László Moholy-Nagy CH X 1939

László Moholy-Nagy
CH X 1939
Private collection, courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art, London

Josef Albers Shrine 1942

Josef Albers
Shrine 1942
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

In 1937, Moholy moved to Chicago to set up the New Bauhaus, but financial difficulties soon forced the school to close. Relying on his own limited resources, Moholy established the School of Design in Chicago, known after 1944 as the Institute of Design. Albers stayed at Black Mountain College until 1949, and in 1950 he was appointed Chairman of the Department of Design at Yale University.

Cursory exchanges aside, the former Bauhaus colleagues did not reconnect in their new homeland, but they both took to American life with enthusiasm, eventually gaining citizenship. Despite their lack of contact, their work from the 1930s shows a similar set of concerns, as both artists attempted to translate the experiences of Weimar modernism into a new cultural context.

Both men were preoccupied with perceptual ambiguity, denying the stable viewpoint associated with traditional perspective. In Albers’s Equal and Unequal 1939, for instance, the eye’s attempt to interpret the two floating shapes as either identical or symmetrical is persistently frustrated by small but significant differences. This strategy is even more pronounced in his Structural Constellations of the late 1940s and 50s, in which geometric shapes float in an undefined and seemingly infinite space.

Likewise, Moholy was keen to animate the position of the viewer. In the late 1930s, Moholy began to make sculptures out of bent Perspex. Often suspended from the ceiling, their gentle physical movement creates a dynamic viewing experience from continuously changing perspectives. Moreover, works such as Ch 4 1941 invite the viewer to move in front of the painting to create an ever shifting play of light and shadows on the back panel.

Albers and Moholy brought their own distinct version of the Bauhaus pedagogical blueprint to the US. At the experimental Black Mountain College, Albers adopted the Bauhaus tradition of student-led education. His principal ambition as a teacher was to sensitize his students, ‘to open eyes’ as he famously declared when he arrived. Moholy, on the other hand, concentrated on defining an aesthetically and socially responsible position for creative professionals within society, with the emphasis shifting from artists to designers. His major publications, The New Vision 1938, an extended version of Von Material zu Architektur, and the posthumously published Vision in Motion 1947, were informed by an unusually broad understanding of contemporary visual culture, rejecting traditional value distinctions between art, design, photography and mass media. Both books exerted a lasting influence on students and professionals across a variety of creative disciplines.