Friday, January 30, 2009

Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, 1976

There are many delights in the group show "On Paper," currently on exhibition at Galerie Karsten Greve in the Marais, and this small oil on cardboard by Josef Albers is among them. (See also my review of Norbert Prangenberg's paintings). I have seen it and others like it in reproduction, both in his own book, Interaction of Color and in books that discuss the optical interactions of color and chromatic effects on which Albers is the authority. But up close, in person, Study for Homage to the Square is precious and intimate in a way that never is when captured in reproductions.  The object itself is delicate and, in close up, carefully, but not flawlessly executed. Just to experience the edges of grey where they bleed into the green of the background, and the moments where the green seeps over onto the white of the cardboard makes standing before the square a delight. Because these moments tell of the presence and influence of the hand in works that are always touted as evenly painted, focussed on the form of the square, the choice of the colors, and the optical interaction between them. It is only when we have the privilege of seeing the square in person that we begin to appreciate paint, color, light are inseparable, all permeating the substance of the others, all lending their luminosity to provide definition and identity to the others. This may not be what Albers intends to teach in his lessons on color, but it is what I learnt as I examined this delicious green and grey square this afternoon.

My friend Georgia was fascinated by the placement of the square on the white paper background. The right edge of the green square doubles as the edge of the paper, while the left, top and bottom edges are constituted by the three-sided white frame of the same paper. Why did he do that? The placement of the square on the paper does not introduce imbalance to the composition, but in a work that is focussed on the relationship between the adjacent colors and the effect of these on the human eye, it cannot be a random choice on the part of Albers. To be sure, in spite of conventional wisdom on Albers, there is nothing neutral, homogeneous or symmetrical in this or any other of his squares. They are replete with intimacy, asymmetricality, unevenness, varying intensity of colors, and other traces of the interaction between the hand and eye that paints them.

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