event that my parents had been at: “Your mother is quite attractive, in a bourgeois sort of way.” She once said to my wife: “Is that a new dress?” “Yes,” my wife replied. “Is it too late to return it?” When I appeared at her house with our dog Scotty, she looked at it and looked at me and said: “Did you make him yourself?” Anni’s younger brother Hans, who was one of my favourite people in the world, had the same sense of humour. One day someone said to him “have a nice day,” in a usual way and I heard him turn to the person and say: “Thank you, but I’ve already made other plans.” Anni could have uttered the same. 

Josef and Anni Albers, near Black Mountain, North Carolina, 1938
Photographer unknown
Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

In the chapter devoted to the Alberses in your book The Bauhaus group you describe them as both very independent and at the same time very connected to each other. Did you observe the way they interacted as a couple?

NFW: I very much observed the way they interacted as a couple, but it was only years later that I realised that they were much happier than most couples. In the middle-class suburban America world that I grew up in, people generally bought second houses, very nice places, they travelled, they bought a house where it was warm. They weren’t happy and there was a lot of complaining. Yet, this very austere couple that didn’t go to dinner parties, that very rarely travelled and then only for work, I now realise, was much happier than all those people desperately seeking happiness. Their happiness came from creating and they saved all their energy for work. They were working hard and both of them created until they died. Anni worked upstairs in what would have been a bedroom, if a family had lived in the house. The most un-cushy studio. It had a folding table with a very bad top and a typing table with a Lettera 22 typewriter. She often sketched in bed. Josef had a studio downstairs with fluorescent lights. 

Josef Albers
Skyscrapers on Transparent Yellow, ca. 1929
Sandblasted glass with black paint
13 3/8 x 13 1/8 in. (34 x 33.5 cm)
© 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ProLitteris, Zurich

How did they relate to other people? 

The Alberses were interested in people who were independent, who broke the mould and had a passion to do something else, people who weren’t bound. They didn’t much care for fame and when Josef Albers found himself seated at a black-tie event at the Plaza hotel next to Bette Davis, he had no idea who she was. Neither did she. Josef turned to Bette and said: “What do you do?” and she replied: “I’m an actress.” “And what do you do?”, she asked in return. “I’m a painter.” He looked at her and said: “Do you like gin?” She said: “I love gin.” And then he said: “Okay, then we’ll drink martinis.” They had a wonderful time. But if the Alberses felt wronged, they dropped people without regrets. Josef more often than Anni. He thought for example that Marcel Breuer stole a design of his for the windows of the Saint John’s Abbey Church. Josef could drop people and not appear bothered by it. Anni used to call him “westfälische Dickkopf,” a thick-headed stubborn character. 

Anni Albers
Black-White-Gold I, 1950
Cotton, Lurex, and jute
25 x 19 in. (68.3 x 48.3 cm)
© 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ProLitteris, Zurich

Josef Albers died unexpectedly in 1976. How did Anni react to his death? Did you mourn him together or separately?

NFW: I remember exactly the circumstances of his death. Like many people, I’ve often had tremendous fear of death and anxiety about it. I thought that Josef Albers might prove that you didn’t have to die. He was so robust and healthy and he showed no age, no illness, and he was creative. Josef was 88 and he went to the hospital for about a week of investigating his heart. Anni was all set to go pick him up and bring him home when he suddenly died. I was at Fox Press, my family’s company. The phone was for me and she would always say “Hello. Anni Albers.” Then she said: “Josef died.” When I got to her house, her first instinct was to keep everybody from knowing that he died. I said: “It’s not going to work out this way. Josef is very well known.” Afterwards she was quite annoyed because Max Ernst died in the same week and got on the front page of The New York Times and Josef’s obituary was only on the inside pages. Anni was very good at blaming herself. She said it was all her fault because Max Ernst had married Peggy Guggenheim who made him famous, but Josef didn’t make the front page because he only had Anni and lived a simple life. There were eight of us at his funeral. It was all very quiet. 

Anni went from sadness to anger with Josef. She was bitter toward him because he had the audacity to die. Did we mourn him together? We referred to him very fondly together. I would remind her how loyal he had been to her. I would show her that he had inscribed paintings to her that she didn’t even know he had inscribed to her. They accepted the idea of death, they planned everything very carefully. They picked a cemetery plot together and one of the reasons why they moved to Orange, Connecticut is because they liked the graveyard there. That’s where they are buried. I designed the gravestones with Anni. We used Josef’s favourite typeset Sabone, by Jan Tschichold. 

Anni Albers
Print for Anni’s 85th birthday, 1984
18 1/2 x 15 in. (47 x 38.1 cm)
© 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ProLitteris, Zurich

Anni outlived Josef by 18  years. How would you describe those years?

NFW: Anni had odd last few years. She worked actively almost to the end, but she also developed an obsessive infatuation with the German actor Maximilian Schell. He was a very handsome man, very smart, competent piano player, good skier, incredibly seductive and full of phoney-baloney that could appeal to her. I was once there for a discussion that made me feel absolutely ill because she gave him a painting by Josef, a Variant called Light in Dark and he said: “This is perfect because always in my darkness there is a little bit of light.” She looked at him and said “Ah, Maximilian, du bist der light in my darkness” and I just thought: “this is really too much.” He succeeded in seducing Anni Albers, not in the sense of a full-fledged love affair, but a true seduction in its way and she was scared of it. I stood between him and Anni more than once. At one point, she very much liked one of Maximilian’s Dubuffets and he said he would leave it to her in his will. Then he told her that I was very good to leave people things in their will, so that she should leave him paintings too. I had to point out to her that she was 25 years older than he was and likely to die first. And she would say “You are right. Thank you for telling me that.” In the exhibition there are works that she gave him and I had to buy back from him after she died. Anni was a very different sort of person in the earlier years, but she enjoyed being irrational about Shell and her obsession kept her alive.

Anni Albers
Wall XII, 1984
Watercolor on screenprint
28 1/2 x 22 1/2 in. (72.4 x 57.2 cm)
© 2021 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ProLitteris, Zurich

Does The Josef and Anni Albers foundation possess most of their works today?

NFW: No, we have given away most of them to good institutions. That’s been our policy. The whole goal is to have the work enjoyed by the larger public. We have judiciously held on to certain things, but sometimes placed things in museums. A lot of items form these museums are included in the show. We gave a lot to the Yale art gallery. It’s difficult to say how many we have left, not many. It’s hard to categorize because there are so many works on paper and Josef was very prolific. Anni was not. 

The Anni and Josef Albers – Art and Life is the first retrospective of the Alberses work together. How did the project come about and why Paris?

NFW: It’s shocking to me that no American museum has ever wanted it. I approached them all. Sometimes I thought I was a traveling salesman and my product was the Alberses work. I wanted to get people interested in different ways. I’ve been living in Paris for 20 years, my life has been based here, which may be one of the reasons that the show ended up here. The director of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Fabrice Hergott, is a brilliant man and he was very supportive. Although we were turned down with certain loan requests, for example from the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, I’m very pleased. It’s a great show.  

Portrait of Nicholas Fox Weber © Hannah Starman

Anni et Josef Albers – L’art et la vie
Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris
Du 10 septembre 2021 au 09 janvier 2022

Toute reproduction interdite
© 2021