I’m not one to have regrets, so I’m just sayin’: Yes, if I could do it over, I would have studied interior design, but most of all, I would have studied color. I am just crazy about color. Over the Labor Day weekend, I was in New York City for a day and visited the Morgan Library & Museum. My friends wanted to go for the Churchill. But when I saw the roster, I knew I would head straight for Josef Albers Painting on Paper. And sure enough, my eyes just about popped right out of my head at the amazing incredible fascinating beauty of Josef Albers’ work. Especially riveting: His studies for his famous Homage to the Square, created from 1950 to 1976. Ummm, I’m no art scholar. I didn’t really know anything about Josef Albers. But within 30 seconds, I knew that he and his work would become one of my most important touchstones. Josef Albers! Color! Color! Color!
What is most fascinating to me about this important exhibit is that it shows never-before-seen painting studies that Albers did for famous works like his iconic Homage to the Square series. These aren’t finished works. They are his working experiments. Many — like Color Study for a White Linen Square, above — show his handwritten annotations about paints he used. The first experiments are with blah colors like black, grey, brown. Once he had the mathematical precision down — yes, these shapes were determined with mathematic / geometric precision — he then started bringing colors in. The studies also show the paint colors with, and without, varnish — Albers was experimenting to see how varnish changed the color.
It’s one thing to see a finished work. That is all well and good. But woah! to see all the studies — the ‘mistakes’ — the trial and error — that led to a final work: That is like getting in his head. That is like being right there with the artist. So exciting!
So as I usually do when I make a new (to me) discovery about an important midcentury artist or designer, I start researching online to find the best resources to help me understand their place in the design world continuum.
To sum up just a few of the highlights of Albers’ career:
- Born in 1888 in Germany. Parents and relatives all were craftspeople, so it was in his blood.
- His early focus was working with stained glass.
- He was began teaching at the famous Bauhaus in 1922.
- He left Germany in 1933, when the Bauhaus closed during the rise of Hitler.
- He came to the U.S. Philip Johnson got him a job leading the new art school Black Mountain College, in North Carolina.
- In 1950, he was hired by Yale University to head their Department of Design. He retired in 1958. *I think* that it was during this tenure that his fame became solidified. He was famous as color theorist and to this day, his color theory is taught.
- In 1950, Albers began his most famous series of art works, Homage to the Square. He continued this intense exploration of colors and how they reverberate through 1976, when he died.
- His Homage to the Square series was broadly influential — to the Op artists, to graphic design, to interior design and to popular culture beyond.
- Albers was married to Anni Albers, who was an accomplished artist in her on right.
My favorite article about Albers was written by Holland Cotter of the New York Times this past July after he saw the same exhibit I saw at the Morgan. As I mentioned in my bullets above, Albers is very famous as color theorist, but sometimes he gets pigeon-holed as kind of … austere. Seeing these color studies at the Morgan, Cotter, like me, was entranced by the passion that Albers clearly had for the raw sensuality of colors. He used the paint straight from the tube — no need for futzing — the intensity of the pigments as presented kept him going for more than two decades! In “Harmony, Harder Than It Looks,” Cotter says, with reverence for this genius artist:
He has come down in many art history accounts as a theory-bound puritan, but in reality he was a besotted lover, obsessed, as lovers are, by a single object of desire, which in his case was color.
He once said that the geometry in “Homage to the Square” was “only the dish to hold my craziness about color in.”
Oh my, repita!:
… the geometry in “Homage to the Square” was “only the dish to hold my craziness about color in.”
There are a number of books by Josef Albers. The seminal one seems to be Interaction of Color. I know what I’m asking for, for Christmas.
Color for our houses
Since Josef Albers’ Homage to Square series was created from 1950 to 1976, it’s illuminating to look at the colors he used — and consider them for our midcentury interiors. Indeed, the fact that he combined three or four colors in each work may give you a ready made palette.
But I think the most important legacy of these works is the idea that we should have courage to not only embrace color in our homes — but to experiment playfully with it. The aha! moment — the moment you know it’s delightfully just-right — only comes from practice and joyful engagement. Not everyone cares intensely about color or design — hey, we all have “our thing” — but if you are a color freak, too, go with it.
Here is the news release with all the details about the exhibit, along with more fascinating details about Albers, color and Homage to the Square:
THE MORGAN TO EXHIBIT JOSEF ALBERS’S PAINTINGS ON PAPER, INCLUDING RARELY-SEEN STUDIES FOR HIS FAMOUS HOMAGE TO THE SQUARE SERIES SHOW EXPLORES THE PRIVATE SIDE OF ALBERS’S WORK AND THE INFLUENCE OF THE U.S. AND MEXICO ON HIS CAREER
Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper
July 20–October 14, 2012
Josef Albers (1888–1976) is best known for his series of paintings Homage to the Square, in which he repeatedly explored color relationships within a similar format of concentric squares. Much less familiar, however, are the painted studies on paper that Albers made for his paintings. Expressively experimental, the works offer a revealing look at the artist’s investigation of form and color. Now, for the first time in New York, The Morgan Library & Museum will present an exhibition entirely devoted to this aspect of the artist’s work. Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper, on view from July 20 to October 14, features approximately eighty such studies spanning the four decades after the artist left Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States.
The exhibition begins with studies for abstract geometric compositions from the late 1930s, when Albers—a onetime instructor at the Bauhaus— returned to painting after having devoted his recent years to working with glass. Albers’s studies for the Variant / Adobe series, from the 1940s, reveal the influence that his time in Mexico, and specifically the country’s pre-Columbian architecture, had upon his art. The majority of the exhibition—over fifty works—is devoted to the Homage to the Square series (1950–1976). These vibrant sketches—never exhibited in the artist’s lifetime and rarely seen after his death—provide important insight into Albers’s working method and, in contrast to the austerity and strict geometry of the finished paintings, are remarkable for their freedom and sensuality.
“The Morgan is noted for exhibitions that explore the artistic process and the often surprising, experimental drafts that lead to a finished work of art,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan. “This show is a prime example for an artist whose name is ordinarily associated with a rigorous and highly disciplined approach to composition, but whose painterly studies exhibit an unexpectedly spontaneous informality.”
PAINTING ON PAPER
Born in Bottrop, Germany in 1888, Albers came from a family of craftsmen, and the virtues of craftsmanship—precision, discipline, and technical proficiency—were of central importance to his work. Whereas his paintings themselves took only a few hours to complete, Albers’s preparatory work entailed producing series upon series of meticulous studies. Of equal concern for Albers were the materials from which art was made. At the Bauhaus, where he taught for thirteen years, he encouraged his students to explore the potential of paper and cardboard for their work. The limitations and possibilities of paper were of particular interest to him. A less formal and rigid material than the Masonite panels or vinylite that he used for his finished works, paper provided Albers an ideal surface on which to experiment, and to process his ideas. In 1933, the Bauhaus was forced to close under pressure from the new Nazi government. Albers and his wife, Anni, immigrated to America, where he would head the art department of Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In the United States, Albers matured as a painter as his fascination with geometric form grew and his travels took him to Mexico, a place that would have a lasting influence upon his work.
MEXICO AND THE VARIANTS / ADOBES SERIES
The Albers’ visited Mexico for the first time in 1935. They returned to the country regularly over the next several decades, sometimes staying for several months. The profound effect of Mexico’s colors and pre-Columbian architecture and sculpture upon Albers’s work is difficult to overestimate. “Mexico,” he wrote to Nina and Wassily Kandinsky in 1936, “is truly the promised land of abstract art.”
Mexico reconfirmed Albers’s faith in the expressive power of color, and it was here—after years of producing nothing but stained glass, furniture designs, woodcuts, and linocuts—that Albers returned to painting. He significantly expanded his color range, incorporating magenta, turquoise, violet, and ocher, among other colors, in varying combinations. The country’s architecture, from adobe houses to Mesoamerican structures, inspired the artist’s geometric abstract paintings from the 1940s, especially the Variant / Adobe series, which he began in 1947. In studies for the series—whose compositions resemble a wall structured by abstract window openings—Albers investigated the effect of several pure, unmixed colors juxtaposed with one another. In a letter to friend Franz Perdekamp in September 1947, Albers wrote, “Since January [I have painted] only one theme in about seventy studies. What interests me most now is how colors change one another according to the proportions and quantities [I use]…I’m especially proud when [I can make] colors lose their identity and become unrecognizable.”
HOMAGE TO THE SQUARE
In 1950, Albers found the ideal vessel through which to explore his fascination with the interaction of color: a group of nested squares. Like the Adobe series, it is possible that Homage to the Square evolved from Albers’s preoccupation with the ancient architecture and sculpture of Mexico. His main concern in these paintings, however, was not the form of the square itself, but rather color. “Color,” Albers said, “is the means of my idautonomic. I’m not paying ‘homage to the square.’ It’s only the dish I serve my craziness about color in.” As evidenced in the notes Albers sometimes wrote in the margins of a work, or at times within the color field itself, these studies were essentially experimentin nature Albers restricted his first Homage to the Square paintings to shades of gray and black. Eventually, he used myriad color combinations, not subscribing to specific color harmonies, such as those based on complementary contrasts. Albers famously remarked that “color is the most relative medium in the world,” and many Homage to the Square paintings have colors that initially appear odd or discordant, but which engender a visual intensity when seen together: fiery oranges and reds; light grays and pale yellows; bright blues and dusky mauves.
The square never lost its appeal for Albers. It was a source of endless inspiration, and the form in which he most successfully investigated his fascination with the interplay of color. From 1950 until his death twenty-six years later, he created some two thousand Homage to the Square paintings.
Josef Albers in America is organized by the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich and the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop, Germany. Works are drawn from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut and the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop. The Morgan is the sole United States venue and final stop for this exhibition, which first traveled to multiple venues in Europe. Isabelle Dervaux, Acquavella Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings at the Morgan, is the coordinating curator of the exhibition at the Morgan.
This exhibition is generously supported by The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and the Rita Markus Fund for Exhibitions, and by contributions from Mickey Cartin, Nancy Schwartz, Carroll Janis, Inc. and The Hilla von Rebay Foundation.
The Morgan Library & Museum began as the private library of financier Pierpont Morgan, one of the preeminent collectors and cultural benefactors in the United States. Today, more than a century after its founding in 1906, the Morgan serves as a museum, independent research library, musical venue, architectural landmark, and historic site. In October 2010, the Morgan completed the first-ever restoration of its original McKim building, Pierpont Morgan’s private library, and the core of the institution. In tandem with the 2006 expansion project by architect Renzo Piano, the Morgan now provides visitors unprecedented access to its world-renowned collections of drawings, literary and historical manuscripts, musical scores, medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, printed books, and ancient Near Eastern seals and tablets.