Design Masterworks 17 November 2016

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Studio of Josef Albers

Four sample glass plates for the White Cross Window, Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota

Corning Glass Laboratories
c. 1954
photosensitive cased glass
10 h x 8 w in (25 x 20 cm)

estimate: $60,000–80,000

Wright would like to thank the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.

provenance: Acquired directly from Josef Albers by Eugene Kloszewski, Woodstock, VT
literature: Saint John's Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space, Young, pg. 128 illustrates realized windows Josef Albers: A Retrospective, Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, ppg. 68-70 illustrate realized windows and discuss commission

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Studies of Light

Josef Albers and the White Cross Window

Josef Albers exploration in the medium of glass began early in his artistic career while a student at the Bauhaus in the early 1920s. His early collage works from this period comprised jagged and broken glass pieces affixed without leading, leaving the purity of the material and construction as dominate statements. The “glass paintings” he produced were unlike the works of his contemporary students and contrary to ideologies of some the Bauhaus teachers at the time. Albers was unceasing in his commitment to his glass work and his persistence was rewarded in 1925 when he was asked to run the glass workshop at the Bauhaus.

In the late 1920s, Albers began to experiment with different production techniques that allowed him to create layered glass effects. In 1968, Albers discussed his revolutionary approach to glass works at the Bauhaus:

“I took the glasses that are either opaque or transparent. You see this is an opaque and this is a transparent one. Then I learned to remove the front coat is hair thin. That is done usually in glass painting with acid like in etching… I learned to sandblast that glass. Covered it airtight and cut it this way, and this way, this way, this way, and this way. And where I want to remove that red I just took the paper out and exposed it to sandblasting. It’s eaten away. And at the same time makes frosted glass. So that was of great interest to me. And I made all this nonsense independent of anyone’s style, you see.”

Pergola, an early glass work by Albers from 1929, illustrated this layering effect achieved through a combination of paint and sandblasting flashed glass. One can begin to the see the introduction of order and strict geometric considerations, absent in the early collages in glass, which will serve as a founding principle in Albers later artworks across multiple mediums.

 Albers first met Marcel Breuer during this time at the Bauhaus and the two would continue to be close after both relocated to the United States. In the 1950s, Breuer was working on a commission to design a church for Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. The result is soaring modern masterwork in cast concrete that encapsulates the modern ideology of Breuer’s architectural designs. Breuer collaborated with a number of artists on this project, and he approached Albers to design a stained glass window for the Abbott’s private study. Breuer hoped Albers would bring “purely architectural forms, textures and colors” to the space. Albers reached out to Corning Glass Laboratories to use a recent technology they had developed to execute the geometric patterning in the realized White Cross window completed in 1955. The glass comprised of changing densities of dot matrix printing that created the effect of relative opacity and transparency across the panels. In discussing the window after its completion, Albers explained the complicated visual plan of the window: “Above a ground of indistinct distance, light accumulates toward the middle and culminated in the whitest light of the extended cross, the center, extending wide arms to the farthest ends”.

The White Cross windows in the Abbot's private chapel

The present lot represents four samples for the White Cross window made from photosensitive glass fabricated by the Corning Glass Laboratories. As one looks at these plates, their transparency and opacity shifts. The photosensitive character of the glass changes the tonalities of the whites and grays depending on the position of the viewer and whether the light comes from in front or behind. The manner in which the window changes with the vantage of the viewer and lighting effects draws similarities to Albers’ teachings on color theory and tonal relationships. These studies were given by Albers to Eugene Kloszewski, a colleague at the Yale School of Art in the 1950s. A related series of studies for the White Cross window are in the permanent collection of the Smith College of Art Museum.

Smaller in scale and slightly more varied in patterning than the realized individual panes, these studies demonstrate the possibilities in pairing an artist’s uniquely modern vision and cutting edge technology of the period. The overlapping glass concept and geometric principles on which Albers embarked in the 1920s are evident in the realized White Cross window. Yet its modern color palette and patterning speak to the works Albers was simultaneously creating in other mediums in the 1950s.

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. 

—Josef Albers