It was a dinner party in Paris, but everyone was American. All the other guests were “people of means,” substantially, and connected to the art world. They were collectors and lawyers and money people. None of them made art, but all of them put it on a pedestal.
I had been introduced as “the Albers guy.” I have run the Albers Foundation for forty years, knew Josef Albers from the time we met in 1971 until his death in 1976, and worked closely with Anni until the end of her life eighteen years after that. I adored them both. They were the real thing. They devoted their lives, singularly, to creating art. Their values about what this meant were the cement of their marriage. Anni came from a wealthy Berlin Jewish family, and Josef from a poor Catholic one in the industrial Ruhr valley; those differences and their eleven year age gap did not matter. They had met at the Bauhaus in 1922, and from that point on they shared, totally, a belief that art embodied honesty, balance, and rhythm that you could feel in every element of your existence.
Making art together, always considering it the central issue, they had survived the closing of the Bauhaus, the struggles of Black Mountain College, the need to get Anni’s family out of Germany, the ups and downs of artistic fads and trends while they joyfully did what they loved. Anni made textiles and prints; Josef worked with glass constructions, photography, furniture-making, printmaking, metalwork, and painting. They both wrote and taught, and lived modestly, even after her major solo show at MoMA in 1949, and his at the Met in 1971. For half a century now, I have never spent a day without relishing thoughts of them and the way they steadfastly immersed themselves in experimentation, going the next step, trying new colors and new methods, being nourished by the processes of art and the other world afforded by abstraction.
The people at the glossy dinner party were friendly enough. They cheerfully discussed art collecting—the usual stories of masterpieces they could have had “only for ten thousand” if they had had the foresight to buy them, someone’s stash of “blue chip paintings” in a warehouse in Monte Carlo. Knowing that I devote much of my life to the Alberses’ work, and to taking their human values into new arenas—primarily in Senegal, where we assist with medical treatment and education and also have a sensational campus of artists’ residencies in an isolated rural village, causing everyday life to blossom where people were formerly destitute—the woman across from me said, “I have a great Albers story to tell you.” She beamed excitedly.
Even with her face lift, her smile seemed real, and her freshly colored blond hair appeared to glow as she launched into her tale. “When my husband turned twenty-one, his father offered him a Rothko or an Albers. A small one, but a good one: the choice was his to make. His father would buy one or the other from Sidney Janis.”
I waited for the punch line.
“My husband picked Albers.”
I knew what she was telling me. The expression on her face was one of “Can you imagine? What a mistake!” But I dissembled with my response, and pretended not to understand.
“How wonderful! You and he must both be so proud of the decision. What vision and independence! I hope you have and love the Albers still.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I mean, what a mistake. Look at what happened.” She grimaced with utter certainty.
Of course, I got her point. The Rothko is probably now worth at least fifty times what it would have cost then. The Albers perhaps ten times as much.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with why the Albers Foundation exists. I stayed quiet and tucked into my mushy suprême de poulet. Yes, we have succeeded in finding a superb gallery to represent the estate, and, yes, prices for both of the Alberses’ work have risen. But, more importantly, we have shared Anni and Josef’s wonderful vision with the world: through major exhibitions and publications, many of both, the outreach grows.
We also rigorously fight the selling of fakes, and give financial support to the institutions that make the pursuit of art possible for people who struggle. Our soul is with other immigrants like Anni and Josef, and for those who make art without self-aggrandizement, the spiritual descendants of the ninth-century Peruvians who, with their back-strap looms, created art that is universal and timeless. The Alberses declared our Foundation’s goal when they created it—“the revelation and evocation of vision through art”—and it is a thrill to try to achieve it wherever and however we can.