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Co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union

Beyond the sight

beyond the sight

Nicholas Fox Weber

«Bring new experiences into the lives of as many human beings as possible»

I suppose that it is no surprise that we jumped with alacrity when our extraordinary young colleagues at Atlante Cultura proposed the idea of applications of the work of Anni and Josef Albers for blind people. Anni and Josef wanted their art to bring pleasure and new experiences into the lives of as many human beings as possible. They sought a language that was universal; they believed in the forms of visual pleasure that extend backwards and forwards into all of time, that cross all borders. The words most beloved to Anni were “universal and timeless.” She felt herself to be one spiritually with the weavers in the Andes in Peru in ninth century Peru. Josef, for her 23rd birthday, gave her a copy of an Egyptian statuette in the Pergammon Museum. He was interested in all that was good, and well-crafted, regardless of style or epoch; he discussed the wonder of Romanesque cathedrals and the joy of German Rococo architecture with more gusto than he accorded to what was done by some of his colleagues at the Bauhaus. The Alberses mutually preferred their Sony television and Polaroid camera and the sight of Olympic athletes using their skills to perform at their best than the personal confessions of Expressionist artists or too much presence of self and signature. Why do I go on this ramble about these two amazing people? Because I have to think that, being as full of heart and empathy as they were, being as interested in the experience of one and all as they were, being without interest in the networking and money making and publicity seeking of the art world, they would have felt, deeply, that the extention of their vision for those people lacking normal optical vision would have brought them utmost delight.

Anni and Josef contended with the realities of life without complaint. She had limited use of her limbs because of a genetic illness, yet she never acknowledged it, or even knew its name. He was born in a coal mining city where “even your spit was black”—into a family of what we would politely call “limited means”—yet he wanted, quickly, to have as many people as possible enjoy knowledge, and “see,” and, I now realize, that even though his repeated statement of the dream of his life was “to open eyes,” that, knowing him, the devout Catholic, the man of heart, and knowing her, the woman of consummate empathy with everyone afflicted by any form of disability, even as she accorded little attention to her own, they would have been fascinated by this idea of extending their sense of seeing to those who cannot see with their eyes, whose physical impairment makes it impossible.

The Alberses faced all challenges as possibilities. That is a cliché, of course, but it is still a quality of infinite value. To have visual art become a source of richness to those who cannot actually see, is such a challenge, but the moment the intrepid art-loving Atlante team, as humane as they are knowledgeable, proposed the idea of Anni’s and Josef’s work being a source of joy to “those who cannot see,” I realized that this was exactly the Alberses’ sort of adventure. They would have embarked on it with no sense of heroism or self-congratulation, both foreign to them. Rather, they would have approached the challenge with the hope of making the lives of blind people that much richer.
And so we have addressed the issue of how Anni and Josef Albers’s work could be of value to people who cannot, in the technical, legal, optical sense “see.”
So, consider the following possibilities:
Josef was fascinated by the nuances of perception. He liked painting two Homages to the Square with identical colors, the same exact hues from the middle square to the second and third one working outwards, the only difference being the proportion of the middle square to the other two. Change the measure, and you change the experience. So how do we translate this for those whose eyes to not permit them to see in the usual way? With temperature, and that alone, and the ability to feel surfaces, you can have the same experience. You can appreciate what happens when the warmer, or cooler, central square, is larger or smaller. It is not simply a “black and white, this or that” matter. The larger, warmer middle square will make you feel differently about the cooler two that surround it. Or the reverse is true. Or any variation thereof. The truth is that what is vital is to appreciate nuance. A wine connoisseur will say that his or her Bonnes-Mares tastes one way just after it has been opened and decanted, another an hour later. Glenn Gould performed Bach one way when young, another when older. Notice! Appreciate! That is the whole thing.
Today we call it mindfulness. We who have pretty good eyes can learn such mindfulness by those who are called blind. And Anni and Josef would have concurred.

In Anni’s art, there is never repetition. If she used hundreds of small triangles to compose a print, or a myriad of threads, metallic, woolen, cotton, jute, whatever, to construct a weaving, she avoided formula. Rather, she went with the flow. And she offered surprises. So we try to provide a similar sense of pleasure to those who cannot see them in the way many do with sight in the traditional sense. What we will never do, as it would be contrary to all that the Alberses believe in, and that we believe in, is try to create art which suggests, “If only you could see, this is what you would be able to see.” Anni and Josef approached situations as opportunities for learning. In creating this exhibition, the intrepid Atlante team, and our other colleagues, have taken the givens of not being able to see in the optical way and used it as a chance to expand, to pave the way for seeing in a truer sense, the sense of overall experience.
When Anni Albers would enter a print workshop, she did not do so with ideas of the end results she wanted. Rather, she would ask, “What are the possibilities, and what are the limitations? What is intrinsic to the process?” Working with the reality of blindness, we do the same. We use what one does not have, in the traditional sense and with the preconceptions of those who take “seeing” for granted, to go further, to rethink experience.

The superb writer Ved Mehta, blind from the time he was five years old, as the result of an illness, developed not just an amazingly heightened sense of smell and taste,
but, also, the ability to know who had walked into the room by the nuances of the person’s gait, a sense of his or her size. Ved also responds not simply to music, but to the subtleties of tone of voice, of accent, of all that is audible. What we cannot do can, at best, lead not to resentment, but to joy at what is there, to a heightening of perceptions in some realms because we do not, physically, have them in others. This was the essence of Anni and Josef Albers’s approach to art, and to life. The realities are unavoidable. You address them, and do your best. The Third Reich stopped paying teachers’ salaries at the Bauhaus in 1932, and in 1933 they padlocked the doors of the school. Its director, Mies Van der Rohe, met with the head of communications for the Gestapo. He was told the school could re-open, so long as it worked in accord with the methodology of the Nazis. Not a chance. Josef Albers was among the seven remaining faculty members who decided, unequivocally, that this was one possibility where the only solution was to reject it totally. Anni, who had been baptized and confirmed as a Protestant, recognized that for her there was the reality of being “in the Hitler sense, Jewish.” What to do? They never lamented their situation. Anni and Josef, in the summer of 1933, were invited to Black Mountain College, in the US, in the state of North Carolina. They telegrammed back that Josef did not speak English. The advice was to come anyway. What life has dealt you becomes the reason to take the next step. The Alberses left behind the only world they knew, to go to one of which they had no idea, except that the US bordered Mexico, and Mayan art, which they had discovered in Berlin, thrilled them. Life has its limitations, its hurdles; you move ahead.

You celebrate beauty where you can find it. This is what the Alberses learned; in fact, it is what they knew, somehow, each of them, from the start of their lives. Josef thought, as a child, that it was thrilling to walk on the checkerboard-patterned floor of black and white marble squares when his mother took him to the local post office. If you are, visually, blind, of course you cannot see this. But you can feel it, viscerally, in other ways. Thus, you who are blind have given us a fantastic opportunity, for which we are supremely grateful. You have opened the way to new experiences. You have encouraged us, simply by what others might perceive as deficit, to reconsider what that alternating black and white means. Not so much what it signifies as the visceral pleasure it affords. The rhythm, the contrasts, the systematic alternations of two extremes: we suddenly realize, thanks to you, the visually impaired, that these experiences are more profound, and richer, than we thought when we considered them as merely optical.

And so this exhibition comes as an expression of thanks. To those of you who cannot see traditionally, we express our utmost appreciation for your encouraging and allowing us to see more deeply.

 

Nicholas Fox Weber
Executive Director
Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

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