Monday, February 27, 2012

Josef Albers in America, Centre Pompidou

Josef Albers, Study of an Adobe, 1947

Like most studies on paper for works that will end up on canvas (or in Albers’ case, wood) these delicate, yet intense, paintings are like a magnifying glass on Albers’ painting process. In them we see his brush, his mind and his hand in motion, thinking, experimenting, discovering as he paints different colors next to each other, at times on top of each other, always overlapping, if only in the way that we perceive them. While some of these come very close to finished works, many of the oil on paper pieces in this small exhibition are still in the process of being composed, thus open to the possibilities of transformation. Although we think of Albers’ homages as close to some kind of mathematical perfection, these studies remind us that even in their oil on wood support versions, the simultaneous density and viscosity of paint, the indecision or uncertainty of the artist as his brush wanders over the edge of the colored square, testify to the very human, metaphysical, nature of the substance of painting.

Josef Albers, Color Study for Homage to the Square, Platinum
These small sketches and studies look backwards and forwards from their historical moment in time. In them we find all the lyricism and mysticism of Mondrian and Malevich before them, as well as the preoccupation with repetition, form, shape, colour and surface that dominated the canvases of the American Abstract Expressionists. Albers anticipates each of them, one at a time, and it doesn’t hurt that he taught and worked with a number of them at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It is not only the obsession with colour and the pursuit of abstraction, but the commitment to the relationship between painting and spectator, as it is expressed or determined through colour and its manipulation, that binds Albers to Rothko, to Johns, Reinhardt, and in still different ways to Barnett Newman and Donald Judd. Albers’ colors have the virtuosity of Rothko, and yet, in their dense texture —thanks mainly to the thick blotting paper that absorbs the oil—the paintings point towards Johns’ encaustics. And like Johns, although again, to meet very different ends, Albers scribbles on the support, and carves into the rich painted surface. And then when Albers writes all over the surface of the images, as if to calculate the mathematics of painting, I am reminded of Twombly with his scrawls and unfathomable measurements all over the canvas. And in their motion between depth and foreground, in their ambiguous confusion of inside and outside, the deception of vision, Albers' studies are connected to Richter’s early studies for film. Both in their reach throughout art history as well as in the dynamism of their aesthetic, Albers’ paintings are infinite.
Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square, 1956
 As Heinz Liesbrock says in his contribution to the excellent catalogue that accompanies this exhibition at the Pompidou, even though Albers’ lifelong homage is to the square, these paintings have no interest in squares. They are all about colour: “its sensory richness, its endless manifestations, the illusions with which it deludes us.” (p. 35) The square is simply the form that enables Albers to give voice to color: it is, as Albers says, “the dish I serve my craziness about color in.” (p. 35). And then when Albers attaches the homages to the square together with the color studies, strips of colored paint moving from color to color in the rainbow, the square is easily seen as no more than a way of juxtaposing different colors: the square unlike any other form allows Albers  to watch the behavior and identity of color as it shifts, moves and does battle with the colors that surround it. 
Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, undated
Of course, my favorites of the studies were those made in grey. For Albers, grey was important, grey was everything. When Albers taught color theory at Black Mountain and later at Yale his goal was to demonstrate how the perception of color depended on the form, size, quality, placement, and what he refers to as the pronouncement of that color. For Albers, the perception of all colors depends on what sits next to them, their intensity, the measure of their amount and shape, how they are connected to other colors. And so, Albers’ task as a teacher was to train his students’ eye to the variables and illusions of color as well as to give them a language with which to articulate these variables. And to teach this, Albers often used cutouts of grey paper, especially reproductions from magazines and newspapers. He asked his students to “produce so-called grey steps, grey scales, grey ladders” with their grey paper pieces.  Because, like so many other artists who know color to be the definition and identity of painting, grey captures the gradations between light and dark, without the subjective distractions so typical of other colors. In the studies for the grey Homage to the Square at the Pompidou Centre, all of the possibility and heterogeneity of grey, a color so often dismissed as a non-color, are illuminated in the Albers square. 

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