Josef Albers: The Heart of Painting
This special presentation of works by Josef Albers dives into his investigation of color through the structure of the square. The presentation puts into perspective Albers emphasis on reading color and how to read paintings.
Josef Albers was one of the pioneers of Modern art, leading the way with both his artistic body of work and for his influential teachings during his time at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale University. Born in Germany, Albers immigrated to the US after the closure of the Bauhaus, the epicenter of modernist art and thinking – reasons that forced its termination in 1930s Germany.
Albers and his wife Anni, herself a pioneer of modern textile art, would take what they learned and taught at the Bauhaus to the founding of Black Mountain College. The legendary college promoted new ideas of art, learning, and teaching and counted amongst its faculty and students Ruth Asawa, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Elaine and Willem de Kooning.
At Black Mountain College, when asked by a student what he would teach, Albers responded, “To open eyes.” This same principle to examining and re-imagining the ways of looking can be applied to his most famous series of paintings “Homage to the Square.” Though he had a tenuous grasp of English, through gesture and performance, Albers could communicate with his students to approach painting and art in new ways, with fresh perspectives. The process was just as important as the final product.
So too did his teaching style apply to his process of painting. It can be easy to dismiss Albers series of paintings “Homage to the Square” as Minimalism or simple abstraction. But these paintings ask more of the viewer, to consider the relationship of color and form. Notice that the squares are not perfectly centered but weighted to the bottom. How does this change the relationship of the squares to each other? To the wall? To the viewer?
Homage to the Square, ‘Oracle’, 1961
Josef Albers, circa 1962
Observe the relationship of color placed next to each other. Does it intensify the color next to it? Does it make the color recede to the background or jump forward? It is important to note that Albers rarely mixed paints, relying on the pure hue from the tube, He would compare the same hue from different companies and the back of his Masonite panels bear witness to the notes of color he would make. For Albers, painting is about relativity – the relationship of color, form, object, and viewer. These canvases are a celebration of that relativity, of perception itself, reaching beyond exercises into balanced symphonies using only the essential vocabulary of painting. In a sense, they anticipate the concept of minimalist music – variations on the most essential and basic patterns to create richly layered compositions.
Let us put into perspective the rapid change happening in the era after World War II, much of which was due to Albers and his teachings. Artists no longer felt compelled to paint figuratively. Abstract Expressionism became the dominant style. The end result mattered less and less as the process to get to that result. Experimentation of materiality reached new heights. Albers had earlier used discarded glass and metal to create art (and in his teachings) an echo of what Robert Rauschenberg, a student of Black Mountain College, would later accomplish with his combines. And it was not just Josef who pushed materiality. Just as importantly was Anni Albers and her architectural approach to textiles.
In a world that inundates our visual perceptions, Albers upends our normal ways of seeing. We are given moments of respite that are nevertheless complex, magic formed out of only the building blocks of paintings. Beyond his canvases, Albers developed a pedagogy for the teaching of art, one that still affects artists training today. His influence ripples forward through his paintings and his teachings.