Back to Scholarship

‘Through One’s Own Fingertips’?: Haptic Perception in the Art and Thinking of Josef and Anni Albers

Over the course of the twentieth century, numerous artists and theorists sought to challenge the historical bias toward vision in Western culture by reclaiming touch as a key perceptual modality. At the Bauhaus, a revived emphasis on haptic perception became a fundamental component of the school’s philosophy and curriculum. Of the artists and educators associated with the school, Josef and Anni Albers were among the most committed proponents of touch. In some of their works on paper, they exploited the inseparability of visual and haptic perception: Josef attempted to emulate kinaesthetic experience in a series of photo-collage portraits; he thematised touch in several cork and wood relief prints; he and Anni replaced visually perceptible forms with haptically perceptible designs in their inkless intaglio prints; and she attempted to simulate the haptic manipulation of knots through vision in a number of drawings and prints. This paper considers the interplay of vision and touch in these works in relation to both artists’ larger ambition – reflected in their teaching and theoretical writing – of sharpening what they saw to be a deteriorating sense of touch in modern society. The multi-faceted notion of haptic perception in cognitive psychology is defined and applied to these artworks, and the central role of touch in Josef’s teaching and Anni’s theoretical writing is examined in the context of their pioneering Bauhaus colleagues Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy, and Otti Berger.