Critics’ Picks

Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square: Consent, 1947, oil on Masonite, 16 x 16".

New York

“Josef Albers in Mexico”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York
1071 Fifth Avenue
November 3 - March 28

Josef Albers’s series “Homage to the Square,” 1950–76, oil paintings of the titular form in three or four colors on Masonite, are icons of modern art—printed in textbooks, on posters, and, in the 1980s, on US postage stamps. We are familiar with these works. We have memorized their contours. We have learned the principles of color theory and geometry they make manifest. And yet, what remains exceptional about them is precisely what we cannot immediately perceive—the infinity of reactions their disarmingly simple designs cause. What will lingering in front of an Homage piece make us see, and how it will make us feel? Will the squares nest inside one another, as in a set of Russian dolls? Or will they expand out toward us, like an accordion in play? Will they make us serene? Alarmed?

This exhibition, pairing the artist’s paintings with photographs he took in Mexico, hints at even more of what lies in wait beneath these cool exteriors. He and his wife, textile artist Anni Albers, saw an attentiveness to form in pre-Columbian design similar to their own aesthetic principles, and took frequent trips to Mexican architectural ruins from the 1930s on. Might Josef’s squares be about the vertiginous sensation of gazing up at ancient flights of stairs? Or how the sunlight curves over intricate and labyrinthine stonework patterns?

No cultural translation is neutral, and the Albers’ zeal for all things Mexican can feel fetishizing or appropriative. But this in and of itself is part of what makes “Josef Albers in Mexico” tick. Are Josef’s squares original? Are they “modern”? The exhibition prompts these questions and more.