Tate Etc

A ouija board quest to contact the spirit of Josef Albers

Paul Elliman

Designer Paul Elliman seeks satisfaction of his curiosity and the typefaces designed by Josef Albers while at the Bauhaus in the 1920s

A couple of years ago a friend of mine in the art history department at Yale told me she had just been introduced to Albers at a college fellows lunch. I said to her: ‘What? That’s impossible.’ She said: ‘No, no, it was definitely him. Very old German guy with silver hair, Josef Albers.’ I said: ‘No, you don’t understand. He’s been dead for 25 years – look, I’ll show you a picture of him.’ I found an old catalogue with his portrait on the back page. She said: ‘Yes, that’s him, Josef Albers. He was very friendly, and it was definitely him.’

The idea that he was somehow still around seemed compelling enough, and I started thinking about his work in a more sort of grounded way – as opposed to that of someone, say, whose presence is mainly transmitted through the pages of a book, or by writing. Artists have always tried to keep in art-historical contact through works from the past, but I thought why not just make contact with Albers directly?

I was curious about the Stencil typeface he’d designed in 1926, while he was at the Bauhaus. In a famous example of the work, Albers cut the letters out of a large square of glass. Adding the words YES and NO would turn it into a kind of Ouija keyboard. I was thinking of using glass, but hardboard is fine for a Ouija board, and it’s also an Albers material – his square paintings were made on this board, in 16, 24 and 40 inch sizes.

The séance itself was an odd and, I suppose, inconclusive event, but no more solemnly ridiculous than any good history seminar should be. It may have been a bit too conventional in the sense of a professor, head stuck in the past, fumbling with the technology of the presentation.

In fact, I was never sure about how to make the pointer for the board.The planchette, they call it. I’d spoken to a spiritualist, who told me not to worry about it, just use a small glass or something that can move around easily. She thought I didn’t even need the board, I could just write the letters on a table. Basically, that it wasn’t the thing, an object, but something less tangible – a kind of energy or faith.

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