Josef Albers' little-known photocollages on show at MoMA

When Josef Albers died in 1976, the Bauhaus teacher was famous for his Homage to the Square series and his 1963 book Interaction of Color. Few knew that he had also been a modernist photographer, shooting with a hand-held Leica from 1928-32, and making a series of photocollages.

When Albers and his wife, Anni, fled Nazi Germany for America in 1933, they could take only a few possessions. Anni’s father shipped over several boxes of their belongings the following year, but Albers’ Bauhaus photographs were not seen again until after his death, when Anni took Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, to a locked basement store near the Yale University Art Gallery.

In 1988, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a modest show of 38 of the photographs. Now, four decades after their discovery, the entire collection of 70 photocollages have been published in a book – One and One Is Four: The Bauhaus Photocollages of Josef Albers – by MoMA. An exhibition of 16 of the works is on display at MoMA until 02 April.

Nobody knows why Albers kept the photographs hidden during his lifetime, though Sarah Meister, photography curator at MoMA and editor of One and One is Four suspects it may have been to maintain clarity around his artistic work. “But I think also that these photos have a sort of personal sense of wistfulness,” she adds, pointing out that many of them show his friends and family – Herbert Bayer holding a baby, Paul Klee puffing on a cigar, Walter Gropius laughing on a beach.

“I think they are a really personal statement,” she says. “So I think that was another part of it – that they felt sort of private to him.”

In 1932, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the director of the Bauhaus, asked the masters to exhibit their work, to help defend the programme from Nazi pressure; Albers showed some of his glasswork, which was abstract enough to be considered politically neutral. “My theory is that Albers mounted the photographs for a similar purpose,” says Meister. “The effort and the expense of mounting them, the thoughtfulness of the arrangements on these boards, and the consistency of them, all point to the possibility of exhibition.”

Unfortunately fate intervened. In the summer of 1932 the Bauhaus moved from Dessau to Berlin, and in 1933 Albers left the country. “I just don’t think it ever happened,” says Meister.

The photo collages can be divided into four groups – portraits, the natural world, the built environment and mannequins – but the composition throughout is playful. The black-and-white photographs often look like negative images of each other, and some shots are aligned so they look like parts of the same image.

“There’s no superimposition, no negative printing, no solarisation,” says Meister. “With an unbelievably restrained vocabulary, he manages to make avant-garde statements that feel utterly essential in that contemporary dialogue.”

There are many minor imperfections in the mountings – the photographs have clearly been hand-cut with scissors, for example – which Meister says speaks of the Bauhaus’s “marriage of mechanical vision and hand-crafted form”.  A collage showing Oksar Schlemmer uses two photographs clearly taken from the same sitting, but one is dated April 1929 and the other April 1930.

“I think he’s deliberately playing with people who bother to read it closely,” says Meister. “The photographs show a very warm person with incredible relationships, but I think they also show somebody who, if you look closely enough, is making a few winks.”

The monochrome collages also reveal another side to an artist defined by his use of colour, though Meister points out that he described colour as “the most relative medium in art”, and argued that it “deceives continually” because its understanding relies on context.

“When you realise that the question of perception and observation happens in black and white and grey as well as in, say, purple, then I think you’re on to something more about understanding him as an artist,” she says.

One and One is Four: The Bauhaus Photocollages of Josef Albers is on show at MoMA until 02 April. The accompanying book, by curator Sarah Meister, costs $50 and is published by MoMA