The exhibition presents more than seventy works on paper Josef Albers (b. Bottrop, Germany, 1888; d. 1976) created after emigrating to the United States in 1933: studies for the Kinetics and Adobes of the late 1930s and 1940s as well as an extensive group of works beginning in 1950 that served Alberss preparation for his Homage to the Square paintings.
All loans for the exhibition have been provided by the Museum Quadrat, Bottrop, and the Anni and Josef Albers Foundation, Bethany, Connecticut. It is the first time that such a large selection of these works is on view in Europe. The focus of the show is on issues of colour.
Josef Albers had received initial training in the arts at the Royal Art School, Berlin, the School of Applied Arts, Essen, and the academies of Berlin and Munich. In 1920, he took up his studies at the Weimar Bauhaus, and only a few years later, in 1923, he was appointed head of its stained-glass workshop. Albers created glass paintings and designed furniture and glass and metal implements; his art gradually became nonrepresentational. After the Bauhaus, which had moved to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin in 1932, was dissolved, Albers and his wife Anni emigrated to the US in 1933; he became an American citizen in 1939. Albers accepted an appointment to direct the Art Department at the newly founded Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where he taught from 1933 until 1949. Between 1950 and 1959, he headed the Art Department at Yale University in New Haven. The impressions he received from the sublime landscapes of North America and the art and culture of Latin America and Mexico, where he traveled extensively starting in 1935, came to profoundly shape his subsequent creative work, particularly his painting. His teaching and art had a far reaching influence which is still visible today in European and American art, especially in his students John Cage, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Serra were among his students.
The Kinetics and Adobes of the late 1930s and 1940s show the influence of the architectural structures of monumental brick buildings in pre-Columbian settlements and then of the pyramids of the Maya culture, whose abstract and Cubist character Albers took particular care to bring out in his black-and-white photographs. Accordingly, linear structures predominate in the Kinetics. Dynamic visual effects result that permit of forever new readings the beholder can unlock by engaging the relationships between surface and space implicit in the color fields delineated by the geometric shapes. Designations such as Kinetic, Biconjugate, or Tautonym reflect this optical dynamism of Alberss works, which includes the coexistence of multiple perspectives on intimated spaces, now seen from a high angle, now from a low angle, and their mirror-inverted correspondence. The compositions of the Adobes owe more to the Mexican mud brick houses built in the eponymous style with their characteristic color; the motifs recall windows, doorways, or floor plans such as can be found in these architectures. In these works, too, Albers experimented with unmixed paints, closely observing the changes that took place at the interfaces between them, calling their identity in question.
The Homages to the Square occupied Albers from 1950 to his death in 1976. In these works on paper, Albers explored color in all its variations and the subtlest gradations, without subscribing to systems or a theory of color. He worked on sheets of highly absorbent blotting paper; their limited size encouraged his penchant for experimentation and accommodated his serial method, which had been a defining feature of Alberss art from the very outset. Some of the later sheets seem mere sketches or unfinished, a quality that is the privilege of the medium of drawing, creating opportunities for spontaneous decisions and allowing the beholder to gain insight into the creative process. Notes he wrote in the margins or in the color fields are particularly indicative of the experimental nature of some exhibits from this group. In order to avoid any suggestion of representation as well as involuntary composition within a picture and to foreground his true subject, color, Albers now chose the square, as simple as it is radical, as the motif for his paintings. Within the square he placed further squares, superimposing them so that they emerge only along their edges; solely the square at the center of each sheet appears in its entirety. Such superimposition of squares heightens the interaction between the colors the painter has applied.
The motif of the square is not neutral; it is surrounded by cultural associations as well as others rooted in psychology, as the art of native America, for instance, demonstrates. It suggests cosmological notions of heaven and earth or the four points of the compass, but also the idea that a man, his arms outstretched, may be inscribed upon a square (thus in a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci after Vitruvius). In comparison with the Adobes, the square is more meditative in character; like a mandala, where the circle and the square are the dominant shapes, it invites mental concentration and calm contemplation. As the beholder perceives the picture in its entirety, the effect the colors have on him grows only stronger. To counteract the danger that the picture would seem static, Albers displaced the interior squares there are now three of them, now four downward from the center. A grid system of ten units each on the horizontal and vertical axes on which all pictures are based gave rise to a wealth of possible ways of placing the squares at different distances in each picture and redistributing the relative weights between the colors. By dislocating the center downward, Albers also forestalled the impression of looking at a perspectival depiction of squares or architectural segments growing smaller with increasing distance from the beholder, with their corners aligned, as though in a construction drawing, on the same diagonals. Instead, the squares seem to leap out toward the beholder or recede from him depending on their color, to grow smaller or larger, and sometimes even to take the form of upright rectangles. This effect brings the spatial depth opened up by the colors themselves back into the surface, allowing Albers to heighten the interplay between the colors delimited by their assignment to the individual fields and to demonstrate their inexhaustible variability. His focus was on the Interaction of Color thus the title of his book, which came out in 1963 the harmonic coexistence of colors in a picture.
The Homages to the Square from this group of works range from color tests to finished works that are no less accomplished than a painting. Though it may seem paradoxical, the works on paper presented here convey a particularly palpable sense of Alberss talents as a painter, much more so than his paintings executed on fiberboard. The painters individual hand apparent in the paintings, where he applies unmixed tube paint using a knife or spatula, recedes into the background in the works on paper. Yet the surfaces conversely gain a relief that is almost gestural in its expression, and by contributing to the sense of animation that pervades the pictures and heightening the material quality of the paint, it allows the colors to come into their own being. The thick blotting paper extracts the oil from the paints and lends them a luminous presence with a silky shine.
Integrated into the exhibition are the two works by Josef Albers held by the Kunstmuseum Basel
. The glass painting Fuge (Fugue, 1925; inv. G. 1958.64; permanent loan from the Friends of the Kunstmuseum Basel) exemplifies the artists work from his time at the Bauhaus. The painting Blue Call (1956; inv. G. 1968.24) is an early example of the Homage to the Square series.