Josef Albers: Painting in America

Josef Albers: Painting in America

Mark Chamberlain
Oct 3, 2012
Attention all colorists: hie thee to the Morgan Library for the show Painting In America, which features the studies and works on paper of the artist Josef Albers. This show is so intimate and revealing that you feel as if the artist himself is watching over you shoulder as you flip through his sketchbooks. Josef Albers was born in Germany in 1888, fled when the Nazis shuttered the Bauhaus, and eventually wound up teaching at Black Mountain and Yale here in the States. But he's most famous for his series of paintings entitled "Homage to the Square". This series is basically endless variations on one theme — the exploration of color in the form of nesting squares, and what color can mean emotionally or psychologically within that simple framework. I tend to think of Albers as a Color Field painter, though his persistence with this one series for so long suggests an indifference to trends and labels. Albers has a reputation as a theorist and an academic. I assumed he made a few choices in his design and then just started painting, so I was frankly mesmerized by how much work, rework, exploration and contemplation went into his final pieces, as evidenced by these studies. It seems he relied much more on intuition and the eye than any pure color theory, though that came later. And the diaphanous quality of these oil sketches loosens up the geometry of the series and opens up a spiritual dimension within the work. For those of you who are about to say yeah, yea my kid could do that, my rejoinder would be that if they could have they would have. And since these paintings are so minimal and abstract, they allow us to project responses of our own across them. From my notes, here are some of mine: "Sunsets, tunnels, reflecting pools; cave of the unknown, oculus, the backs of your eyelids; portals, tubes, midnight, bruises, the Elysian Fields." Perhaps my reason for mentioning this here, aside of as a source of inspiration, is that color is contextual — please don't tape your purple color chips to your yellow walls and expect to know the end result. To quote the master, "Color is fooling us all the time." Through October 14 The Morgan Library 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street New York, NY 10016 Shown above: 1. Josef Albers (1888-1976) Color Study for Homage to the Square, not dated Oil and graphite on blotting paper with varnish 30.5 x 30.5 cm The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, inv. no. 9/433 Photography: Werner J. Hannappel 2. Josef Albers (1888-1976) Color Study for White Line Square, not dated Oil on blotting paper (with gouache, pencil, and varnish) 29.53 x 29.66 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York 3. Josef Albers (1888-1976) Variant / Adobe, 1947 Oil on blotting paper 48.3 x 60.9 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.111 4. Josef Albers (1888-1976) Variant / Adobe, ca. 1947 Oil on blotting paper 48.2 x 61.4 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York 5. Josef Albers (1888-1976) Color Study for Homage to the Square, ca. 1950 Oil on blotting paper 61 x 48.3 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.197 6. Josef Albers (1888-1976) Variant / Adobe, Study for Four Central Warm Colors, Surrounded by 2 Blues, ca. 1948 Oil on blotting paper 48.2 x 60.6 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.119 7. Josef Albers (1888-1976) Two Color Studies for Homage to the Square, not dated Oil on blotting paper 24.7 x 14.6 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.1517 (Images: The Morgan Library, used with permission)
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