Installation view: Josef Albers in Mexico
 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, (photo: David Heald
 © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017 )

Between 1935 and 1967, the artists and educators Josef and Anni Albers made over 13 trips to Mexico, visiting major archeological sites like Teotihuacán, Chichén Itzá, and Monte Albán. Belying his reputation as a rigid geometrician, Josef Albers’s continuous, untrammeled awe at the grandeur of the pre-Columbian world is contagious. “Monte Albán is one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he records in a letter from the summer of 1936, during one of his first outings to the Zapotec ruins.

These Mexico pilgrimages functioned as sabbaticals for the couple, occasions for them to test their aesthetic theories and discover new ideas, all the while taking advantage of a newfound, touristic freedom aided by English-language guidebooks and an extensive highway system. Although these trips coincided with a period of intense productivity for both artists, however, little study has been made of the connections among the Albers’s travels, their pedagogy, and their practice.

Joseph Albers, “Variant/Adobe Orange Front” (1948–58) oil on Masonite, 59.6 x 68.5 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice; (© Josef Albers, the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

To this end, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Josef Albers in Mexico is a necessary and belated corrective, both to Albers’s reputation – as more pedagogue than painter – and to the misconception that abstraction can ever be free of outside influence. Curated by Lauren Hinkson, the exhibition pairs rarely exhibited photographs with drawings on paper, studies for paintings, and selections from two of Albers’s series, Homage to the Square (1950–76) and Variant/Adobe (1946–66). Organized according to six archeological sites, the exhibition emphasizes the importance of place without making heavy-handed connections.

Albers’s photographs are the major highlight, opening a fascinating window into his visual lexicon. His signature method was to paste several contact prints onto a single sheet, revisiting the same subject from different angles, at different times of day, or even at different points in the excavation process. In the catalogue for the show, Hinkson rightly suggests changing the terminology of these works to “photographic arrays,” orientating Albers’s practice away from collage and toward seriality — the driving force behind his most influential work.

It’s clear from the photographs that Albers was inspired more by the pre-Columbian impulse toward abstraction than by any historical or religious context. Geometric façades and steep, sloping steps draw his attention, reappearing in myriad forms in his paintings. His admiration for the pre-Columbian engineer is palpable at every turn. In “Study for Sanctuary” (1941–1942), dizzying lines mirror the layout of a Zapotec or Mayan city, where the locations and distribution of buildings often performed both aesthetic and astrological functions.

Josef Albers
 “Study for Sanctuary” (1941-42) ink on paper, 43.2 × 55.9 cm; ( © 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Other paintings take their cue from the contemporary landscape and built environment of Mexico, most fruitfully in his Variant/Adobe series. Inspired by the shape and colors of Oaxacan houses, Albers produced paintings of three or four radiant colors — shades of blues, purples, oranges — resembling their bright walls and shutterless windows. A photographic array titled “Architecture in Oaxaca” (1935–1967) shows Albers trying out different angles and details for this series, searching out how best to capture the concentric squares that continually captivated his attention.

Through this careful appreciation for detail and his pervasive, boundless admiration for the original artists, Albers avoids the charges of primitivism that apply to, say, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Albers appraised craftsmanship above all else, paying homage to old masters rather than emphasizing any “untaught” qualities valorized by earlier modernists. “I cannot agree with historians who insist on calling this art primitive,” Albers states in his speech, “Truthfulness in Art.” “In my opinion such plastic work shows not only a highly developed psychological understanding of human nature, it also shows besides an extremely strong visionary power, a very cultivated artistic discipline.”

Josef Albers
, “Untitled (Mitla, Mexico)” (1956) sixteen gelatin silver prints and two found postcards, mounted on cardboard, 20.3 × 30.5 cm; the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation 
© 2017 (the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Albers’s interest in pre-Columbian art dates to his tenure at the Bauhaus, but in Mexico Albers discovered that the very methods and techniques he had pursued in Germany predated him by millennia. In a letter to his Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky, Albers writes that Mexico “is truly the promised land of abstract art. For here it is already 1000s of years old.” This realization freed Albers to draw inspiration from Mexican abstraction without caricaturing it.

In his landmark book, Interaction of Color (1963), Albers writes, “To honor the masters creatively is to compete with their attitude rather than with their results, to follow an artistic understanding of tradition – that is, to create, not to revive.” Homage to the Square is both Albers’s most successful and most ambiguous testament to this vision, and wisely removed from any photographic context. After seeing the extent of Mexico’s influence on Albers’s work, the viewer is left wondering how exactly it informed these small paintings of concentric squares, with paint applied directly from the tube onto Masonite. Like his closest precursor in color theory, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Albers believed that colors never exist alone, but always in relation to their surroundings.

Installation view: Josef Albers in Mexico Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (photo: David Heald
 © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017)

At its best, Josef Albers in Mexico provides a tenable idea of cross-cultural pollination. Albers not only learned from pre-Hispanic art, but also taught and collaborated with Mexican artists, even forging a brief friendship with Diego Rivera over their common interest in Mesoamerican artifacts. Albers’s example of homage without appropriation no doubt had an influence on his students, as well as on later artists like Donald Judd and Robert Smithson, whose works in Mexico bear not only an aesthetic but also a theoretical resemblance to Albers’s purity of form and mastery over limited materials.

For a show with so many strengths, however, it’s a disappointment to see the role of Anni Albers diminished. A prominent artist in her own right, Anni studied indigenous weaving techniques and created her own works in response to Monte Albán and several other sites. One can only imagine how this show would have been enriched by her tapestries, not just by her inclusion in Albers’s photographs as an occasional, ghostly presence.

Josef Albers in Mexico continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 4.

Dennis Zhou is a writer living in New York City. He holds a master's degree from the University of Oxford, and his work has appeared most recently in the Times Literary Supplement.