Albers was born into a Roman Catholic family of craftsmen in Bottrop, Westphalia, Germany. He worked from 1908 to 1913 as a schoolteacher in his home town. Albers trained as an art teacher at Königliche Kunstschule in Berlin, Germany, from 1913 to 1915. From 1916 to 1919 he began his work as a printmaker at the Kunstgewerbschule in Essen. In 1918 he received his first public commission, Rosa mystica ora pro nobis, a stained-glass window for a church in Essen. In 1919 he went to Munich, Germany, to study at the Königliche Bayerische Akademie der Bildenden Kunst, where he was a pupil of Max Doerner and Franz Stuck.
Josef Albers, Proto-Form (B), oil on fiberboard, 1938, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Accomplished as a designer, photographer, typographer, printmaker, and poet, Albers is best remembered for his work as an abstract painter and theorist. He favored a very disciplined approach to composition. Most famous of all are the hundreds of paintings and prints that make up the series, Homage to the Square. In this rigorous series, begun in 1949, Albers explored chromatic interactions with nested squares. Usually painting on Masonite, he used a palette knife with oil colors and often recorded the colors he used on the back of his works. Each painting consists of either three or four squares of solid planes of color nested within one another, in one of four different arrangements and in square formats ranging from 406×406 mm to 1.22×1.22 m.
In 1959, a gold-leaf mural by Albers, Two Structural Constellations was engraved in the lobby of the Corning Glass Building in Manhattan. For the entrance of the Time & Life Building lobby, he created Two Portals (1961), a 42-feet by 14-feet mural of alternating glass bands in white and brown that recede into two bronze centers to create an illusion of depth. In the 1960s Walter Gropius, who was designing the Pan Am Building with Emery Roth & Sons and Pietro Belluschi, commissioned Albers to make a mural. The artist reworked City, a sandblasted glass construction that he had designed in 1929 at the Bauhaus, and renamed it Manhattan. The giant abstract mural of black, white, and red strips arranged in interwoven columns stood 28-feet high and 55-feet wide and was installed in the lobby of the building; it was removed during a lobby redesign in c. 2000. Before his death in 1976 Albers left exact specifications of the work so it could easily be replicated. In 1967, his painted mural Growth (1965) as well as Loggia Wall (1965), a brick relief, were installed on the campus of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Other architectural works include Gemini (1972), a stainless steel relief for the Grand Avenue National Bank lobby in Kansas City, Missouri, and Reclining Figure (1972), a mosaic mural for the Celanese Building in Manhattan destroyed in 1980. At the invitation of a former student, the architect Harry Seidler, Albers designed the mural Wrestling (1976) for Seidler’s Mutual Life Center in Sydney, Australia.
He was known to meticulously list the specific manufacturer's colours and varnishes he used on the back of his works, as if the colours were catalogued components of an optical experiment. His work represents a transition between traditional European art and the new American art. It incorporated European influences from the Constructivists and the Bauhaus movement, and its intensity and smallness of scale were typically European, but his influence fell heavily on American artists of the late 1950s and the 1960s."Hard-edge" abstract painters drew on his use of patterns and intense colors, while Op artists and conceptual artists further explored his interest in perception.
In 1936, Albers was given his first solo show in Manhattan at J. B. Neumann’s New Art Circle. He participated in documenta I (1955) and documenta IV (1968) in Kassel. A major Albers exhibition, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, traveled in South America, Mexico, and the United States from 1965 to 1967. In 1971 he was the first living artist to be given a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. In 2010, a show of 80 oil works on paper, many never exhibited before, was mounted by the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, later travelling to other venues, including Centre Pompidou in Paris, and The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan.
The Josef Albers papers, documents from 1929 to 1970, were donated by the artist to the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art in 1969 and 1970. In 1971 (nearly five years before his death), Albers founded the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a nonprofit organization he hoped would further "the revelation and evocation of vision through art." Today, this organization not only serves as the office for the estates of both Josef Albers and his wife Anni Albers, but also supports exhibitions and publications focused on the works of both Albers. The official foundation building is located in Bethany, Connecticut, and "includes a central research and archival storage center to accommodate the Foundation's art collections, library and archives, and offices, as well as residence studios for visiting artists."
Several paintings in his series "Homage to the Square" have outsold their estimates. Homage to the Square: Joy (1964) sold for $1.5 million, nearly double its estimate, during a 2007 sale at Sotheby's.