Gestalt Approach to Visual Perception in Some of the Work of Josef Albers

Gestalt psychology is a philosophical functioning of the mind which attempts to understand the principles that govern a person’s ability to attain and retain a meaningful perception in a chaotic world. The key principle of this theory is that the mind has the tendency to form a global whole with self-organizing structuralism. Three German psychologists, Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer, and Wolfgang Kohler were the founders of Gestalt psychology. While traveling by train, psychologist, Max Wertheimer seized an idea when he saw flashlights at a railroad crossing which resembled encircling lights found in a theater marquee. The gestalt principle holds that the human mind has the capabilities of stipulating different perceptions as the products of interactions between different stimuli. Gestalt psychologists seek to understand the structuring of the cognitive process as opposed to the behavioral theory which focuses on the stimulus and its response. According to the Gestalt theory, the human brain has the capability to generate whole forms of the visual perception of universal figures as opposed to a mere collection of simple and unrelated elements. It is suggested that gestalt theory allows deconstruction of an entire situation into single elements. This paper is an analysis of the gestalt theory in the works of Joseph Albers, a renowned artist, psychologist, and teacher at the Bauhaus school of arts.

Joseph Albers is well known for his interests in how the human brain perceive colors and separate the physical realities from what we see. In other words, he had a strong interest in the gestalt of colors. Gestalt theory is demonstrated in many of his works starting with Bei Haus 2, in which he mounted two photographs of stacked trees and their shadows (Arnheim, 80). This work had two sets of patterns that worked simultaneously. The bare trees created a clustered pattern of vertical lines whereas their shadows formed a different set of horizontal lines which operated as a distinct pattern. The idea of identifying the shadow with its correct tree in these photographs was indistinguishable and irrelevant too. Never the less, when trees or the shadows are seen together separately in each photograph, they combine to form a shared interactive structure which jumps from one image to another. However, we must note that these are photographs and not paintings as one may expect to be the case. The relationship between the two pictures a was made by a natural course.

Albers perceived a gestalt mystery in a natural setting and captured them with his camera to produce gelatin prints from the photographs. At first glance, one sees the phenomenon as objective in its simplest form; something that can easily happen in a physical world. However, the two paragraphs have a doubling effect which reveals that they, not something that can simply occur in the physical world or anything that can be taken as a natural phenomenon. As the structural patterns move from one photograph to the next creating a structure with distinct shapes and lines, it comes to our mind that this phenomenon is an abstract perception. It is this patterning structure that Albers used to construct his “Skyscraper.” Albers used a sequence of horizontal shapes stacked together to create his form of desire. Their proximity and repetition make us read them as vertical shapes at first glance. We come to realize that the forms of “skyscrapers” are made of indistinguishable forms from our second analytical look. This perceptual tendency to cluster shapes demonstrated in this work was illustrated by Wertheimer, in one of his articles on the Gestalt theory which he titled “Gestalt laws.” In this article, Wertheimer uses one example to present rows of dots and circles that reveal the organizing tendency in a vision, which demonstrates the effects of similarity and proximity (Arnheim, 376).

Two other works of Albers, famously known as “Fruit Bowl” and “Tea Glass with Saucer and Stirrer” demonstrates the gestalt effect (Arnheim, 80). These two works show that Albers was well aware of the relational constellating characteristics of circles and spheres. From these workers, we can see the relationship between various black spheres regardless of their separation on the side of the glass forms, the same way Westheimer illustrated mind concentration on circles of the same size (Arnheim, 370). The mind does not recognize the sections between glass forms that are made of circles with different forms. The Stacking Tables is another work of Albers that demonstrates the relational structures as well as the principles behind the perceptual organization. The stacking tables are both playful and functional with same constellated features of vertical and horizontal groupings. The groupings are dynamic too as they can be perceived and arranged according to the proximities within our limits. The Gestalt switch is demonstrated through pictorial experiments as well as through a purposeful design of a functioning set of objects. The stacking tables of Albers constitute a regularly shifting set of groupings that create a subtle movement perception even when they are still due to descending or ascending colored surfaces. The perceptual phenomenon from this work has some resemblance to Wertheimer’s experiment of groundbreaking.

Some of the chairs designed by Albers play precisely with the ideas of perceived motion. As Wertheimer puts it, the human brain can perceive motion even when there is no motion. In many of the chairs designed by Albers in Bauhaus, they are designed to accommodate perceived motion in their imagined weightlessness motion. In Albers’ Gestalt terms, a person can experience the forms of his paintings, photographs, tables, glassware, and chairs, not merely because they have structural designs but because they are structures. What happens is that we do not mentally absorb the forms that rhyme but they turn into visual wholes the moment we perceive them, and in return, the formed perception activates the visual bearings of what we see. What we see is the choice of our brain, and we have very little influence on the visual recognitions as it is the functionality of our mind to interpret what we want to see. The shapes which exist in artistic work are also part of the human perception.

Albers interest in Gestalt theory fostered his concept of visual perception. According to this theory, as it later came to be illustrated by psychologists and other scientists, a color may seem to change, vividly when moved to a different background. For example, a swatch of red color is likely to exhibit an intensity on a green background and a different one on a blue one. As a result of the visual perception, we may not be able to identify the true appearance of a certain color. This concept is known as the simultaneous contrast pioneered by Albers. Gestalts may say that color appearances are legitimate because of the perpetual experiences we have with our minds as opposed to isolated parts. What the mind sees are not swatches but dynamic figures that are defined by the background. When Albers wrote that addition of two elements is supposed to yield a relation that is more than the sum the combining elements, he did not only describe his teaching methods but also echoed the idea of Gestalt as he understood it. Although the relationships may vary with the background, what one learns from history, art and science depend on one’s comparative efforts.


Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and visual perception: A psychology of the creative eye. Unit of             California Press, 1976.


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