November 29, 2012

Josef Albers: A Passion for Color

Detail of Color Study for Homage to the Square

I had always thought of Josef Albers as a rather cold and intellectual painter, whose grand project of Homages to the Square was rather dull and repetitive, and whose teaching foisted on art students the study of color using Color-aid papers. My thinking was turned about completely after seeing a splendid exhibition earlier this fall at the Morgan Library, Painting on Paper: Josef Albers in America. I just got the delicious (the color is a joy) catalog for the show, from which I photographed the images for this post. While delightedly wandering the show, I realized that for Albers painting was all about color, and in his studies on paper, I saw him experimenting with one color against another, slathering the paint thickly and exuberantly with a knife. These luscious studies were anything but dry; as Albers wrote:
Color 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.

Almost Four (Color Study), 1936; oil on masonite, 13 1/2 x 15 1/4 in. 

Even in this early study we can see Albers' quirky and rich color sense. There is humor in the "almost" four (there's an oval missing), and in the tiny blue dots anchoring the lighter yellow.

Color Study for a Variant/Adobe, n.d.; oil on blotting paper, 19 x 24 in.

Albers and his wife Anni Albers moved to America in 1933 to teach at Black Mountain College. They first visited Mexico in 1935, and returned many times over the next 30 years. Josef Albers found there an intensity of color and light that was a tremendous influence on the way he saw color, and the forms of the architecture inspired a series of Adobe paintings.

Variant/Adobe, 1947; oil on blotting paper mounted on paper board, 17 1/4 x 24 in.

By using the same format over and over again, Albers could concentrate on how colors affected each other. In 1947 he wrote to a friend:
What interests me most now is how colors change one another according the the proportions and quantities [I use]...I'm especially proud when [I can make] colors lose their identity and become unrecognizable. Greens become blue, neutral grays become red violets and so on. Dark colors become light and vice versa.

Color Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.; oil on blotting paper with varnish, 13 x 7 in.

Albers began his Homage to the Square series in 1950 and he would work with it for the rest of his life, until he died in 1976. In the exhibition at the Morgan Library, the studies for these works were arranged in color groups, as is the catalog, so we can see some of the variations within similar hues. He also worked with blacks and grays, saying
I can get the gloomiest gray to dance,...I love to make a very poor color rich, to let the adjacent colors make it beautiful. 

Color Study for Homage to the Square: Night Shades, ca. 1964; oil on blotting paper, 
11 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. 

There are so many beautiful color thoughts in these simple studies. The dark, warm reds of Night Shades play wonderfully against the surrounding deep turquoise. This catalog is going to be a great resource for me in the studio, inspiring a lot of new ideas. I should point out that these photos are photos of photos, and so several times removed from the original work. As I tried to adjust the color to bring it as close as possible to the printed image, I kept adjusting the Hue/Saturation sliders in Photoshop, which in itself was a strong lesson in seeing color. I thought back to my student years, and one summer at Skowhegan, where Gabriel Laderman was always exclaiming "Hue! Value! Intensity!".

Color Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.; oil on blotting paper with varnish, 13 1/4 x 12 in.

On this work, as on several others, Albers painted a stripe of varnish over the color, to see what affect it would have. 

Color Studies for Homage to the Square, n.d.; oil on blotting paper; 8 1/4 x 18 3/4 and 
4 1/2 x 9 3/8 in. 

Some of the works were small, quick explorations of color relationships. A fascinating aspect of Albers painting practice was that he never mixed colors; he used color straight from the tube, except for pink and purple, which he mixed. He sampled many different brands of the same hue, writing copious notes on the studies, and in that way, had complete control over the color relationships.

Color Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.; oil on blotting paper with varnish, 13 1/4 x 12 in.

I love the note on the bottom of this piece: "Try again". A quote from Albers tells us:
I try to create the silence of an icon. That's what I'm after: the meditative icons of the 20th century. 

Color Study for Homage to the Square, Platinum, n.d.; oil on blotting paper, 11 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.

While I was color-adjusting this image, I was admiring the way the central grays reacted with the yellows and oranges around them, how the gray moved in and out, making the edge vibrant. 

Study for Homage to the Square with Color Study, n.d.; oil on blotting paper, 11 3/8 x 11 3/8 in.

Study for White Line Square (Homage to the Square), n.d.; oil, gouache, and graphite on 
blotting paper, 13 1/2 x 12 in. 

These final two works show Albers playing with cooler, lighter tones of greens and grays and yellows. The handling of the paint is particularly lively. After seeing this exhibition and meandering through the catalog, I will never think of Albers as a cool cerebral artist again. There is a marvelous quote from him that graces the back of the book, and makes his project much larger than selecting colors and form:
I think art parallels life. Color, in my opinion, behaves like a two distinct ways: first is self-realization and then in the realization of the relationship with others. In my paintings I have tried to make two polarities meet––independence and interdependence, as, for instance in Pompeian art. There's a certain red the Pompeians used that speaks in both these ways, first, in its relation to other colors around it, and then, as it appears alone, keeping its own face. In other words, one must combine both, being an individual and being a member of society....And from all this, you may conclude that I consider ethics and aesthetics as one. 


  1. Thank you for sharing the Albers show and also for your musings. A great post. Interesting remark regarding the meditative icons of the 2oth century. I was walking the dog in a downpour yesterday, half looking at how the colors change in a down pour, and half thinking about your ruglets, as you call them. I was noticing that some of the ruglet compositions now hold a space in my mind. And I noted in particular that they are marvelously contemplative. Color relationships and form, but also texture has something to do with it, as with these Albers. Painting will never die because of its delicious texture.

    1. I'm so glad you liked this post, Anon. And that you can think of my textile work and the Albers together. Many of those pieces were inspired by modernist paintings, and I'm sure I'll be doing an homage to Albers sometime soon. I also am sure you're right about painting never dying because of its sensual nature.

  2. You might also like some of Robert Motherwell,s writing and musing on color and its poetic qualities.
    There is a "Homage to the square at the NC Museum of art called "Rainforest" in three greens that I always just drown in and I think that seeing one or two of the Homages is all one can take at a time and that there is probably one for each person, maybe two, but most don't do that much for me emotionally, and I have seen quite a few.....Is the show gone? as I will be in NYC in another week or so....Nice blog post

    1. Steven, thanks, I'm glad you like the post; unfortunately the show was over quite a while ago. Regarding seeing an Albers painting: I was recently at the Wadsworth Atheneum, before seeing this show, and came across one of the Adobe series, which I thought very beautiful; I even loved the way it was painted. This was a revelation since I'd never been drawn to his work before. I will look more closely at the next Homage to the Square that I see.

  3. Altoon, I always admired Albers' musings with color, but like you, didn't get the 'magic' until I saw a couple of pieces in the Brooklyn Museum last Spring. Thanks for sharing so many wonderful images you including the "try again" detail. I was debating painting- now there's no debate. Thank you for inspiring me today! I shared the link on my facebook page:

    1. thanks, Shannon, and thanks for sharing the post.

  4. Such a lovely post. Thanks for sharing this more intimate experience and expression of the man. It enriched my day and my appreciation of Albers.

  5. I'll be asking for the catalogue for Christmas, thanks...

  6. Interesting post, Altoon. Albers has been one of my heroes. I remember pouring over his portfolio in the locked, security cage in the SJSU library for long periods of time. He used color screened directly onto paper to demonstrate varieties of color interaction. The portfolio, thereby, avoided distortions that interpreting media such as printed ink dot patterns or photographic dyes would introduce. It influenced the work I created for my M.A. in painting. I was fascinated by the flat application of color, without texture or other modulations, juxtaposed only to other flatly applied color, producing a phenomenon that did not actually exist physically. It seemed a beautiful metaphor for transcending limitations of strict adherence to common interpretation of reality. The subtle qualities of emerging recognition, due to what was happening with the color, represents an elevation of consciousness, perhaps the even development of civilization. Alber’s ‘Homage to the Square’ series is meditative for me, quietly drawing the viewer in, revealing another level of awareness. Wish I could have seen the show.

  7. Thank you for your comments, Celia, craig, and Margaret.
    I've never seen Albers' prints, Margaret, and your description is very fascinating, even to your reference to the development of civilization. I'm sure you would have loved this show.

  8. Yay, Albers! One of his Homages is among my favorite pieces at our smallish local (Portland, Oregon) museum. It's "just squares," but - along with the joy of color, of course - the craftsmanship is impeccable.