Let’s Call it Square
In 1933 the Nazis ordered Berlin’s Bauhaus to close, leading artist Josef Albers—then a teacher at the school—to move to the United States, taking a job as the the head of the art department at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It wasn’t until this move that the artist—who previously worked primarily with glass— began producing paintings. “Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper,” currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, examines this turning point in Albers’ career. The show focuses on the artists painting process, featuring nearly 80 never-before-exhibited preparatory paintings and color studies.
Some of the most eye-catching paintings in the show are those from Albers’ brightly-colored “Adobe” series. The artist spent the majority of 1947 in Mexico. There, he was drawn to the homes and their color pallettes of tawny yellow, rich ochre, burnt orange, and bright tirquoise. These Adobe homes became the paradigm for Albers’ paintings that year and several studies for them are on view here. The “Adobe” paintings are planned on graph paper. As the show’s curator, Isabelle Dervaux, explained, Albers would methodically map out each painting. Using the measurements on the paper, he would mark off equal portions for each color he planned to use. The color ratios do not appear to be equal in many of the “Adobe” paintings, but in reality the quantities are the exact same. This type of illusion—the way colors paired in geometric patterns can play tricks on the eye— was one aspect of painting in which Albers was particularly interested. He said, “With two separate colors in no way overlapping, three are produced, through interaction. Each borrows from and gives to the other.”
Two years later, Albers left Black Mountain College to teach at Yale University. This marked the beginning of Albers’ most widely recognized period of paintings, his “Homage to the Square” series. These paintings evaluate the ways in which variations of shape, size, and color can alter the visual perception of an artwork. For his “Homages,” Albers applied paint in a single coat using a palette brush. This eliminated any painterly brushstrokes, or thick, impasto layers of paint, allowing for a smooth surface in which colors can play off one another. Albers would paint over 2,000 editions of Homage to the Square, but his very first version is—done in white, black, and gray—is on display in the exhibition. The creation of the painting was documented by Elaine de Kooning in the November 1950 issue of ARTnews as part of the magazine’s artist-in-process series. In the article, De Kooning explains how the artist—who possesses what she calls “an almost oppressive consciousness of every aspect of his art”—arrives at his final product using a calculated, intellectual approach to art-making which involves countless sketches (done in both oil and pencil) varying in size and color. The selection of these preliminary sketches as the focal point for the exhibition allows for the successful portrayal of Albers as a disciplined, methodical painter and draftsman.
Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper is on view now through October 14, 2012
Image provided courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York