PRINT January 1972

On Albers' Color


IN AMERICA, IT HAS been the fate of Josef Albers to be identified as a “Constructivist” artist. If one accepts this classification, it is difficult to understand what influence—if any—he could have had on present-day American art. Nonetheless, although his presence has been less explicitly felt than that of a focal figure such as Hans Hofmann, there is perhaps not a painter living today in America who has not been acutely aware at some time during his career of Albers’ accomplishment in the area of perceptual experiments.

Constructivism, in its present-day usage in America, has connotations which set it at the opposite pole to the mainstream of postwar American painting. Although Albers was born in Germany, and participated in the initial phase of European geometric abstraction, the major development of his art to what it is today occurred in the United States in the 1940s. It is the American years which are the important years. And it is through the form and sensibility of this mature expression that he has had an incalculable influence on recent generations of American painters.

It appears, therefore, unjustly restrictive to relate Albers exclusively to Constructivist art. In my opinion, Albers’ importance is due to his belonging to a broader, less categorically determined direction of 20th-century art: that or the investigation of the perceptual phenomena of color and light such as it has evolved in Western painting since Cézanne. Albers has brought this investigation to a kind of culmination: in his painting, the effect of light is so direct as to appear to be coming through the canvas. We are as in the presence of real light, not the kind of illusionism through which light is artificially projected from an outside source onto the support of the canvas. There are no whitened areas such as one finds in certain paintings by Vasarely to give an illusion of light activity, an illusion which is in fact painted in. On the contrary, Albers’ light emanates from within, it emerges from the surface like a gas and hovers over the colored field. The whole surface is animated and articulated by lambent incandescence.

If we understand Albers’ art as the ultimate study of color-light relationships (setting aside for the moment its expressive ends), we cannot deny the natural phenomenal references inherent in his painting. Abstraction from nature is anathema to the more dogmatic proponents of Constructivism. However, color and light do not exist “only in the mind.”1 On the contrary, their only real experience is in the perceived phenomenal world. This being true, Albers’ creative activity cannot be defined as the demonstration of purely abstract ideas. Furthermore, harmonic laws and proportions, whereas present in Albers’ art, are means and not ends: means toward an exacting statement about color-light interaction and its effects. In short, Albers’ reality is phenomenological and it cannot be evaluated exclusively in terms of abstract ideas or concrete forms.

Aside from Albers’ connection to the Bauhaus (which is often summarily described as a Constructivist-oriented design school), Albers’ recourse to geometric forms—and in particular to the square in his late series of paintings—is one of the prime reasons for his present-day assimilation to the Constructivist camp. This tends to be an oversimplification. In the first place, it would be closer to the truth to argue that Albers chose the square not as a form but as a non-form, a neutral matrix for color. The square, because of its symmetry, stability, repetitive structure and identity of parts, is a weak form. This is especially true when it exists in a unified visual field, where no intercourse with differential configurations or spatial situations is provided. Moreover, the square is a relatively nonallusive form. It does not occur in nature (except in the unique case of salt crystals). In contrast to the triangle and the circle, it evokes few if any strong spontaneous associations.

Albers maintains that his choice of the square is entirely irrational. In his choice, however, he may have taken into consideration certain spontaneous gestalt responses which do automatically occur. For example, despite the fact that neither axis has precedence over the other in a square, the horizontal lines usually dominate our vision. As a result, the square’s horizontal “seat” is primary in our perception of it and reaction toward it. We respond to a sense of stability and gravity; by extension, a weighted nest of squares tends to have a ground and horizon kind of reading. The fact that in Oriental symbolism, the square represents the earth, and the circle the sky, is not relevant to Albers’ specific context, but it does corroborate our gestalt reading.2

Psychic responses such as these automatically enrich—although equivocally—an otherwise “poor” form. The ambiguity of Albers’ space in his Homage to the Square series depends in part on such responses. A nest of squares contains an implicit diagonal line stretching from outer to innermost corner, coaxing the viewer into the conventional way of reading three-dimensional illusionism into a two-dimensional surface. A nest of squares of diminishing size and without drawn edges, are read as projecting forward or backward in a telescoped relation to each other.

Thus in an Albers’ Homage to the Square, a contradiction of visual contexts is produced in a single spatial situation; flatness and depth are confounded and we are entreated to adjust from one to the other without ever being reassured as to what the proper reading is. That this does not occur in a concentric square painting by Frank Stella can be explained by the presence of white lines or channels which “space out” laterally the concentric square areas. The resulting effect is one of bands running around a center and not a situation of square upon square. Moreover, since, in a painting of this style by Stella, the colors are voluntarily of highly different hue and value, demanding radical adjustment of the eye, areas do not lead into one another but remain distinctly separate.

The fact that no drawn (or reserved) lines separate the banks of color in an Albers promotes the visual interaction of color and space which occurs at the passage from one to the other. The activity at this boundary is never the same. It allows a sharp or a fluid transition. When Albers is working with equal light intensities, the passages are barely perceptible, the angles no longer prominent, and the horizontals and verticals appear to waver. The whole configuration dissolves into indeterminate form. In other cases, however, radical contrasts of hues, or of light reflection versus absorption, draw attention to the edges as the “hot points” of activity in light deflection, defraction, or refraction.

Finally, the square is a virtually closed matrix and as such concentrates color activity in a restricted area, bounded on all sides. The compression of color somehow releases energy in the form of light at the edges where the greatest pressure takes place. The proportions of each plane in their interrelations modify hue and light intensity, thus proving that area intimately affects color action and reaction.

Albers’ small formats provide another argument for those who would identify him with the European Constructivist school. It should be mentioned in passing that all of these charges are purely relative, more dependent on current or noncurrent usage than on considerations of meaningful form. In relation to the “large canvas” or the “big field,” Albers’ maximum format of 48 by 48 inches is often referred to in America as “chamber music,” and taxed as “conservative” or “European.” Since this format serves Albers’ means and ends, one should not seek to compare it to the realization of other concepts and intentions in recent American painting.

That an artist decides to work in one format or another is neither arbitrary nor simply conservative but has to do with his concept of space and his notion of the work of art. Albers does not conceive of painting as a vital act or an ontological experience. To his mind, painting relates specifically to the activity of seeing. It is addressed to the eyes, through which vehicle it eventually attains the mind, the spirit, the emotions, and the other senses, reactions, and reflexes, and their peculiar reserves of experience. Albers’ formats are designed as receptacles for perception. They are not to be experienced through identification with body movements nor through a confusion with other kinds (intellectual, physical, spiritual) of spaces or experiences. What is there is offered to the eyes to perceive and conceive of the expressive implications.

Much art of our time, through scale or impact, proposes a relationship to the viewer in which the viewer’s identity is lost. Conversely, Albers proposes a pole of experience in a relationship where the other pole—the viewer—is a human being who must retain his identity as an active participant, which is to say as a subject, in a subject/object relationship. As a concentration of visual activity, Albers’ paintings span the space which can comfortably and normally be encompassed by the mind’s eye.

Albers’ preference for oil paint is a final point worth mentioning in this preliminary discussion of his work. An artist’s choice of medium is largely a subjective one. An artist experiments with a medium, feels comfortable with it, and adopts it as his own. The medium, as the vehicle of his expression, is very important to that expression’s being clear, personal, and corresponding faithfully to the intention. Albers paints with pure (unmixed) oil paint straight from the tube. His support is a masonite panel, on which he often uses the wrong—or rough—side. This he covers with several coats of zinc white, and then he proceeds to plot out his nest of squares. Color is then applied, band by band, in painstaking dabs with a palette knife. The support offers a resistance which Albers cherishes. The densely primed white ground often shows through the single coats of color subsequently applied, thus heightening the surface’s reflective reaction to light. Albers completes a square of color right up to the edge before attacking the next one. Since he uses no tape, the borders are precise but not hard-edged. The slight unevenness at the edges heightens the chromatic-luminous intercourse of the juxtaposed hues. When he arrives at the outside edge he stops, always leaving a surrounding ribbon of white. “It is important to know when the painting ends,” says Albers. “All my paintings have a beginning and an end.”

Albers’ color orchestrations come to him at night when he is lying in bed. These are worked out in small colored sketches on blotting paper until the color interaction is exactly right. However, Albers’ final relationship to his paintings is that of the close manually exacting contact of the experienced craftsman. There is no improvisation once he arrives at the execution, only complete control. This close physical contact as well as the desire for utter control explains in part his persistence in the same medium which by now, at least from a technical standpoint, holds few surprises for him.

The preceding discussion is important in that these are the bases for a resistance to Albers’ painting which cannot be denied. As mentioned earlier, this is attributable in part to Albers’ relationship to the Bauhaus, where he spent thirteen years between 1920 and 1933. However, there is evidence that the premises of Albers’ creative activity, as they have become manifest throughout his long career, were formulated prior to his Bauhaus experience. Contrary to prevalent assumptions, the formation and realization of Albers’ artistic temperament did not begin and end at the Bauhaus.


Albers was 31 when he entered the Weimar Bauhaus. He had already been through a variety of formal backgrounds which provide revealing insights into his later options and orientations as an artist. Pre-Bauhaus experiences which appear significant in relation to his future development can be described in terms of his exposure to contemporary art of his time: Munch, German Expressionism and van Gogh, Delaunay and Cézanne, and the Dutch artist Thorn Prikker. Apart from these, it is of more historic than esthetic interest to know that Albers studied briefly with Franz Stuck in Munich in 1919. Albers, who succeeded Klee and Kandinsky with this teacher, attended Stuck’s classes for only six months, claiming, as had Klee before him, that Stuck understood nothing about color and it was therefore a waste of time for both of them.

Yet to assume that Albers was already interested in color at that early stage of his career would be presuming a great deal, in view of the meager evidence provided by the works. On the other hand, Albers’ fascination with light and the elaboration of forms through contrast seems easier to substantiate, and this is what I would like to examine here.

Upon studying Albers’ development as a whole, one arrives at the conclusion that the most precise definition of his lifelong activity would be not a dedication to the interaction of color—as is commonly assumed—but to the interaction of color and light. Few recent European artists have had such a predominant interest in the autonomously expressive powers of color, but one can in this context evoke the name of Henri Matisse. Like Matisse, Albers is fundamentally indebted to Cézanne, and I would be tempted to say that the basis of their indebtedness is the same:

. . . only two of Cézanne’s radiant ideas proved useful to Matisse as he drew up the balance sheet of his critical studies—the construction of the picture as a complex of energies, and the representation of light by color equivalents, both illustrating Cézanne’s dictum that art is a harmony parallel to nature. Cézanne’s influence is disclosed in the following saying by Matisse: “Never struggle with nature to reproduce light; we must look for an equivalent, work parallel to nature, for the means we use are in themselves dead. Otherwise we would inevitably be led to place the sun behind the canvas.”3

It is difficult to document Albers’ earliest awareness of light and color as important and inseparable expressive vehicles in and of themselves. Albers discovered Cézanne and Matisse in 1908, Delaunay at a slightly later date (1913?), Munch, van Gogh, and Die Brücke in 1913–14; and it is the works which succeed these discoveries which are the earliest extant documents of Albers’ activity. His assimilation of these impressions does not appear to have been immediate. However, this remains somewhat hypothetical since the works from which we can judge are spare and most of them either bear no dates or were dated retrospectively. Albers discovered Edvard Munch in Berlin at the 1913 Herbst exhibition. His reaction is significant: “At the exhibition, there was a painting by Munch, The Rising of the Sun. It was a huge painting. It overwhelmed me. There was such a terrific glow that you couldn’t look into that sun. It was so overwhelming that it put me on my knees. That is one of the greatest experiences I have ever had in modern painting.”4 The painting to which Albers is referring can be identified as one of a series of large studies executed by Munch in 1910–16 in preparation for murals for the University of Oslo. Twelve of these studies were exhibited at the Berlin Herbst exhibition in November 1913. One of the mural panels represented the Sun, for which at least three large (six, fifteen, and twenty-five feet long respectively) oil or tempera studies still exist today (Munch Museum, Oslo) and Albers agrees that it was one of these paintings which he saw.

Little-known gouaches of c. 1913–14, in particular a still life with a single geranium in a vase (Fig. 1) show what appears to be Munch’s influence, in the sharply contrasting colors, the fluidly contorted lines, and the conception of painting as an extension of Expressionist drawing (compare with Fig. 2). There are no densely colored planes and no contour lines, only bunches of juxtaposed vitalist strokes radiating across the surface. The expressively animated background which is a result of this technique of drawing in paint echoes the forms of the objects in “currents” of light and shadow. Interestingly, due to the fact that there is not a single plane of unified color in the composition, splinters of white (of the paper support) highlight the surface throughout, introducing a coefficient of light and contrast which is important to the autonomy, luminosity, and expressivity of the strokes and hues. Albers, however, relates these gouaches as well as black and white portrait studies of slightly later (Figs. 4 & 5) more readily to his discovery of van Gogh. In this particular gouache, the subject of a flower, articulated in dynamic contortions, the densely energized surface, the bright contrasts and the essentially linear expressive stroke are in fact reminiscent of the Dutch artist. Albers relates his discovery of van Gogh in the following terms: “When I was in Berlin at the Königliche Kunstschule (1913–15), one morning Philipp Franck showed us Dutch photographs of van Gogh’s charcoal drawings. He laid them out against the wall. I was so tempted to rub a little charcoal off; they were so marvelously reproduced. You know this marvelously powdery effect you get from charcoal stroke? Every morning I looked around to see if anyone was watching and I ran my finger across the surface. I knew they were photos, but I had to touch them to convince myself it was not charcoal. There was born my great admiration for van Gogh. The strokes of van Gogh, particularly in his portraits, always go with the form, the lines go down the nose, the lines follow the form. Later I tried, indirectly, to do something similar. I was not copying van Gogh; but afterwards I realized I was doing what he had done.”5

This development is illustrated in black and white portraits of 1917–19 (Figs. 4 & 5): the lines follow the forms, and the articulation of the image is made up of sharp contrasts between form-structuring lines—or a personal kind of structural shading—and areas left bare or seemingly bathed in light. These portraits, which were sometimes drawings, sometimes woodcuts, linocuts or transfer lithographs, relate in turn to the linoleum prints of mining landscapes of the same years (Fig. 3), at least in the very distinct instrumentation of light-dark contrasts and the emphasis on expressive line. However, the progressive acuteness of the image—the more polar contrasts and angular forms, brought about in part by the woodcut and linocut techniques—relates the latter works more closely to the Die Brücke group, active in Dresden until 1913. Albers admits to the awareness of, and interest in, Die Brücke which is visible here.

The points discussed thus far in examining Albers’ early development appear surprisingly Expressionist in tenor. It seems safe to say that what Albers saw in these exponents of Expressionism were not solutions for a problem of self-expression. Albers was never interested in the projection of sentiment even when attributed allegedly universal connotations. On the contrary, what he discovered here were visual and psychically effectual solutions to problems of a distinctly pictorial nature. As Albers puts it: “I admit that my work of that period, particularly my portraits and woodcuts, are very Die Brücke. But this was construction to me, not expression.”6

In all of Albers’ works of that period, whether they appear related to Munch, van Gogh, or Die Brücke, one is struck by an absence of conventional illusionism for which is substituted a relatively flat, unified, graphically animated, rhythmic surface. A strongly expressive structural articulation is achieved, not only through the synonymy of drawing and color (one can speak of neither lines nor planes in these instances), but through the abrupt contrasts created by reflective areas of white enhancing and strengthening dark structural thrusts or strokes. There is no graduated shading or modeling in the conventional sense. Peculiar to Albers and the Expressionists, the areas of white—although usually simply reserved areas of noncolor (the blank paper support in drawings or lithographs, the gouged channels in linoleum or woodcuts)—are not used as empty or negative spaces but as positive values: zones of refulgent light. Already at this early stage of Albers’ development, one can find several clues to the artist’s subsequent mature style: the elimination of the distinction between line and color and of their traditional roles as separate, organizing factors of the image; and an emphasis on tonal contrast or the interaction of light and color to define perceptual experience and its psychic effects.

With this in mind, Albers’ interest in Cézanne is not surprising. Albers discovered Cézanne at the Folkwang Museum in Hagen in 1908. Though “it was not until Essen (1916–19) that Cézanne got into my bones.”7 In retrospect, Albers considers his discovery of Cézanne as one of the most crucial factors contributing to his stylistic evolution.

Cézanne is usually described as the father of Cubism, and, as such, emphasized perceptual structure in painting. In the present context, one is tempted to stress another aspect of Cézanne’s accomplishment: the discovery of the perceptual reality of light and color. Cézanne’s celebrated esthetic theory, that of “passages et contrastes,” corroborates this premise and appears to be Albers’ point of reference when he says: “I was fascinated by Cézanne’s organization of the color fields, how planes—areas of light and dark—touched or did not touch, had dissolved or abutted edges, and I was impressed by the independent articulation of the planes in reference to the image thus produced.”8

If one tries to understand what Albers is saying in terms of what he saw in looking at Cézanne, and what was meaningful to him, one can say that, as in his relationship to Expressionism, his was a highly personal view. His preoccupation with the expressive structure of perceived images rather than with representation led him to focus on the edges of Cézanne’s prism-shaped planes and their interaction with one another in the articulation of the surface as a whole.

A painting by Cézanne appears as a fabric of contiguous patches of color which unify the total image in a single flat but undulating plane (Fig. 6) Prismatic color and its coefficient of light penetration or reflection are the sole determinants of spatial position. As an example of “contrast” in a painting or watercolor by Cézanne, the juxtaposition of two patches of the same hue but of unequal light intensity creates a perceptual contrast or drawing apart of planes in space. Such visual incompatibility in terms of light content forces the eye to readjust its focus and change its axis of perception in shifting from one area to the next. The opposite perceptual exercise occurs when juxtaposed planes of different hues but of equal light absorption or reflection create a “passage” from one plane to the next to which the eye scarcely has to adjust. Thus Cézanne created incredible foreshortening effects between front and middle grounds. By attributing the same light coefficient to each, what is far and what is near are assimilated by the eye without changing focus.

The expressive articulation of Cézanne’s images is provided by the system of visual relations produced through his manipulation of light. The characteristically shallow space of a Cézanne depends on the tightly unified fabric of relationships thus produced. That Cézanne’s compositions are always fairly frontal in arrangement is significant, stressing that the modulated planar effects relate to the surface of the canvas. Cézanne was not interested in the traditional mentally elaborated illusions of painting, but in capturing perceptual reality. The greatness of Cézanne is partly due to the irreconcilable contradiction between his objects which are strong, sensual, and physical presences, and his simultaneous emphasis on the literal two-dimensionality of the surface. (Fig. 7).

That Cézanne considered the canvas a strictly two-dimensional area is confirmed by the importance of horizontal and vertical axes to anchor and consolidate his images. When the emphasis is vertical (as in his single figure studies) there is always a horizontal line defining the relationship of the figure not only to its space but to the two-dimensional enclosed and flat space of the canvas. Conversely, when the dominant axis is horizontal (as in a still life or some landscapes), vertical motifs lead the attention to the upper and lower limits of the surface described. The asymmetrical equilibrium created in reference to vertical and horizontal axes makes one think of Mondrian. But a less hazardous common denominator of the two artists is their conception of the canvas as a two-dimensional surface of predetermined dimensions to be articulated according to its given proportions. In each case the artist plots out his image in reference to the edges of the frame: he is conscious of where his viable space begins and where it ends.

Due to his method of planar differentiation and the implicit global articulation discussed above, Cézanne could discard several traditional pictorial devices and introduce more personal means to serve his expression. For example, contour lines were not necessary to determine the structure or relations of forms. As we have seen, these were defined by the tonal interrelations of planes, indicative of a postural relationship to light. When lines are introduced, they function as nonstructural ornament and not as a scaffolding for the image. Furthermore, in contrast to Impressionism with its thick impastoed surfaces and illusionistic play of light, the Neo-Impressionists and Cézanne worked with real reflective light as a positive orchestrating value. The white or pale neutral grounds (“le ton locale”) found in Seurat’s mature paintings as in Cézanne’s were an important factor in determining the light sensitization of the canvas: the circulation and reflection of light between fragmented planes of hue, and the intensity of the colors themselves. Between 1916 and 1918, Albers executed a series of lithographs in which’ his understanding of Cézanne is strikingly apparent. If one compares them to French Cubist works, one realizes that what the Cubists learned from Cézanne was his reductive analysis of two-dimensional space, whereas what Albers learned from Cézanne was a structural synthesis of the image through light.

A comparison of Albers’ “Cubist” self-portrait (Fig. 8) to his “Expressionist” self-portrait (Fig. 5)) of the same years is instructive. Not only do they portray the same subject, but the pose is identical. However, the content is radically different.

The Expressionist portrait depicts only a portion of the artist’s face: one eye, the nose, half the forehead, mouth and chin . . . the image stops dramatically there. This silhouette is handled in what one might call a topographical or “map-treatment” style of strongly curved and modulated flat strokes which describe both the physically and psychologically salient features of the sitter. The sharply undulating contours of the three-quarter profile recall Hodler, Schiele, and other Northern European Expressionists. The dynamic shading through what one could call a fluid wash of contrasts—simultaneously intense and transparent—is strangely reminiscent of the metaphysical painting of William Blake. Albers, although he admits interest in Hodler and Blake, once again relates this lithograph to van Gogh.

These voluntary deformations of reality transmit an effectively evocative image: not the objective rendering of a face, but the reflection of a man’s psyche, a strangely nocturnal image which, like Expressionist portraits, induces emotional associations. Albers unofficially calls this portrait “Mephisto,” indicative of the kind of associations he attributes to it. The eyes in this portrait appear to turn inward, mirroring an inner world. The eyes in the Cubist portrait stare steadily out and meet our gaze. This observation in itself is a preliminary indication of the difference in essential attitude between the two portraits. The first is psychological, subjective; the second is structural and objective. The polar tonal contrasts have been transformed into prismatic facets of light and shadow; the modulated fluid strokes have been replaced by a network of hatched muted planes. We are no longer drawn from the image into a world of associations; our eyes are caught in the mesh of visual activity which relays them across the surface, from plane to plane.

Such a radical difference in forms of expression projects two different connotations of the man. Although one could say that strong morphological references are maintained in both, if we accept that the first is the image of a man’s psyche, in the second, psyche and physis are incorporated in an image of the whole man, which image is visually correlated to its surrounding space and to the viewer as a spatial determinant. Posture and structure are synonymous as in Cézanne.

This development toward a more integrated expression of the man also shows innovations in the artist’s handling of space, in his synthesis of three-dimensional volume and two-dimensional plane as well as the relationship of human expression to explicitly pictorial devices. It demonstrates the complex activity of light, value, form, and space as Albers was attempting to interrelate them at that time.

Rarely since Cézanne has the theory of passages and contrasts been put to such precise and effective use as in this and similarly styled lithographs of the same years. Alley of Elms (which Albers also calls Allée) (Fig. 9) dated 1916 is an earlier work than the Cubist self-portrait. The flat, slightly curved strokes have more of the velvety quality Albers found in van Gogh; they are less strictly defined as planes. However, an awareness of Cézanne is obvious, and most strikingly so in the choice and handling of subject matter. Reminiscent of Cézanne’s studies of roads in Provence, the artist achieves an intimation of depth through a zigzag pattern of contiguous planes in an essentially shallow space. The relations between the triangulated areas of light and shadow are defined by now sharp, now dissolving edges. The house in the distance echoes the meeting of the overlapping branches, a motif found time and again in Cézanne’s studies of this kind.

The concentric structure of the image around a distinct central focus and the squared off boundaries are interesting in view of what we know is to follow. In this expression of a developing artistic temperament, scale, proportions, inner relations, outer limits, all are precisely defined.

What Albers learned from Cézanne was that a painting is a complex of visual energies concentrated on a precisely encompassed two-dimensional area. He furthermore assimilated a number of pictorial devices for implementing light and spatial articulation. The presence of an underlying white or neutral ground—rendering color transparent and more reflective—is used by Albers to this day. Fundamental to Albers’ infinite orchestrations of colors is Cézanne’s theory of “passages et contrastes.” In his Interaction of Color, Albers describes this method in his own terms:9

By exercising comparison and distinction of color boundaries, a new and important measure is gained for the reading of the plastic action of color, that is, for the spatial organization of color. Since softer boundaries disclose nearness implying connection, harder boundaries indicate distance, separation.

Four paragraphs later, Albers makes a direct reference to Cézanne in this area of visual invention:

Such a study, or a similar recognition, in my opinion, led Cézanne to his unique and new articulation in painting. He was the first to develop color areas which produce both distinct and indistinct endings—areas connected and unconnected—areas with and without boundaries—as means of plastic organization.

And, in order to prevent evenly painted areas from looking flat and frontal, he used emphasized borders sparingly, mainly where he needed a spatial separation from adjacent color areas.

Cézanne, although of capital importance to the development of Albers’ oeuvre, was not the only artist from whom he took pictorial cues during that period. He also admits to having admired Robert Delaunay, and when one compares Albers’ Alley of Elms to Delaunay’s St. Séverin (Fig. 10), one cannot help but see analogies. Of course, both artists were inspired by Cézanne, but both departed from the strict Cubist idiom toward a dynamic structural analysis through color-light interaction.

One version of Delaunay’s famous St. Séverin series was exhibited at the first Blaue Reiter exhibition in Berlin in December 1911–January 1912.10 It was bought at the end of the exhibition by a Berlin private collector. Albers maintains that he only knew the painting through reproductions, as he did not arrive in Berlin until the autumn of 1913. His study of the interior of Munster Cathedral (Fig. 11) executed in 1916, if not directly related, is nonetheless strikingly similar. in subject, composition, foreshortening, and emphasis on the circulation of light. Albers admits his sensitivity to Delaunay’s experimentation with color-light orchestration and its development toward abstraction, and Delaunay’s St. Séverin is an excellent example of the French artist’s preoccupations at that time. The peculiar articulation of the floor in this painting (comparable to the treatment of the road in Albers’ Alley of Elms) is an abstract translation of the dynamic play of light through the highly colored stained glass windows of the Gothic church.11

The window motif, as a logical vehicle for color-light dynamics, was one of Delaunay’s major themes. At a one-man exhibition in early 1913 at Der Sturm in Berlin, Delaunay exhibited ten of his series of paintings Les fenêtres for the first time. Once again, this was prior to Albers’ autumn arrival in Berlin. However, once he settled there, he made weekly visits to the Der Sturm galleries and, since Delaunay’s paintings were often on display, he may have seen them there.

Albers’ interest in Cubism, oriented around the perceptual structure of light, crystallized during the years he was at Essen (1916–19). His development in this direction was further stimulated by his studies with the Dutch artist Thorn Prikker at the Essen Kunstgewerbeschule (later called the Folkwangschule). Although there is little if any documentation on the relationship between the two men, Albers’ meeting with Thorn Prikker appears capital to the understanding of the definitive orientation of his work.

Johan Thorn Prikker was born in 1868 in The Hague. He died in Cologne in 1932. Only four years older than Mondrian, and an advocate of nonobjective art as early as 1920, Prikker is more widely known for a small body of figurative work produced in Holland around the turn of the century than for the major part of his oeuvre executed in Germany, where he lived most of his life. Thorn Prikker started the documented part of his career as a “Luminist,” a member of a Dutch group comparable to French Neo-Impressionism of the pointillist idiom. As such, he was preoccupied by problems of light and color interaction. By the turn of the century, Prikker had adopted the flat—linear and symbolist—decorative style for which he became famous in Holland along with Jan Toorop and other Dutch Art Nouveau masters. However by 1910, he had turned his activity to stained glass windows and this was the orientation he was to pursue and in which he excelled until his death in 1932.

In Prikker’s earliest windows of c. 1910, an interest in light, flat patterns and symbolic figural subjects is evident. The stained glass technique is academic: a figurative image composed of splinters of colored glass mounted in an intricate and densely leaded frame. The windows have the murky luminescence and heavy symbolism of icons. The color is somber, due to the traditional use of dark-toned glass (burgundy, dark blues, greens), high fragmentation, and heavy leading. As a result, the coefficient of light diffusion is minimal.

Thorn Prikker’s mature work (after c. 1920) is altogether different, consisting of large geometrically cut panes of bright uniform color (Fig. 12). Whereas the early works are primarily images, the second are planes whose principal function is to catch color and diffuse light. The broad brightly colored areas are in some instances separated from one another by a “threading” of narrow panes of white glass; in others they are closely juxtaposed. The color and light dispersal of each pane is intimately dependent on the interacting hues and reflections of adjacent panes as well as on degrees of illumination from a source of light behind them. There is a visible difference in optical activity between the center and the edges of a plane, which difference brings the whole concept of color interaction to mind.

Thorn Prikker’s success as a glass craftsman appears to have been almost immediate. Not only was he granted important commissions,12 but numerous articles discussed his work extensively as early as 1911.13 In spite of his present-day oblivion, it seems evident that he was considered one of the great glass window masters of his time.

Prikker’s influence on Albers occurred at several levels. The most obvious effect would appear to be Albers’ adoption of the window medium during the second semester of his first year at the Bauhaus (1920–21). However, he was predisposed toward this vehicle of visual communication by his extensive initiation into the expressive powers of color and light. He was moreover attracted to the medium on a purely practical level, which was the strong tradition of craftsmanship in his family. Thorn Prikker’s own reasons for adopting the glass window technique provide further insights into how and why the technique could appeal to Albers. In 1911, when Prikker had just started to work in glass, he remarked that real light was as important an articulating factor of two-dimensional imagery as drawing or color and added: “How magnificent it must be to paint with the sun itself!”14 That this concept corresponded to Albers’ aspirations is hardly surprising, in view of the indications of his sensitivity to light, manifest since his first response to Munch’s painting of The Sun.

Furthermore, Prikker was quick to see that the use of real diffused sunlight—or what one could call “literal” light—eliminated a number of pictorial problems which were foremost in artists’ minds at that time. The dilemma of surface pattern (advocated by the Dutch Art Nouveau symbolist school) versus the depth illusion of traditional painting was automatically resolved, it being difficult to depict depth or illusionist shading on leaded glass panels. For other problems which had been raised in relation to “Luminist” and Art Nouveau theories and practices, solutions were also found: the depiction of spiritual auras of light was translated through real light projection and dispersal. Effulgent color and spiritual radiance were the real subject matter and content of Thorn Prikker’s art after 1920. It was and remained wholly nonobjective, based on the manipulation of color, light, and their relationships, within highly simplified abstract patterns.


The activity of light diffusion and window configurations will be two dominant themes (sometimes united, sometimes separate) in Albers’ artistic career from that time to the present. The first relevant examples can be found at the Bauhaus. Albers’ activity at the Bauhaus cannot be gone into at length here except as it relates to the context of this discussion.15 Albers’ first Bauhaus works were neither paintings, drawings, constructions, nor prints. They were assemblages of shards of colored glass mounted with chicken wire in a sheet of tin, and designed to hang in front of a window. The choice of medium was partly influenced by practical considerations: “We were very poor. It was just after World War I and all of Germany was very poor. So-called ‘art materials’ were scarce and very dear. So I took my knapsack on my back and went off into the mountains to look for glass shards; these were bottles that I broke or samples that I got from glass works in the area.”16 His choice also sprang however from his desire to work with “direct light.” This was only clearly formulated between the first and second semesters of his first year, when the council of Bauhaus masters encouraged him to enter Kandinsky’s “wall-painting workshop,” a requirement for every Bauhaus student. Albers refused. “Wall-painting entails painting with indirect light, the reflection of light which comes from in front of the surface and bounces off that surface plane. I wanted to work with direct light, the light which comes from behind the surface and filters through that surface plane. In this case, light is a volume, not a surface illusion.”17

Albers was authorized to open the glass workshop in 1921.18 Gradually the artist’s fragmented shard shapes and the organization of the surface became more regular. A major work of 1922 (cover illustration) shows a rectilinear grid arrangement of modular units, held in place with chicken wire.19 When Albers finally adopted leaded glass mounts in 1922–1923, he executed two important commissions in private houses near Berlin: the Sommerfeld and Otte houses. These windows, and other works from those years, consisted of highly contrasted flat patterns of geometric forms. By 1925, Albers had started working with flashed glass, producing what have become the best known works of his Bauhaus career (Figs. 13–17). “I could get samples of glass coated with a surface of color: grey, red, yellow, black. We had no tape in those days so I devised a process whereby I made a stencil from a kind of blotting paper which I soaked in glue and sealed to the pane. Then I cut the figures out in preparation for sand-blasting and sand-blasted the parts of the surface which were exposed. I preferred blasting to acid because it obtains sharper edges. When I had bitten away the colored surface to the white core of the panel, I removed the paper and in most cases added surface motifs in glass-painter’s black: straight iron oxide. It was then baked in a kiln and the color became permanent.”20

The resulting works are abstract relief paintings in glass based on varying degrees of transparency and opacity. The majority of these paintings belong to what Albers calls his “thermometer stripe” style. Originating in 1925, the year of his first trip to Italy with his wife Anni, the initial inspiration for this style based on equidistant parallel lines is thought by Anni to be the alternating bands of colored stone found in Tuscan architecture, and, in this instance, in the cathedral at Florence.21 The organization of the images, on the other hand,—many of which make overt reference to cityscapes—are visually close to contemporaneous Bauhaus architectural drawings of tall apartment buildings consisting of the stacking of parallel horizontal lines (Figs. 13 & 14). Other glass paintings depict window configurations which float in an abstract ambience reminiscent of a stage decor (Fig. 15). The spatial relationships between forms and to the plane are left ambiguous and undefined.

One cannot speak of tonal variations in the flashed glass panels. One can only speak of degrees of color and light activity. Exceptional are the gray surfaced glass paintings (Figs. 16 & 17). These are where Albers started experimenting with optical illusions through more complex continuous line patterns and alternating shades of light and dark within a single color scale.

Albers did little painting to speak of at the Bauhaus, a further indication of his by then dominant interest in light and the structure of perception. The gouaches which remain from that period as well as from his first years in the United States are almost without exception experiments in black, white and gray (Fig. 18). These can be understood as studies in degrees of light absorption and reflection and the manifold structural and expressive variations which can be achieved through such limited means.

Albers did not begin to work with color and in particular with oil paint until a few years after his arrival in this country in 1933. His first paintings appear relatively monochromatic. They are, however, interesting transitional works for several reasons: the first is their explicit preoccupation with perceptually complex imagery, characterized by repetition, reversal or bilateral symmetry. The second is the continuing predominance of tonal-light contrasts over real color instrumentation. The third is the constancy of the window image.

All of these qualifications can be found in Albers’ paintings of the early American years. In The Gate of 1936 (Fig. 19), the open window (or gate) allusion is obvious, although its overtness is attenuated through the structural complexity of the interlocking forms. The light intensity or value of the two colors—an outer violet and an inner gray—is so close that we can only read them as in the same plane. However, the stippled black around the white central orifice introduces an illusion of light activity which for the moment is only an illusion. It is a “painting in” of light activity, subsequently to be replaced by physical light activity itself.

Focus in these paintings is almost always central, sometimes bilateral, determined by the most strongly defined figure or figures. The perceptual ambiguities achieved through structure or tone are usually designed around and in reference to (repeating, reversing, extending) the central configuration or configurations.

B and P of 1937 (Fig. 20) shows an example where bilateral symmetry is employed. Further more, the relationship of warm to cool colors (beige to blue), and the haloes of color painted around the central figures, introduce a sense of relief to the image in the Cézannien sense. Once again the maximum light reflection is concentrated in the center images.

The characteristics illustrated summarily above remain present in Albers’ painting today: in the Variants (Fig. 21) series and the Homage to the Square (Figs. 22–23). In the first series, one finds the perceptual complexity of overlapping and transparent planes, repeating, reversing, or extending the central bilateral imagery. The Variant motif was originally an abstraction on the theme of a pair of adobe houses and as such an allusion to windows articulates the forms.

The Homage to the Square series is Albers’ most subtle accomplishment to date. Because, although we still apprehend an image of great perceptual complexity, the transparency and overlapping of planes is no longer explicitly indicated. To borrow Albers’ terminology, they are psychic effects, not physical facts. As in the Variants there are no longer engraved white lines pointing up plane or form relationships as there were in earlier works. All visual variations and ambiguities are achieved through color activity alone.

Transparency, overlapping, depth to surface relationships, relativity of value or light intensity, sensations of openness, closedness, warmth or coolness, projection or recession, even the definition of hue as hue, all are achieved through the effects of color juxtapositions in exactingly determined situations. Here more than ever, the projection of light through color interaction is conclusively demonstrated. As such, light is Albers’ fourth dimension: a phenomenal presence and an immaterial illusion. It is both the means and end in the psychic effects produced.


Albers’ definition of art has been quoted and requoted: “the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect.” The physical facts of his most recent painting are well known to us by now: the square format, the right-angled configurations, the nested squares of color, the oil-painted surface. Whereas the facts are severe and unpoetic to the analytic eye, paradoxically their rigor is only established in order to be destroyed by the irrational and unpredictable (for the viewer) emanations of light. In contrast to the rigorous stability of the physical facts, of a painting by Albers, light is visual instability itself. So that whereas the given premises are color and relationships, the refulgent surface subverts the substantiality of both.

The incandescence of Albers’ surfaces transforms what is given into pure perceptual illusions. This incandescence comes from within the painting, blurring contours, distending space, dispersing the quality and quantity of hues as hues, destroying all that we assumed were the original postulates. In fact, the rigor and precision of an Albers at the outset makes us doubly sensitive to the slightest modulations and doubly disturbed by ambiguities in a context which we thought was rational and which reveals itself as totally and exclusively intuitive, expressive, visual, even appealing to our emotional reactions to color. Closer to Goethe than to Newton in his color concepts Albers capitalizes on the human response to color seen as an emotional equivalent.

Albers’ color has no direction except out, toward the viewer. Whether bold or tender, Albers’ “volumes” of color-light assault us and solicit our response. “The painting looks at us,” says Albers. “Art is looking at us.” Like a window, light pours in. Like a Magritte painting of a window, where the multitude of visual connotations are telescoped into a single plane, the viewer no longer knows exactly what he is seeing nor what he is supposed to see.

Keeping this in mind, Albers’ small square format and his highly sensitized surface appear entirely justified. In attempting to place the sun behind the canvas, he has found equivalents which serve his ends. As such, his art is unique in its form of expression in the 20th century.

Margit Rowell is Associate Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and is currently preparing a book on Josef Albers for Harry N. Abrams, Inc.



1. Max Bill’s definition of “Concrete Art” reads as follows: “Abstract ideas previously existing only in the mind are made visible in concrete form. Concrete art in its ultimate outcome is the pure expression of harmonic laws and proportions.”

2. The international ’30s group Cercle et Carré was, however, aware of this interpretation and used it to justify some of their premises.

3. W. Haftmann, Painting in the Twentieth Century, New York, 1966, vol. I, pp. 76–77.

4. Told to me by the artist, April 14, 1971.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Told to me by the artist, November 13, 1970.

9. Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, New Haven and London, 1963, p. 38.

10. Delaunay painted seven versions of St. Séverin. I am indebted for this and the following information on Delaunay to Mrs. Angelica Rudenstein who is preparing the catalogue raisonné of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Collection in which is found the version reproduced here. This version of St. Séverin is very close in conception and treatment to the one referred to in the text here.

11. The “highly colored” stained glass windows referred to here have been recently replaced by modern windows.

12. Prikker’s earliest commission for a public building was a window in the Station at Hagen, in 1910.

13. See “Der Kunstlerbund fur Glasmalerei,” Die Kunst, 26, Munich, 1911, pp. 129–36, 2 ills. Articles also appeared in the same magazine in 1913, and in Dusseldorf and Berlin magazines in 1913.

14. Quoted in exhibition catalogue: Johan Thorn Prikker, Glasfenster, Wandbilder, Ornamente, 1891–1932, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld, 1966.

15. For more complete documentation of Albers’ Bauhaus activity, see Hans M. Wingler, Bauhaus, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago, Cambridge, Mass., 1969.

16. Told to me by the artist, June 25, 1970.

17. Ibid.

18. It was the custom at the Bauhaus that each workshop had a “craftmaster” and a “formmaster.” In the glass workshop, Albers was appointed craftmaster and Paul Klee was the formmaster. Albers’ relationship to Klee is capital to further development of this discussion, but will not be studied here.

19. The even grid pattern of modular units recalls later paintings by Klee and Kandinsky. It appears from this that Albers was the first to use this kind of checkerboard pattern.

20. Told to me November 28, 1970.

21. One finds the same alternating lines in Anni Albers’ Bauhaus weavings, starting around the same time, which fact has always presented an enigma as to who was the inventor of the style.