PRINT February 1964

Josef Albers

JOSEF ALBERS WAS born in Botrop, Westphalia, March 19, 1888. He studied at the Royal Art School in Berlin, the Arts and Crafts School in Essen, and the Art Academy in Munich before enrolling at the Bauhaus in Weimar. It was there, in that isolated bit of Utopia created by Walter Gropius, that he developed the technical skills and philosophical attitudes that led to his maturity. In 1923 he became an instructor and in 1925, when the school was transplanted to Dessau, he became a Bauhausmeister, teaching his fundamental design course which stressed the functional/esthetic properties of basic materials—wood, paper, metal—when combined in new ways. He remained in that position in Dessau and Berlin until 1933 when, under pressure from National Socialism, the school was shut down. Many of the teaching methods that he devised for his workshops have become staple items in almost every design program here and abroad; that they have never been significantly altered or amplified upon testifies to his creative skill as a teacher. Moving to the United States in 1933 Albers became a Professor at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, which he helped to pattern after the Bauhaus. In 1949 he moved to Yale University where he taught and served as Chairman of the Art Department until his retirement in 1960. During these same years he put in short teaching stints at sixteen different American, European, and South American Art Schools and Universities.

A new surge of interest in Albers was generated by the publication in June 1963 of his extensive volume Interaction of Color by the Yale University Press. The book is a course of study developed by Albers in an attempt to lead individuals to greater color perception, awareness of art, and the world around them. In this it is more nearly an autobiography than any chronological accounting. Most museums, art schools, and universities have purchased the volume, but it was also circulated as an exhibition mounted on twenty-four panels. The exhibition was shown twice in San Francisco and once in Los Angeles, each time supplemented with paintings.

There are many other reasons to write of Josef Albers. The least of these is that he has, through a dedicated singleness of purpose, and advanced years, reached the position of Prophet for the New American Art along with Hans Hofmann and Stuart Davis. Also of little importance is the re-vitalization of his image made mandatory by the growing interest in younger “optical” and “hard edge” painters. A better reason is the lesson that he has been teaching for forty years. The immediate philosophical proposal that the placing of a line, a shape, a rhythm, a color into relationship with another line, shape, rhythm, or color can reflect human activity and aspiration as profoundly as can concrete literary objects.

It is possible to say that, as with archaic Greek sculpture, Albers’ art is an anonymous composite of positive elements that come to fruition through the evocation of fundamental spiritual essences. That this essential inner logic, which bows to Utopia, should evolve along similar lines to the Japanese puzzle box and blossom in his Homage to the Square series into the tectonic equal of the Sumi masters should not come as a surprise at mid-20th century. Our problem lies in the fact that what we can accept for short periods intellectually we cannot (particularly as Americans) bind to our emotions. It is the extension of this idea that must haunt the dreams of men like Newman and Still.

Perhaps by dealing with a single painting it is possible to sense this combined intellectual and emotional involvement. Homage to the Square II was painted in 1950 and purchased for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the following year.

The painting is developed on the smooth side of a 33 1/4-inch square masonite panel. It is signed and dated in the lower right hand corner. The back has been coated with a white primer and the edges of the panel have been protected with a one by two-inch enframing bar. It presents four square units of different hue and dimension superimposed one over another. The largest square, extending to the frame line, is white and appears only as a narrow margin that tends to float the remainder of the work free from the frame. Next is a large square, best described as sky blue. Upon it is a near-black square and upon that a mat-black square. These units are positioned in such a way that complete symmetry is maintained from side to side. The symmetry is broken on the vertical axis by allowing the near-black and mat-black squares to shift below center. Thus we are allowed to speculate that Albers concerns himself with simple, two-dimensional spacings along the horizontal axis, but because it is necessary to adjust the eye to achieve an harmonious relationship along the vertical axis, a stacking, three-dimensional quality is implied.

The color is arranged in such a way as to create a fluctuating surface. The white functions as a void which supports the blue (near void) which in turn supports the solid areas of near-black and mat-black. The general recessive character of black is negated by the blue field which presses it forward; while the mat-black square, surrounded by the near-black can either advance or recede according to the condition of light or the emotional-intellectual stimulus of the viewer. Albers has stated that the “choice of color used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction . . . to proclaim the color autonomy as a means of plastic organization.” However, in addition to the plastic properties of color, there seems also a symbolic-spiritual intent. His color choice is not decorative, but instead, ties each particular work to a realm; earthen, sunny, contemplative, or explosive, to name a few. In this case the realm seems particularly meaningful. Common color association suggests the black of death, the near-black of static existence, the blue of sky and the barely exposed, white halo of a mystical realm beyond. Perhaps historically this choice can be related to the multi-level Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, which, according to Herodotus, had each level painted a different hue: white, black, red, and blue, thus symbolizing the aspirations of man as he rose from the pure white birth base through the black mire, the red earth and the blue sky to reach his gods. This is not to say that Albers is consciously reconstructing ancient history, but there is little doubt that he reaches toward infinity. He has told us that, “Art is not a beauty shop nor an imitation of nature. Art is spirit, and only the quality of spirit gives the arts an important place in . . . life.”

The application of pigment opens another door to speculation. The white margin is absolutely smooth and apparently consists of a series of primer coats floated on with a brush. This smooth surface underlies the whole composition. The blue and near-black, areas are of pure pigment applied with short, carefully controlled, overlapping strokes of a palette knife, which differentiates them from the smooth white and the central black square. This square has also been worked with a knife and then rubbed or blotted to give it a mat sheen, as opposed to the shine of the rest. These slight surface variations cannot rightly be called texture for they are intended to adjust color harmonies. But nonetheless, at different distances from the work, and because of these surface manipulations, the light changes, thereby changing the character of the work. It is through this kind of sensitive control that artfulness becomes art. Knowledge that these color shapes carry themselves in a geometric framework, specifically the square, is also interesting. Albers selected the square because it is a form that does not occur in nature, but is a construction of men. It must be remembered that even with all this pre-determination Albers is not interested in pure mechanics. The problem that he has set himself is the same problem that has faced most creators: how to wed reason with emotion in such a way that life is possible. If we are to include Albers on the family tree of Poussin and Cézanne, it seems correct to say that his task is the more difficult. Earlier artists were able to produce emotion through their literary themes, but he creates at a time when it is desirable to be spiritually inclined without being religious and moral, without moralizing. His intent is as universal as his imagery and admirably served by the fact of his painting.

Mr. Hopkins is Educational Curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.