Josef Albers’ paintings and prints have always left me cold. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been that much of a color guy. I instinctively side with Florentine disegni over Venetian colori (though I routinely melt in front of a Titian or Tintoretto), and I would take an Analytical Cubist Braque or Picasso over a Fauvist Matisse or Derain, a Frank Stella pinstripe over a Frank Stella protractor, any day.
And so for me the intensive investigations into color that Albers (1888-1976) undertook with such diligence never stood much of a chance. It’s not that they weren’t nice to look at, or interesting in a formal way, but to invent a format (the progressively expanding square — or progressively contracting, depending on your point of view) that concentrates solely on color is not unlike inventing a form of performance art that focuses solely on the handshake, but devoid of its implications of propriety, affection, seduction or betrayal. Albers’ trademark “Homage to the Square” paintings seem to exist on a rarified plane where complexity and contradiction are pressed out and wrinkle-free, like a dry-cleaned suit.
It was more than a little shocking, then, to find myself swept away by Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper at the Morgan Library & Museum. But there are differences — and in the context of the artist’s uniquely circumscribed universe, the differences are major — from what we usually think of Albers and his tight, immaculate squares.
Although the exhibition’s title emphasizes the support (paper) the artist used to make these works, and where he was (America) when he made them, the most important thing about the sixty or so pieces on display is that they are studies that reveal his workaday, unpolished, even bumbling side.
Albers’ paintings and prints present a flawless face to the world, and there is something stifling about getting to that point. The studies show the struggle and the sizable portion of failure that the artist encountered along the way.
The earliest (early 1940s) look like unfortunate experiments in Modernist graphic design. Their simplistically interlocking shapes are dull and dated, but before the decade was out, Albers hit upon a motif that resonated with him, a series of adobe-like facades (appropriately titled “Variant/Adobe”) consisting of a horizontal rectangle with small, vertical aperture-like shapes near the left and right edges.
If not for their bright color, the adobe shapes seem to anticipate (thanks in no small part to their shared roots in the Bauhaus) the 1970s strain of purist architecture promoted by the New York Five (John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Richard Meier and Michael Graves), who — with the exception of Graves after his apostasy to postmodernism — produced designs (many of which were theoretical) composed of starkly geometric forms, cubes in particular, preferably in white, black and gray.
What is most striking about Albers’ studies, beginning with the adobe paintings and into the later “Homage to the Square” motifs, is how much they seem, like a piece of architecture, to have been built. The paint is knifed on, and in many of the works the soft, absorbent blotting paper support sucks up just enough oil to leave an ever-so-slight bleed around the swatches’ edges.
This material interaction, which gives the impression that the paint is lifting off the paper, or, in other instances, that the surface is a colorfully realized bas-relief sculpture, endows these studies with a thing-ness that elude Albers’ finished works.
The sense of painting-as-object is even more pronounced in the enameled horizontal studies, not adobes or squares but rows of color resembling house paint chips, that are arrayed like ancient Egyptian jewelry in tabletop vitrines. The museological treatment awarded these humble objects wittily underscores their utilitarian status while it encapsulates the ethos of the exhibit, which is at its most enchanting where it is the most artless.
In the many studies for “Homage to the Square” hanging here (most of which are undated, though two are listed as coming from around 1950 and two from ‘64) we see Albers thinking things through, with abrupt shifts in direction and hastily redone, pockmarked layers of paint that become bands of cloudlike, variegated color unheard of in his pristine, finished work.
He also makes copious notes to himself in pencil directly on the painting surface or along the bottom edge of the sheet, one of which — and I could be wrong, given the scrawled handwriting — seems to simply state, “Try again.”
Like Hans Hofmann, Albers was renowned as a formidable teacher, and like Hofmann, his influence in that arena is arguably greater than his contribution as an artist. In the book Josef Albers: To Open Eyes: The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and Yale by Frederick A. Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz, Horowitz writes in a chapter titled “Albers the Teacher”:
In countless exhortations to his students, he stoutly defended the primacy of clear thinking over impulse and raw emotion as an approach to making art […] Interviewed in 1970 by [painter and former student] Neil Welliver for Art News, he said: “The head is still yet above the eyes. That encourages me to make good use of it. My intestines below my heart and stomach interest me less. Clear thinking and seeing won’t spoil emotions; just gets them in the right place. Ratio is in. … angst is out.”
By casting the head, eyes, heart and nether regions as elements in a hierarchy, rather than as evenly matched participants in open, endless warfare, Albers and his powerhouse program at Yale set the tone for serious thinking about art, at least in the United States, for the final four decades of the twentieth century.
This show exposes Albers, if not in a state of angst, then at his most unguarded. The smeared paint and penciled notations, the corrections, about-faces and debacles (while the warmer squares — in oranges, reds and yellows — are luminous, the ones in blues and greens are rancid) bring us much closer to Albers as a prickly, flawed personality than as an Apollonian artist and thinker.
According to the Morgan Library website, the studies in this show “were never exhibited in the artist’s lifetime and have rarely been seen after his death.” It’s too bad this side of him took so long to come to light; it would’ve been nice to know him better.
Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 14.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.