Books

Homage to Josef Albers: Writers Pay Tribute to a Pioneer of Abstraction

In Josef Albers: Midnight and Noon, Nicholas Fox Weber, Elaine de Kooning, Colm Tóibín, and more discuss the artist’s seminal Homage to the Square series.

Josef Albers, “Homage to the Square” (1962), oil on Masonite, 24 x 24 inches (© 2016 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In Josef Albers: Midnight and Noon, David Zwirner has put together a comprehensive book that looks both generally and specifically at Albers’ seminal Homage to the Square series, by way of various writers, including Nicholas Fox Weber, Elaine de Kooning, and Colm Tóibín. The contributors discuss their relationships to both the series and the artist, and the impact of both on their practice and understanding of art. The book is in response to two exhibitions: Grey Steps, Grey Scales, Grey Ladders, which focused on the artist’s use of gray, black, and white throughout his career, and Sunny Side Up, which explored his use of vibrant color. The shows were, respectively, at the New York and London David Zwirner Gallery locations between 2016 and 2017.

Josef Albers, Midnight and Noon

“Every color, every form should speak with its own voice,” Albers explained in relation to the work he was more or less obsessed with from 1949 until his death in 1976. Homage to the Square is characterized by a superimposition of squares in distinct colors — often capturing two opposing moments, moods, times of day, or seasons — to explore the myriad possible visual effects through color and spatial relationships alone. In his introduction to the book, Nicholas Fox Weber, Executive Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, shares an anecdote about Albers: “I will never forget him showing me a grey-black Homage to the Square next to one composed of three different yellows. The paintings were the same size and the identical format: ‘You see, Nick,’ Josef said, his eyes widening with sheer delight. ‘Look at what you have in art! Midnight and noon at the same time. In life, they are never concurrent. But painting gives us unprecedented gifts.’”

The harmonious dualism found in each of Albers’s paintings in this series provides viewers with haiku-esque glimpses into suspended moments in time, hybridized within the borders of the canvas. The artist’s methodology grew out of his time spent in Germany as a teacher at the Bauhaus, where discipline in the act of art-making was paramount. Among the school’s rules was, as American architect Louis Sullivan explained, “form follows function.” Such a requirement can only lend itself to highly structural work, where geometry, color, and format mirror the triangulated relationship between artist, work, and viewer. But with the rise of Nazism came the permeation of repression, and by 1933, the Bauhaus School was forced to close its doors and Albers and his wife Anni fled the country for America. Albers arrived at a time when artists, as well as writers, dancers, and singers, were growing increasingly interested in interdisciplinary practices and experiments in form. He began his teaching residency at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where students were required to consider the modern and the abstract in all mediums. Among his peers were Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, and many others. Though the school only lasted until 1955, its ideology spread new artistic practices across the country like a pandemic.

Installation view of Josef Alber’s Grey Steps, Grey Scales, Grey Ladders (image courtesy of David Zwirner New York)
Josef Albers, Color Study, gouache on paper, 7 1/16 x 10 3/16 inches (© 2016 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

During this time, Albers was producing iteration after iteration of his square, feeding off the linguistic minds that surrounded him. One particular influence was poet Charles Olson, who, in his essay “Projective Verse,” qualifies poetic language as “energy transferred from where the poet got it … all the way over to, the reader … a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” Albers doesn’t directly refer to Olson as an influence, but it’s clear that they were both thinking similar thoughts at simultaneous moments. While Olson (along with his dear friend, poet Robert Creeley) was trying to navigate notions of kinetic language, understanding how language could function within its own parameters without the need for a human to utter it. Albers was exploring the “choice of the colors used, as well as their order … [as] an interaction — influencing and changing each other forth and back.” So Albers was also considering variations of kinetics in painting, especially through the use of color, and, just like a writer experiences when she writes (as Elaine de Kooning articulately explains), was moving through “a long series of rejections — an arduous and complicated exercise of the element of choice.” This series of rejections is like sifting through a word bank to produce a line of text, just as Albers would, with a ruler, persistently, comb a blend of sounds and visual effects through color or word choice. All leading up to the sharp edge, the line break. As Irish novelist Colm Tóibín explains, “it is at the edge that much of the power emerges, the colors move in lovely conflict and sometimes fierce contrast and sometimes easy harmony. They throw light on each other.”

As a teacher at Black Mountain College and a pioneer of Abstraction, Albers discussed these notions with his students, who happened to also be writers thinking about how to redefine language with a sociopolitical purpose, to push the boundaries of the classical, and to move into postwar experimentation. It’s through works like Homage to the Square — works that existed over a long period of time, adapting to the ever-changing environment in which they were conceived — that the sharp edges of a painting, of a poem, of a dancing body, became smoother, if not legible.

Josef Albers, “Study for Homage to the Square: Lone Whites” (1963), oil on Masonite, 24 x 24 inches (© 2016 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Josef Albers: Midnight and Noon is now available from David Zwirner Books.

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