“Painting On Paper; Josef Albers in America” at The Morgan Library & Museum

Josef Albers, Color Study for White Line Square (not dated), oil on blotting paper with gouache, pencil and varnish; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum and The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

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Painting On Paper; Josef Albers in America is exactly what we’ve come to expect from The Morgan Library: a precisely calibrated exhibition centered on a finite aesthetic compass, a specialist’s delight that nonetheless has tangible pleasures to offer the layman. It’s also a rare treat to witness Albers, that most pedantic of artists, let down his guard.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) embodied the principles of the Bauhaus, the influential German art school founded in 1919. Though he attended other institutions, Albers’s studies at the Bauhaus and, in particular, with color theorist Johannes Itten proved decisive. Albers began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1923 and became a full professor at the school’s Dessau outpost two years later. The Bauhaus closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime—the school’s teachings not being sufficiently Aryan.

Albers and his wife Anni subsequently left for the United States, both of them having accepted teaching posts at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. (“Germans to Teach Art Near Here” reads a December 1933 article from the Asheville Citizen.) But it was Albers appointment as Dean of Yale’s Design Department in 1950 and the publication of his seminal text Interaction of Color that codified his historical standing. Albers’s signature suite of paintings, collectively titled Homage to the Square, put into practice the goal of “maximum effect with a minimum of means.”

Josef Albers, Color Study for Homage to the Square (not dated), oil on blotting paper with gouache, pencil and varnish; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum and The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

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Truth to tell, a little of Homage of the Square goes a long way–sometimes minimum means result in minimum ends. Seen en masse, Albers chromatic and compositional structures—always effective, invariably inflexible–lend themselves more to finger tapping and clock-watching than aesthetic contemplation. Still, among the surprises at the Morgan is the first of the series—a rarely exhibited panel rendered in, of all things, black and white. For aficionados of Modernism’s more austere outposts, this inclusion has to count as something of an event.

The majority of Josef Albers in America is dedicated to informal studies on paper. Covered with scrawled notations, flurried applications of color and grease stains, they reveal Albers’s rigorous methodology at its most approachable. No Platonic exegeses here, thank you; instead we have the remnants of work-a-day life in the studio. The Morgan show allows us to experience Albers as a man given to curiosity and play—and it prompts double-takes.

Did you know that this most stringent of pedagogues relied largely on colors used straight from the tube or that his insistence on “hands off” surfaces didn’t preclude experiments with varnishes? Contemporary sensibilities will relish the diaristic nature of Albers’s works-on-paper and, in the case of the lush tangencies of Variant/Adobe, Study for Four Central Warm Colors Surrounded by 2 Blues (ca. 1948), swoon to them. Elsewhere, Albers daubs to charming effect, toys with perspective and posits Mexico as “the promised land of abstract art”—all the while exemplifying one man’s “craziness about color.”

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 8, 2012 edition of City Arts.

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  • denise champion  On August 15, 2012 at 4: 55 pm

    I studied Joseph Albers with a student of Albers, and I believe you must study Albers color theory to understand his paintings. When you do it puts a whole different light on the work and magic truly happens, but if you do not have this knowledge the paintings may lend themselves to “finger tapping and clock watching”.

    Once again, knowledge is useful.

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