Josef Albers (1888-1976) Color Study of Grays, not dated, Oil on cardstock with varnish 17.9 x 25.7 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.163 14.

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Three Color Studies for Homage to the Square, not dated, Oil on blotting paper, 20.9 x 47.6 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.192.

The Craft Process of Josef Albers' Oil Studies on Blotting Paper

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Untitled Abstraction, ca. 1940 Oil on blotting paper, 48.2 x 61.1 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society, New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.344.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Variant / Adobe, Study for Four Central Warm Colors, Surrounded by 2 Blues, ca. 1948, Oil on blotting paper 48.2 x 60.6 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.119.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Study for a Variant / Adobe (I), ca. 1947, Oil on blotting paper with pencil 24.1 x 30.6 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.270.

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Variant / Adobe, 1947 Oil on blotting paper, 48.3 x 60.9 cm © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, nv. no. 1976.2.111.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Study for a Kinetic, ca. 1945, Oil and graphite on blotting paper 48.5 x 61.1 cm, The Josef Albers Museum, Quadrat Bottrop, inv. no. 9/415, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Color Study for Mitered Square [Homage to the Square], not dated, Oil on blotting paper 28.1 x 28.4 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.321.

Color Study for White Line Square, not dated, Oil on blotting paper (with gouache, pencil, and varnish) 29.53 x 29.66 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Color Study for White Line Square, not dated, Oil on blotting paper (with gouache, pencil, and varnish) 29.53 x 29.66 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York Digital, Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.222.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Color Study for Homage to the Square, not dated, Oil on blotting paper 33.3 x 18.4 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.346.

 

Morgan Library and Museum
225 Madison Avenue
212-685-0008
New York
Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper
July 20–October 14, 2012

Josef Albers (1888-1976) is best known for his series of paintings Homage to the Square, in which he repeatedly explored color relationships within a similar format of concentric squares. Much less familiar, however, are the painted studies on paper that Albers made for his paintings. Expressively experimental, the works offer a revealing look at the artist’s investigation of form and color.

Now, for the first time in New York, The Morgan Library & Museum presents an exhibition entirely devoted to this aspect of the artist’s work. Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper, features approximately 80 such studies spanning the four decades after the artist left Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States.

The exhibition begins with studies for abstract geometric compositions from the late 1930s, when Albers — a onetime instructor at the Bauhaus — returned to painting after having devoted his recent years to working with glass. Albers’s studies for the Variant / Adobe series, from the 1940s, reveal the influence that his time in Mexico, and specifically the country’s pre-Columbian architecture, had upon his art. The majority of the exhibition — over 50 works — is devoted to the Homage to the Square series (1950-1976). These vibrant sketches — never exhibited in the artist’s lifetime and rarely seen after his death — provide important insight into Albers’s working method and, in contrast to the austerity and strict geometry of the finished paintings, are remarkable for their freedom and sensuality.

“The Morgan is noted for exhibitions that explore the artistic process and the often surprising, experimental drafts that lead to a finished work of art,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan. “This show is a prime example for an artist whose name is ordinarily associated with a rigorous and highly disciplined approach to composition, but whose painterly studies exhibit an unexpectedly spontaneous informality.”

Painting on paper Born in Bottrop, Germany in 1888, Albers came from a family of craftsmen, and the virtues of craftsmanship — precision, discipline, and technical proficiency — were of central importance to his work. Whereas his paintings themselves took only a few hours to complete, Albers’s preparatory work entailed producing series upon series of meticulous studies.

Of equal concern for Albers were the materials from which art was made. At the Bauhaus, where he taught for 13 years, he encouraged his students to explore the potential of paper and cardboard for their work. The limitations and possibilities of paper were of particular interest to him. A less formal and rigid material than the Masonite panels or vinylite that he used for his finished works, paper provided Albers an ideal surface on which to experiment, and to process his ideas.

In 1933, the Bauhaus was forced to close under pressure from the new Nazi government. Albers and his wife, Anni, immigrated to America, where he would head the art department of Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In the United States, Albers matured as a painter as his fascination with geometric form grew and his travels took him to Mexico, a place that would have a lasting influence upon his work.

Mexico and the variants / Adobes Series The Albers’ visited Mexico for the first time in 1935. They returned to the country regularly over the next several decades, sometimes staying for several months. The profound effect of Mexico’s colors and pre-Columbian architecture and sculpture upon Albers’s work is difficult to overestimate. “Mexico,” he wrote to Nina and Wassily Kandinsky in 1936, “is truly the promised land of abstract art.”

Mexico reconfirmed Albers’s faith in the expressive power of color, and it was here — after years of producing nothing but stained glass, furniture designs, woodcuts, and linocuts — that Albers returned to painting. He significantly expanded his color range, incorporating magenta, turquoise, violet, and ocher, among other colors, in varying combinations.

The country’s architecture, from adobe houses to Mesoamerican structures, inspired the artist’s geometric abstract paintings from the 1940s, especially the Variant / Adobe series, which he began in 1947. In studies for the series — whose compositions resemble a wall structured by abstract window openings — Albers investigated the effect of several pure, unmixed colors juxtaposed with one another. In a letter to friend Franz Perdekamp in September 1947, Albers wrote, “Since January [I have painted] only one theme in about 70 studies. What interests me most now is how colors change one another according to the proportions and quantities [I use]…I’m especially proud when [I can make] colors lose their identity and become unrecognizable.”

Homage to the Square In 1950, Albers found the ideal vessel through which to explore his fascination with the interaction of color: a group of nested squares.

Like the Adobe series, it is possible that Homage to the Square evolved from Albers’s preoccupation with the ancient architecture and sculpture of Mexico. His main concern in these paintings, however, was not the form of the square itself, but rather color. “Color,” Albers said, “is the means of my idiom. It’s autonomic. I’m not paying ‘homage to the square.’ It’s only the dish I serve my craziness about color in.” As evidenced in the notes Albers sometimes wrote in the margins of a work, or at times within the color field itself, these studies were essentially experimental in nature.

Albers restricted his first Homage to the Square paintings to shades of gray and black. Eventually, he used myriad color combinations, not subscribing to specific color harmonies, such as those based on complementary contrasts. Albers famously remarked that “color is the most relative medium in the world,” and many Homage to the Square paintings have colors that initially appear odd or discordant, but which engender a visual intensity when seen together: fiery oranges and reds; light grays and pale yellows; bright blues and dusky mauves.

The square never lost its appeal for Albers. It was a source of endless inspiration, and the form in which he most successfully investigated his fascination with the interplay of color. From 1950 until his death twenty-six years later, he created some two thousand Homage to the Square paintings.

Josef Albers in America is organized by the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich and the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop, Germany. Works are drawn from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut and the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop. The Morgan is the sole United States venue and final stop for this exhibition, which first traveled to multiple venues in Europe. Isabelle Dervaux, Acquavella Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings at the Morgan, is the coordinating curator of the exhibition at the Morgan.

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Color Study for Homage to the Square, not dated, Oil on blotting paper 33 x 30.4 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.336.

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Color Study for Homage to the Square, not dated, Oil on blotting paper with varnish 33.6 x 30.6 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.16.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Color Study for Homage to the Square, not dated, Oil on blotting paper 33.2 x 30.9 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.78.

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Study for Homage to the Square, not dated Oil, on blotting paper, 33.5 x 30.3 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.71 19.

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Color Study for Homage to the Square, ca. 1950, Oil on blotting paper, 61 x 48.3 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art, inv. no. 1976.2.197.

Josef Albers (1888-1976), Study for Homage to the Square with Color Study, not dated, Oil on blotting paper 44.3 x 30.2 cm, The Josef Albers Museum, Quadrat Bottrop, inv. no. 9/434, Photography: Werner J. Hannappel.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Two Color Studies for Homage to the Square, not dated, Oil on blotting paper 24.7 x 14.6 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Iminv. no. 1976.2.1517.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Study for Tautonym, 1944, Oil and graphite on blotting paper 35.2 x 58.1 cm, The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, inv. no. 9/414 Photography: The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Bethany, Conn.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) Variant / Adobe, ca. 1947, Oil on blotting paper 48.2 x 61.4 cm, © 2012 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society New York, Digital Image by Imaging 4 Art inv. no. 1976.2.114.

 

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Arctic Bloom, (1965). From the Hirshhorn's collection.

Josef Albers, Piano Keys, (1932). From the Hirshhorn's collection.

Josef Albers, when the Bauhaus Aesthetic Fled Germany for the U.S.

Josef Albers, Rolling After, (1925-28). From the Hirshhorn's collection.

Josef Albers, Steps, (1932). From the Hirshhorn's collection.

Josef Albers, Study for 'Homage to the Square: Last Century, (1956). From the Hirshhorn's collection.

Josef Albers, Study for 'Homage to the Square: From the Soil', (1954). From the Hirshhorn's collection.

 

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW
202-633-1000
Washington
Josef Albers:
Innovation and Inspiration

February 11-April 11, 2010

Following the Nazi party’s rise to power, the Bauhaus was forced to close in 1933. Josef Albers fled to the United States, where he was recruited to head the art program at the new Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, Albers introduced a modified Bauhaus curriculum and hired vanguard modernists as teachers. He enthusiastically taught his students how art could be made from virtually any material, which he demonstrated in some of his own works, such as three Leaf Study collages (c. 1940). Albers continued to advocate the clear structures of geometric abstraction, still mostly in black, white and primary colors, but was open to different stylistic approaches. He also briefly adopted the biomorphic forms associated with surrealism, as seen in the work Proto-Form (B) (1938).

Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration encompasses the artist’s distinguished career from 1917 to 1973. The exhibition begins with four early self-portrait prints dating from the years of World War I, followed by a group of boldly abstract compositions from Albers’ tenure at Germany’s revolutionary Bauhaus, where he taught alongside such remarkable modernists as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Albers participated in the school’s utopian aspiration to improve modern life through manufacturing and design — ideas that resonated throughout Albers’ career. The Hirshhorn’s show includes a series of black-and-white designs intended for mass production in glass, such as 6 and 3 (1931), and an illuminated display of eight glass panels, in which the artist modernized and transformed the medieval tradition of stained-glass windows, best characterized by Fugue (B) (1925-28).

The Hirshhorn possesses one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of work by Josef Albers (b. Bottrop, Germany, 1888; d. New Haven, Conn., 1976). Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration, presents nearly 70 works spanning the artist’s 55-year career, many on view for the first time. Supplementing pieces from the museum’s holdings are key objects on loan from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Organized by senior curator Valerie Fletcher, the exhibition also includes documentary photographs and examples of Albers’ teaching aids, and concludes with a display of works by artists who knew, worked with, studied under or openly admired Albers.

In 1949, at the age of 62, Albers became chairman of the art school at Yale University, with a mandate to transform it from a conservative academic program to a proponent of modern concepts and applications. Believing firmly that colors have no inherent emotional associations, he meticulously explored their nuances and combinations in his work. He eventually limited the shape and number of his forms, which resulted in a standardized format that he called Homage to the Square, for which he is best known. Two dozen Homage to the Square compositions fill the central gallery in the exhibition, inviting viewers to examine the subtle complexities of their perceptions. The vivid yellow-orange-reds of Glow (1966) startle the eye, while the pale grays of Nacre (1965) suggest cool neutrality. These images create optical illusions, challenging viewers’ visual acuity. This series concludes with the artist’s vivid red-print duo, In Honor of the Hirshhorn Museum, on view for the first time since the museum opened in 1974.

In addition, this exhibition includes examples from Albers’ Structural Constellation series of reliefs (1954-64), which anticipated op art with their linear patterns. The reliefs’ commonplace material — laminated plastic — also fulfils the utopian goal of making art affordable to everyone. The two largest paintings on view, both titled Variant (1973), were donated by the artist’s wife and foundation in 1979.

Albers remained active and influential until his death in 1976, and many of his pedagogical innovations have become standard methodology in art schools across the country. His explorations of abstract form and color also inspired and stimulated generations of artists and designers. Shortly after his arrival in America, he became a co-founder of the American Abstract Artists group and participated in exhibitions across the country, from New York to Michigan and beyond. The Hirshhorn’s exhibition ends with an array of works by colleagues, students and admirers, among them: weavings by the artist’s wife, Anni Albers; abstract constructions by Burgoyne Diller; streamlined images of labor by Jacob Lawrence; a large op art painting by Richard Anuskiewicz; textured creations by Eva Hesse and Robert Rauschenberg; and a minimalist stacked wall sculpture by Donald Judd.

Josef Albers, 6 and 3, (1931). From the Hirshhorn's collection.

 

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Glow, (1966). From the Hirshhorn's collection.

 

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Arctic Bloom, (1965). From the Hirshhorn's collection.