Experimentation, Not Replication

Josef Albers and the Vorkurs

Oliver Barker

"Let us be younger with our students and include in our consideration new architecture and new furniture, modern music and modern pictures.  We ought to discuss movies and fashions, make-up and stationery, advertising, shop signs and newspapers, modern songs and jazz.  The pupil and his growing into his world are more important than a teacher and his background."

Written in 1935, just two years after leaving Germany to begin a new life at Black Mountain College in the United States, the above passage encapsulates Josef Albers’s virulent enthusiasm for his role as a progressive educator. Albers stressed his seminal philosophy for the creation of learned individuals through the encouragement of independent and open-ended experimentation.  Spontaneity and “a playful tinkering with the material…”   unburdened by formal training underpinned Albers’s earliest years as a teacher and remained a key tenet throughout his distinguished career as an educator.

Born and educated in Bottrop, in the Westphalian region of Germany, Albers began his pedagogical profession in 1908 as an elementary school teacher at the Josephschule public school in Bottrop. In an interview conducted when he was 83 years old, Albers reflected on those initial and formative years as a public school teacher:

"I took my teaching job very seriously … I was put in a school in the country where I had (children of varying ages)… all in one room. I had to prepare myself so thoroughly at home that I declared in writing at that time that homework is first for the teacher … every pupil learns from their own age level easier than from a teacher who is a generation ahead of them…"

This requirement for students to learn through the shared experience of interacting with their peers, rather than relying solely on the teacher’s instruction, became a fundamental precept to Albers’s approach as an educator. By the time Albers began teaching at the Bauhaus, this approach manifested itself in the form of group critiques, as documented by the now ubiquitous 1928 photograph of Albers and his Bauhaus Dessau students. During these group critiques Albers would habitually ask students to “ … test our results by discussing and defending them as a group…individual and group crits require a well-founded justification of the choice of material, procedure, and form.” In his seminal 1928 article Werklicher Formunterricht (Teaching Design) Albers gave further voice to the necessity of learning through a collective dialogue, concluding his treatise on education with the words “as students and teachers, we must again learn from and with one another…”

Albers’s dedication to the process of collaborative learning was a core principle of his entire teaching philosophy, a philosophy informed by his own experience as a student. In 1918, having set aside his teaching responsibilities to pursue his own artistic studies, Albers enrolled in the Königliche Bayerische Akademie de Bildenden Kunst (Royal Bavarian Art Academy) in Munich. After his first year there as a student, Albers became disheartened by the academic training offered at the school which he later described as a “backward looking” approach. Around this same time, Albers encountered Walter Gropius’s manifesto for the newly formed Bauhaus school which would allow for the creation of “a new guild of craftsmen…and the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity…”  Spurred on by this pronouncement, Albers enrolled at the Weimar Bauhaus in the spring of 1920 with the aim of cleansing himself of his past academic training. He embraced Gropius’s new artistic order where the collaborative study and execution of artistic pursuits placed emphasis on the present, celebrating the possession of practical and technical knowledge. Of this seismic and life-altering shift, Albers later stated “I was thirty-two…threw all my old things out of the window, started once more from the bottom. That was the best step I made in my life.”

Upon arrival at the Bauhaus, Albers enrolled in the school’s introductory course known as the Vorkurs. Structured as a preliminary overview seminar, the Vorkurs was a requirement for all new Bauhaus students before they were allowed to progress to study in a specific Bauhaus workshop. Since the Bauhaus’s inception, the Vorkurs had been taught by Johannes Itten but, following disagreement with Gropius about the course’s direction, Itten departed the school suddenly in late 1922 creating an opportunity for Albers to be appointed as a Vorkurs instructor. Sharing this newly divided role with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Albers focused his energies primarily on teaching the materials and design components of the course. As a Bauhaus educator Albers approached this role with characteristic intensity, immediately removing the expressionistic tendencies that had characterized Itten’s teaching of the course. Instead, Albers instigated a methodology categorized by problem solving in which no single method existed for the resolution of the exercises, encouraging students to find their own solutions to the tasks presented. Of this new practice, Albers wrote:

"For me education is not first giving answers, but giving questions. And if a student comes to me with a question, I consider if very carefully whether I should answer him or not. When I give him the answer to an execution, then I take away from him the opportunity to invent it himself and discover it himself."

Under the umbrella of the Vorkurs Albers provided his students with two approaches to studying the functional and utilitarian aspects of the physical materials with which they were working. In the opening lines of Werklicher Formunterricht, Albers wrote:

“ours is an economically oriented age…economic form arises out of function and material. study of material naturally precedes understanding of function. thus our attempt to come to terms with form begins with study of the material.”

Within the framework of what Albers called Materie studies, Albers’s Vorkurs students explored elements of a material’s external appearance. In examining the distinct characteristics of a material’s surface for themselves, students experienced what Albers described as:

"the systemic ordering of materials into suites with rising or falling values…tactile scales from hard to soft, smooth to rough, warm to cold or hard-edged to amorphous, smoothly polished to sticky-absorbent."

Simultaneously, Albers challenged his students to investigate the internal properties of materials, exploiting their structural possibilities and limitations. Working with a wide range of materials – paper, wire mesh, corrugated cardboard, glass, plastic, sheet metal, tin foil, matchboxes – students were encouraged to examine the dormant possibilities of these substances. These exercises defined what Albers identified as “…learning to see both statically and dynamically…” and further encouraged students to learn experientially through their own exploration and practice, placing emphasis on the need for “…intimate contact with the material through one’s own fingertips…”

As an initial exercise Albers had his students begin their exploration of materials by studying the three-dimensional potential of paper. By folding and fastening paper in ways that would place “emphasis on the edge…and test its performance under tension and pressure,”  the resulting creations were varied and diverse. While there was no one way to approach each exercise, Albers encouraged students to plan their folded paper models in advance, ensuring that the economy of form was measured in relation to the anticipated expenditure of material and labor. The resulting studies, captured in an iconic series of photographs by fellow Bauhausler Erich Consemüller, show architectonic structures achieved through the cutting and folding of paper without any loss or waste placing emphasis on the previously unrecognized potential of paper as a material. The textural and malleable properties of this material were also explored through repeated folding to create prismatic structures and fluid, organic forms. By pushing the Vorkurs in these new exciting directions, Albers enabled his students to explore the hidden three-dimensional aptitude of paper. The resulting forms from these studies inhabited the realms of positive and negative space thus revealing the latent potential at odds with paper’s traditional applications. The objective within Albers’s Vorkurs was not to create finished works of art, but to explore the duality and latent potential of materials.

Albers’s emphasis as an educator was on forward-looking experimentation. In each classroom setting where a proactive and disciplined approach is allowed to lead the consistent evaluation of the both processes as well as of the end results, the powerful educational legacy of Albers’s Vorkurs lives on.