New York

Josef Albers

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

Josef Albers’ photographs and his early work with glass suggest that his career might have taken another, perhaps more frutitful, turn had he not abandoned both media in favor of a somewhat didactic investigation of abstract painting. It was not only Germany that Albers left behind when he fled the Nazis and came to America. A glass master of the Bauhaus, he gave up the great potential and innovative expressivity of the medium to concentrate on painting, producing a body of work that was less than inspired and, in the end, had only a minor influence on Minimalist painting and hard-edged abstraction. The question raised by this exhibition, which comprised all three facets of his career, is why Albers felt compelled to limit his production in this way.

In part, at least, this constriction of his range can be traced to the fact that Albers seems to have been caught in the midst of conflicting impulses. As an academic in an alien, artistically backward country, he strove to justify Modernism in general as well as geometric abstraction in particular, though, like many members of the Bauhaus, he had a tendency to turn artistic expression into an object lesson. At the same time, while determined to remain true to his past and his ideals, he hoped to develop artistically beyond the point he had reached in Germany.

As if to support the view that each stage of Albers’ development was incompatible, even incommensurable with the next, this miniretrospective was organized into three discreet sections, each devoted to a different period. The glass works, photographs, and various “Homages to the Square” seemed at odds with one another. The contrast from one section to the next was startling: in the last section (supposedly the climactic one), it was immediately apparent how much Albers’ devotion to formal concerns had depended on sacrificing the eccentricity of his glass works. The energy of the stained glass grids—in which elements of color, often dense, assume varying shapes that are delineated by thin black wire to form a patchwork—can be understood as a quirky kind of Expressionism. These works invite comparison with the paintings on glass by Albers’ Bauhaus colleague Wasily Kandinsky: certain of Albers’ sandblasted glass surfaces are almost equally dynamic, if for different reasons. There is much use of the diagonal, and manipulation of black, white, and gray, as well as subtle relief effects—all of which are evident in K-Trio and Keyboard (both 1932).

After these early glass works, the “Homages to the Square” could not help but be a let down. It is as though in his urge to reduce abstraction to an “interaction of color” within a simple, stable geometrical form (the famous square to which he devoted himself from 1950 until his death in 1976) Albers had run it into the ground. Like Hans Hofmann and John Graham, Albers was essentially a “clarifier” of Modernist principles; his innumerable variations on the square ultimately come off as dull propriety. His “purity” seems to me pointlessly empty, if at times elegant—merely good design—a tendency that was latent even in the more adventurous glass works, and came to dominate the “Homages.”

He would have done better to stay with his approach in the gestural, unfinished Homage to the Square: Study to Nocturne, 1951, which was placed just outside the room filled with glass works, and seemed more alive than any of the other “Homages” that were exhibited. A transitional work, it harks back to what we find in the best of Albers’ photographs, such as the wonderful Roads, Paynauntal, VII 30, 1930—a study of a rural fence made of rough-cut boards and the shadow it casts on a dirt road. This study, which shows the same fascination with organic texture and light and dark as his studies of sand and water, reflects Albers’ interest in the dynamics of eccentric, uneven surface line.

Albers used geometry to suppress what he instinctively felt, but, as his photographic self-portrait suggests, he believed in German decorum—a character trait that verges on rigidity—more than in emotion, even though he lends a collage of photographs of himself and his wife Anni at the beach as much expressivity as he seems capable of doing. Nonetheless, Albers seems to lack the mischievous streak that he captured so well in his portrait of Paul Klee. It is as though, as his collage of photographs of a bullfight suggests, he preferred regularity and stillness to the restless energy of the crowd.

Donald Kuspit