PRINT April 2010


Josef Albers's Interaction of Color

Josef Albers, Interaction of Color: New Complete Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). 269 pages, 2 vols.

THE LAVISH NEW EDITION of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color, first published in 1963, arrives in two cloth-covered volumes of blue and green (or, some might say, green and yellow). They contain a poetic, lilting text that is studded with aphorisms and plates of mostly abstract images—color experiments accompanied by instructions on how to understand the effects that they demonstrate. Together, the tomes meticulously reconstruct the core elements of Albers’s famous color course, which he developed over a forty-year period in collaboration with his students at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, and finally Yale University. Surprisingly, though, the book is not really a pedagogical treatise on the modernist use of color. Instead, it is an argument against color systems of all types: It proposes a practice of looking at and working with color that understands it to be constantly in flux. The reader, attentively going back and forth between text and image, is confronted by a disturbingly mutable visual and cognitive experience, by the deep instability of color.

At first glance, these color studies appear similar to those by Albers’s fellow Bauhaus master Johannes Itten, who published his own color-course book, The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color, in 1961. The two books incorporate virtually identical examples of color squares superimposed on other squares. But the authors had distinct—and irreconcilable—aims. Itten hoped to provide tools for creating color harmony and claims that color combinations can reveal specific psychological and symbolic meanings. Albers, on the other hand, states that his goal is simply to help us “see” color in its continually changing state and advocates for a relativity or equivalency of color values: “By giving up preference for harmony, we accept dissonance to be as desirable as consonance.” And later: “[P]references and dislikes—as in life so with color—usually result from prejudices, from lack of experience and insight.”

The impulse to create systems that define all the colors in the spectrum in a precise visual and hierarchical relationship continues from painter Philipp Otto Runge’s book Farbenkugel (Color Sphere, 1810) through the recent Farben Zwischen Licht und Dunkelheit (Colors Between Light and Darkness, 2006), by Ulrich Bachmann and his ColourLight Center. In contrast to these long-standing efforts to impose order on the world of perception, Albers’s point is that the perception of color is not subjective or objective, but relative and interactive: A color system can only function in theory—not practice.

Interaction of Color proposes that artists and designers work with an ever-expanding vocabulary of color effects and not with “tuned” sets of compatible colors. This potentially infinite field of color perception is not merely the result of subjectivity, of one person seeing blue where another sees green. Albers assumes that there are facts about color effects one can be trained to observe, understand, discuss, and ultimately utilize and share. But he argues that perception is contextual; he wants to encourage “thinking in situations.” When he says that “interaction” can be restated as “interdependence,” he implies that what color is is defined by where, when, and how it is—otherwise it is relegated to the abstract, symbolic, theoretical. This relativism is effectively demonstrated via the books’ plates and their corresponding instructions. As the sequence of color studies progresses, the complications multiply and rebound: Colors appear to change, bend, blend, become transparent, and so on.

The first experiment Albers presents is “to make one and the same color look different,” a second “to make 2 different colors look alike.” These are semantic and semiotic problems as much as they are visual ones; as some of the other experiments demonstrate, it is not so easy to determine which colors are “alike” or “different.” Such terms would imply a system of measurement or comparison that functions similarly under differing circumstances. We quickly realize that this is not the case: A number of the plates have flaps, and each time one peers underneath, the unfolding page causes startling changes in our perception of which color or what we are seeing. The experiments go far beyond the familiar Albers studies, including patterning, optical oscillations, and collages with torn edges and even natural materials such as leaves. In our active, physical engagement with these tests, we are made aware of the slippery nature of looking—even identifying simple difference is fraught—an experience recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language-games.

Since the original publication of Albers’s book, our interest and fluency in the language of color have increased exponentially, resulting in the color effects of Magic Eye®, the quixotic attempt to create a common (and reproducible) color vocabulary with the Pantone® system, to the thousands of paint colors that Benjamin Moore® offers the consumer-designer. What hasn’t changed is the desire for color to have a stable set of meanings, for a common language of color, and for systems of colors that reflect our various worldviews. As Albers writes, “[H]armonic color constellations which derive from authoritative systems look pleasant, beautiful, and thus convincing,” but they do not provide us with any new understanding of color, just a new set of prejudices. By contrast, Interaction of Color suggests a model for aesthetic development based not on progress but on the slow expansion of possibility and individuality, through attention and experiment.

Josiah McElheny is an artist based in New York.